Eric LeBlanc expounds on the intricacies of food preparation like a conductor whose ear is sensitive to an orchestra’s endless creative combinations.
LeBlanc, who joined the Red Heat Restaurant and Burton’s Bar and Grill Group as culinary director almost a year ago, took a break from the kitchen at the Bedford Marketplace branch earlier this month to reflect on his background and ruminate on his philosophy as a chef.
He gestured toward the kitchen. “I just made six sauces back there, looking for the right combinations. I want to get a fish bowl, put it on ice, place shrimp over it, and get that smokiness…. You know, I have a shellfish allergy.
Still in his 30s, LeBlanc has a long and diversified culinary resume, ranging from an inconspicuous northern Italian place near the State House to food service at a cutting-edge firm, from an early foray to Cleveland to the markets of Costa Rica. And there’s a common denominator when he describes his adventures: “It’s just fun cooking.”
Now he is responsible for the fare at the five Red Heats and 17 Burton’s, including four outlets in the Southeast. These days he is meeting personnel and training. Eventually, he expects to be “solely focused on food. I had a lot to learn,” he said, and after the pandemic-induced interruptions, he also had to focus on “how to get the team back on track.”
About cooking: “You’ve got to take it personally.”
He said he encourages all of the cooks, “You’ve got to take it personally.” Before serving a dish, he said, they should ask themselves: “Would you pay 18 bucks for that?”
The Red Heat restaurants are actually “doing better than in 2019.” Although the coronavirus situation has relaxed, “Takeout has not fallen off.” As he travels from one branch to another, LeBlanc writes down culinary ideas on Post-It notes that cover his vehicle’s dashboard.
“You’ve got to change, or restaurants die,” he pronounced. He pointed to some upcoming features at the Bedford business – themes like “Harry Potter” and the “Friends” television show, a “beer dinner series.”
LeBlanc grew up in a remote part of New England: Isle LaMotte, as north and west as you can be in Lake Champlain without leaving Vermont. His first exposure to serious food was from a Montreal chef at a nearby country club where a teenage LeBlanc washed dishes. He decided to enroll at the former New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, graduating in 2005.
It wasn’t that long ago, but for chefs, it was another world compared to the present. There were no cookbooks, no social media presence, few “celebrity chefs.” LeBlanc said he felt destined. “I was supposed to be a chef—I love to see people happy.” Part of his “operational thought process,” he said, is to “take creative risks. I get creatively hungry.”
His cooking resume unfolds like a Food Network program schedule: Cleveland (“my first city”), then Boston at Chez Henri (“totally stuff I’d never done”), Sonsi (“a place to see and be seen”), and Grotto. At Marliave, he was instrumental in the reopening of the city’s fourth-oldest restaurant.
LeBlanc said his goal always has been to synchronize his passion for food and his professional role. That led to pursuing “a whole different experience” – a farm-to-table restaurant in La Jolla, CA. That was followed by a year as a chef at Milarepa Hotel and Restaurant in Costa Rica. He was 24, it was the rainy season, he knew almost no Spanish. Leblanc said he relished growing produce on the property and personally selecting all ingredients, at local markets, while changing the menu daily.
Back in Boston, LeBlanc opened Kitchen in the South End, with a historical motif. “I had cookbooks from the 1700s. I made my own cheddar cheese — from scratch. It took five days.” When he was offered the chef de cuisine position at Stir, LeBlanc went to work for the renowned chef Barbara Lynch. Between May 2013 and September 2014, he said, he crafted 350 tasting menus.
LeBlanc also worked as a chef in Seattle and in Texas before joining the Broadway Hospitality Group (Tavern on the Square) for about five years, where “I learned a lot about the business side.” He held the position of back-of house-operations leader, opening several new restaurants and brands.
In October 2019 LeBlanc decided it was time to advance into the corporate universe. “I always want to expand myself, to continue to grow professionally, he explained. As director of food services for Trip Advisor in Needham, LeBlanc worked with cutting-edge facilities.
Five months later, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everyone’s world. “I saw the writing on the wall,” LeBlanc said. “That gave me 10 months with my daughter—at a great age.”
LeBlanc said his wife was able to work from home, while he dealt with uncertainty. Perhaps go to Florida, or look for a food position in the nursing home industry—“the demographics point to a good future”—or maybe a university. “I had to figure out what would be best for the long game.”
The answer turned out to be the Red Heat group. “I always say things happen for a reason,” LeBlanc said.
Through much of his career, LeBlanc was a contestant – usually a successful one — on a number of televised cooking contests. And he is still at it.
- In 2014, while a chef at Stir, LeBlanc was a winner on an episode of the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen, a competition described by one critic as “sabotage-filled.” LeBlanc shrugged it off: “It was fun – it’s just cooking.” He also won on “Rewrapped.”
- LeBlanc was a finalist for Team Anthony Bourdain in 2015 on ABC’s “The Taste.” “The whole competition was just great.”
- Last August he went to New Orleans for “The 2021 Great American Seafood Cook-Off” and placed second.
- His most recent contest was the first “Wicked Bites and Chefs of the North Shore.” There were more than 250 nominees; LeBlanc was one of 36 who made the cut. Each made an appetizer, entree, and dessert. Eleven chefs took part in the finals at Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School and LeBlanc swept to victory. “This is something I really wanted,” he said.
- LeBlanc is also taking part in an ABC streaming called “Blind Kitchen.” Chefs prepare and serve signature dishes to their counterparts, who are blindfolded. Participants have to determine the ingredients and presentation using taste, smell, and touch, and then try to recreate the dish.
Bedford’s Red Heat Restaurant is located in the Bedford Market Place, 152 The Great Road.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763