Meet chef Erin O'Shea

When did you first discover cooking?

My first job. I was a salad girl in Annapolis. And I just loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it! I loved the restaurant situation. I loved everything about it. But I didn't start cooking until I was 28.

What is a salad girl?

Yeah, the salad girl at Reardon's in Annapolis. You make the salads! It was a bar, an old staple of Annapolis. It's actually not there anymore. Everyone at my high school worked at Reardon's. It was fun.

What were you like as a child? Were there early signs that you would be a chef?

I was more into theater, which I always felt kind of translates because you're basically putting on a show everyday in a restaurant. I was not super girly, kind of quiet, loved theater even though I was kind of quiet. Maybe that was my outlet.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue cooking professionally?

It would have been in Houston, when I was living with my friends. I thought about it before. I dropped out of college. My parents paid for both of them, so that was over with. They weren't paying for any more college. At that point, I said ‘mom I want to go to cooking school.’ She said 'you can't boil water' and I said 'yeah you’re right’. I get that. I went back to it years later

It was something that I wanted to do but I had to get to the point where I was willing to invest in myself, and actually move from Houston up to Virginia and I was actually going to get a job waiting tables, live with my parents. I was willing to go home, live back with mom and dad, save money for my tuition. I had never lived in Richmond. They moved to Richmond while I was there. They moved around a lot. When I went back up there, they were like 'you should go wait tables at the Frog and The Redneck because that’s the best place in town where you're going to make the most money'.

So I went there, without any real service experience before. The front of the house manager asked 'why do you want to wait tables?’ I told him I wanted to save money so that I could go to culinary school, or ‘cooking school’ I think I called it. He told me to come back tomorrow because anyone that gets hired has to go through chef anyway. I went back and we went from this whole conversation – why are you doing this? He was like, 'don't fucking go to cooking school, it's a waste of money'. And it was back then, you know? I don't like to tell people that you shouldn't go to school, but back then it really was. The only good one was CIA and I wasn't going to go to CIA. He was like 'you're gonna go in with a bunch of kids who are there as a default and you're not gonna learn anything because you're not going to learn how to do it hands on'. I said 'OK, well where do I start?' This was the best restaurant in town, and I didn't think you could just go in and start in the kitchen.

I think I made something like two dollars a day. I just started from scratch. This is how you peel an onion. Really, really basic. You start to learn about salt, you learn to respect product. Awesome building blocks.

From there I went to Le Maire, also in Richmond, which was frilly fine dining. It was good. I learned a lot there. The chef, Walter Bundy, he was coming from the French Laundry right when Thomas Keller was the shit. I mean, he still is the shit, but back then he was the brand new shit.  It was very cool to work for Walter. I got a lot of technique and processes from him that were coming from the French Laundry that were new and exciting. It was just very different because it was very frilly. Frilly generally is not me.

Sorry to backtrack, but you went to two colleges and it didn't work out. That must have been a really hard time.

It was a very difficult time (laughs). There was definitely a breakdown involved somewhere along the way, a lot of drinking, you know, a lot of being lost.

What was it about college that didn't work for you?

I didn't know why I was there. I couldn't handle that. I knew you were supposed to go and you know, you get your Bachelor of the Arts. I just didn't get it. I don't know what to specialize in, why am I here? Why am I doing this?

I was coming back from France, which was a very, very, difficult transition. I had moved there when I was 16 with my parents because of my parents’ job. So I went to the American School of Paris and finished high school there. Then I ended up going back to Loyola College, which was like the 13th grade of the school that I grew up in Annapolis.

That was a very different world. My Catholic high school situation compared to the American School of Paris? Very, very different world. Much cooler in Paris (laughs).

What was it like to be a young American student in Paris?

I didn't speak any French. We were there from the summer before school started and I was one of those stupid little teenage hippies. I would go out to the Père Lachaise Cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried and just hang out there and meet all of these different people that traveled through. The high school was 52 different nationalities, it was amazing! You had a lot of Europeans that went to the American School Of Paris because they wanted to get into the American school system. They could go to college easily and make that transformation.

How did you make your way from Loyola to Houston? Were you in another college there?

So Loyola...went to college there, totally freaked out, had a big old breakdown. My parents moved to Texas while I was in Loyola. So I was gonna go down for spring break, and I ended up staying because I just had a complete breakdown. So, you know, little R&R situation. Therapy situation. ‘Ok, let's give college another try.’

Then, I made the worst mistake, and went to [Texas] A&M, which is super, super conservative. Which is fine, but that's not me! I don't know what I was thinking. I was trying to make my parents happy, you know? While I'm there, they move to Virginia I was finally like 'I can't do this'. I didn't have a breakdown at that one, but I was like...’it's coming!’

