Chef Profile: Eric Ernest

From Easy Bake Oven to cooking for the president

After carving out a career at world-renowned restaurants, Eric Ernest is catering to a new wave of diners. As the executive chef at the University of Southern California, he cooks for thousands of students and oversees 40 menus, product development, and culinary training. One key to success, he says, has been honing a keen business sense—something he encourages all aspiring chefs to develop. Here, Ernest professes his love of sweetbreads and a Gordon Ramsay jab he’d rather not share with diners.

“Even if you have skills, culinary school can teach the language behind it. Higher education also provided the business side, from economics to accounting.”

Your alter ego wants to say this to diners: My favorite thing comes from Gordon Ramsay’s show, Hell’s Kitchen. These women were looking to order food and Gordon says to the maitre d’, “Would you please escort these women back to plastic surgery.” I use that as a reminder that I would never say that to someone.

Most famous person you’ve ever cooked for: President Obama, last year when he came to USC for a fundraiser.

The dish you wish your diners would try: I wish our diners at USC would be more adventurous with dishes made from whole pigs and sweetbreads.

The ingredient that’s grabbing your attention right now: Whole animal cookery is a big trend right now. We use this new style in butchery and at some events.

Your favorite jam to rock out to in the kitchen: Anything by Bob Dylan.

When you knew you wanted to be a chef: When I was a little kid I cooked a lot. There was a mix-up with my sister, and I was given an Easy Bake Oven and immediately started baking cakes. I have always been intrigued by the science and technique of cooking and what happens when you whip an egg white. I remember making cookies in school, and going through a cerebral process of following directions but asking why. I graduated high school early so I could go to culinary school.

Free time is spent doing this: I spend most of my free time working out a lot, scuba diving and surfing.

The one person you’d like to cook for: I’d like to cook for my dad. By the time I got back from traveling across the country, he had been sick for a long time and eventually passed away. He was never able to sit down at the restaurant where I was a chef.

The traits you wish every cook could have: A sense of urgency. It’s important because it’s the cornerstone for service.


Age: 35

Employer: University of Southern California

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wis.

Education: Waukesha Community College

Mentor(s): Worked with Chef Lee Hefter at Wolfgang Puck and looks to internationally acclaimed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Awards: Two gold awards from the American Culinary Federation. Oversaw the food and beverage programs at leading restaurants including: Jardiniere, Masa’s, and Aqua in San Francisco; Chadwick, La Cachette, Katasuya, XIV by Michael Mina, Bazaar by Jose Andres, Gladstones, and The Abbey Food & Bar in Los Angeles.