Did you have a defining moment where you realized, I really need to get out of this situation and figure things out?

I just remember writing the letter to my mom and dad and sitting in my dorm room. I hated that dorm room. So gross. I hated that place. I feel bad for my roommate because she was really sweet and I was an awful roommate. I went back to Houston and I just worked. I did everything. I waited tables. I worked at Kinko’s for years.

I actually got fired from Kinko’s because I worked at one near N.A.S.A. for a little while. They came in with space pictures. I was really into space shit and hoaxes, so they come in with these things and the caption reads 'search for life on mars'. And I'm like ‘this is awesome.’ So we're making these color copies and she's working with me. She's like, 'can I have the scrap copies?’ Which of course I didn't give to her because I'm a little hoax buff! So, I get her copies off to her. Then I go off to my friends and I'm like 'guys, check this shit out!’ I asked the woman 'so did you find life on mars?' She told me not to ask her any questions. I'm like, come on, you're just baiting me to freak out about this!

So I take this stuff and send it off to a guy, Richard Hoagland, who has a radio show, and he's a big conspiracy buff. He puts it up on his website. Then, right after that it comes out in the papers! I got fired. They traced it back to me. I had to sit in the office and deny everything, and just get fired.

It sounds like it was kind of worth getting fired. But come on, they went to Kinko's!

That's what I'm saying. You don't go to Kinko's with classified documents, with all of these teenage kids! So yeah, I did everything. I sold children’s clothing, I was a server, worked in multiple copy shops. That was my thing. I was a copy jock! Finally, we moved outside of Houston into a house that belonged to my friend and his family. It was their old vacation home. It was right out of 1960. It was built and decorated and never redecorated. It was huge, and it was a party house. That’s what it was built for. It had one of those old icemakers, with the perfect cubes for drinks. This was the original oil money of Houston.

Mike – my friend I lived with— his father was Irish and his mother was Italian, but his Italian grandmother used to cook hardcore Italian. So Mike had an appreciation for cooking. Mike and I started cooking together just for fun. We would start listening to the Art Bell show from like midnight to five AM. We would eat at 4 in the morning.

Then I started baking. I spent all my time baking.

What turned you on to baking? ­

A book. Beth Hensperger. “Traditions Old and New”. I have 3 copies of it at home because I tear up the binding. It was actually a book given to my boyfriend for his birthday and I ended up taking it and made every recipe out of there. I just loved the process. I loved all of it. I loved that it was different every day - the bread dough- depending on the weather. It was just so relaxing and so satisfying when something turned out well, and so disappointing when it didn't.

Sounds like a time of healing for you.

I was on my way to that. I had definitely spent a good amount of time in Houston doing a lot of drugs. And so, that was another reason to leave. I knew that that wasn't going to stop. That particular time, yes, was a time of less drugs, but it kind of went up and down.

I had been there for 10 years. These were my good friends. My boyfriend and I had finally broken up. That was also a good reason to leave. We were together for far too long. 9 years or something stupid like that. It was a stupid relationship. We shouldn't have been in it, neither one of us. When that finally ended, that was a great time for me to be on my own and really evaluate where I was and what I was doing and what I wanted to do.

When did you discover BBQ?

To be honest with you, my BBQ experience was a Green Egg in a backyard. I've never lied about that. I've never been like 'yeah yeah, I trained for years'. I'm just like everyone else. I love food and I have these smokers, and I'm never gonna be the one that comes from a long tradition of BBQ. That's never gonna be me. I love food and I respect food. I think we do awesome smoked meats.

I have a love and affinity for southern food. The whole BBQ thing is something that has become part of who I am, but I didn't know it was there. BBQ was new and exciting, I knew I'd be beat up for it, still do.

Is it because you don't have BBQ in your lineage? Is that really a thing?

Sure is. In BBQ? Oh yeah. It's like I'm an imposter, which is fine. I've come to terms with it. It bothered me in the beginning, but I knew that's what it was gonna be. In Texas, those guys are up at 4 AM, and they're starting the smokers, and they sell out at noon. Well guess what? That's not how it works here. We're a full service restaurant. We not only want to provide awesome food and an awesome experience with great service and friendly people, but we'd also like to have it be successful and make a living. You can't just sell out of everything, and shut the doors and go home. My dad didn't wake up at 4 AM and teach me the ways of the fire, you know? I'm proud of our smoked meat. It's taken me a while to let go. It’s ok that I don't have the lineage.

Was there a backlash because you are a female pitmaster?

There's a lot of assumed negativity because you're a female in the kitchen, and I haven't experienced that being the only woman in the kitchen coming up working in the industry and then being a woman in charge. I feel like as a woman you definitely have to adapt to the ways of your surroundings. And that is just very human. If you are a female and you're choosing to get into this industry, I can say 20 years ago or 15 years ago you definitely had to adapt in order to make it. All of a sudden you go into this world that is extremely macho.

Myself personally, going into it with no skills, I didn't own a chef knife, I didn't have chef pants, I didn't have chef shoes, I went in with jeans and sneakers and started peeling onions. The only thing I remember, I had no skill. I was determined to ask for as little help as possible in regular manual labor situations. I wasn't going to be the weak girl, because I was already the girl that knew nothing. I wasn't going to be weak on top of it.

I remember we would get these huge cases of chicken, and back then chicken always came packed in ice instead of this great air chilled chicken that we get today. We would take the chicken out of the case and put it in this huge Lexan. So I filled this Lexan with chicken— two cases— and I managed to get it up onto the walk in by myself. I come out, and the sous chef says to me  'Erin, we usually have two people do that'.

But that's just to show you that I was so adamant that because I was going to need help with everything else, I didn't want to have to ask for help on shit like that. I wasn’t going to let myself be offended by any trash talk.

I feel like I adapted. You have to get a tough skin, and that goes whether you're a male of female. The male chefs have their restaurants and their ad on yelp. Just to be in the industry you need a tough skin. It's a different world. It's hardcore. Are you gonna bring it? You have to show that you wanna bring it, however you can show it. That was the only way I could show it. To be asked to prove yourself and discriminated against, two different things. They’re gonna want the guy to prove himself as well. No matter who you are, you have to prove yourself.

I've been very, very fortunate where I've never been in a situation where I've been harassed. I've never felt attacked, and I think that it does exist out there.

Are there any advantages to being a female in the food industry?

That's a really good question. You never get that question. I don't know that there are running a restaurant. I mean, I'm very nurturing but I don’t think that’s a good thing. I wish I wasn't. I wish I was more hardcore, or a jerk. 'Oh, you don't feel well, I'm sorry'. That's not how I grew up in the kitchen! I think that women are very good at seeing the big picture in a shorter amount of time. I'm not saying that men don't get it, because they do. I work with great men that see a very big picture. I do think that women in general can see the overview. That's very important when running a restaurant, it's very important to see the big picture. You have to be able to step back and understand what all the consequences are and where it affects everyone throughout.

What are your thoughts on the work-life spectrum? Do you have balance in life?

I have no balance. Not good with that. I'm also addicted to work. I have a very addictive personality. This is a better addiction than others, so I'll go with that. I do not have a family. I do not have a boyfriend. I always say I have 35 kids, and they're all here. That's something that I'm always working towards. I don’t like that that’s the case. There was a time when it didn't bother me at all. I need to get out more. So, I'm working on that. In fact, I just joined a boxing gym.

People are always like 'what's your favorite place to eat?' I'm like, come on man, Whole Foods. Whole Foods prepared foods! I don't have time! Love their wings. I don't go out, I work my ass off, but I love what I do. Balance? Not so much. In a lot of ways I look down on myself for that, I feel like if I was better, I could have balance too. The fact that I don't have balance is my fault. It's my own choice. I am trying to change that.

What a shame to just have the music too low? You do all of this hard work, and you're not paying attention to how loud the music is. Come on, there's a perfect volume, you know? All of these details. It’s food and it’s service and it’s everything. You've got so many people putting so much energy into, what a shame to have stupid details missed.

Not only are you the chef, you're a businesswoman.  Is it hard to balance different elements of your responsibilities?

They're always a work in progress. Hopefully i am better at both of those things next week than I am today. It's a very organic thing. I'm better at dealing with my vendors today than I was a year ago. It all ties into your own personal life, and how you feel about yourself, what’s going on in your world, how strong do you feel. I'm just always learning. It definitely all reflects on itself. I may know a little bit more about cooking food than about being a businesswoman, I still grow everyday. There's no final platform.

What advice would you give to a woman who is looking to become a chef?

I think that women have really good intuition and I think that you should use that intuition to make sure that you wind up in a good place. If your intuition and your gut is telling you that something isn't right, don't trust it. I think it’s one of the things that women have that men don't. Use that to your ability, because they use everything else to theirs.

Lastly, what is your favorite thing to cook for yourself?

Eggs. I love eggs. Whether it be scrambled, or sunny side up. It says a lot about yourself as a cook when you can cook an egg perfectly because the yolk is different from the white. You're dealing with two different proteins. It really shows finesse when you can cook an egg. And eggs are the most beautiful things in the world.