Erik Desjarlais 2.0
A Former Chef Finds Redemption in Family and Leathercraft
When we first met in the winter of 2004, Erik Desjarlais was at the helm of Bandol, a deeply French-inspired Old Port restaurant so ambitious that one reviewer asked, “Is Portland ready for the New England equivalent of a one-star Michelin restaurant—translation, a $60 five-course prix fixe menu sans wine?”
Though today’s Portland restaurant-goers will laugh at that price, Bandol was ahead of its time, suffering an undeserved demise in 2006 in part because people found it pretentious. The chef followed that with everyone’s favorite take-out soup joint, Ladle, RIP 2008, followed by Evangeline, a homey high-end bistro complete with 1900s vintage duck press, which opened in 2008 just as the economy cratered—going under in 2010. Throughout those years behind the stove, Desjarlais acquired a reputation as an exacting, even tyrannical, filthy-tongued chef capable of delivering haute cuisine of the highest caliber. His menu might start with a single oyster, progress through a lamb’s tongue with mustard sauce before ultra-traditional foie gras au torchon, ceding the plate to a lemon sole filleted at table before exquisite cheeses and desserts.
But after service, he was getting into shouting matches, criticizing other chefs’ cooking, picking fights and getting thrown out of bars all over town.
“I was a drunk,” he says simply. “I was an asshole. I was taught by force, and in my kitchen it was the same: either you do it or get the ****out.”
Today, father of daughter 7-year-old Cortland, and husband to Krista Kern of restaurants Bresca, Bresca and the Honey Bee and now Purple House fame, Desjarlais is the soft-spoken, thoughtful—and sober—owner of Warp and Weft Seamsters. He has remade himself as an artisan in leather and cloth, sewing and hand-stitching mostly custom chef’s aprons and knife rolls. (Knife rolls are squares of leather or cloth with sleeves sewn to fit various knives and kitchen tools, the whole rolling up into a safe and protective tube that, once tied, is slung over the shoulder by a strap.)
Though Desjarlais has kept some beard and the grunge T-shirt and lumberjack look, gone is the potty mouth (mostly), along with seventy pounds and a load of baggage acquired from twenty years in the kitchen. He’s a compact guy, blue eyes today gentle more than fierce in a still-unlined face. There are those tattoos and a ball cap he wears with ‘tude, though one suspects that’s more holdover than personal statement.
Where once he fed Portland’s elite eaters, today discriminating chefs in kitchens like Scales, Eventide, and Union in Portland, to Boston’s Townsman, to New York’s Nomad to Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and Joe Beef’s David McMillan in Montreal all use his signature knife rolls and wear his leather and waxed canvas aprons as they go about their work.
So why did he stop cooking? When his daughter was born in 2010, Desjarlais realized, “I was working to pay someone else to raise her, and Krista’s place, Bresca, was doing better than Evangeline. So I just closed mine and became a stay-at-home dad but one who eventually realized, what the hell am I going to do when she grows up?”
He did, as he describes it, “the only thing I knew how to do. I was an apprentice under my grandfather, an upholsterer, when I was a kid from age eight to fourteen. It was a lot of pulling staples, but he let me sew things, too. I knew how to do mostly square things. Cushions, I was pretty good at cushions. So, just as a hobby, I picked up sewing again--and I made Krista a knife roll.” He pauses dramatically. ”She put it up on Facebook, and, KAPOW!, these chefs started to contact me saying I’d like one of those! One chef, Matt Jennings, ordered fifteen for his crew. I had enough trouble making it through one, never mind fifteen, but I did it.”
“I’ve always associated Erik with quality ever since he first cooked for me back at Evangeline,” says Jennings, now owner and head chef of Townsman in Boston. When Desjarlais went off on his new venture, “first I wanted to support him, but I loved the product and its quality and so we’ve grown side by side. He’s a success because he knows what the demands are of the kitchen environment and takes those into consideration.”
Chef Fréderique Eliot of Scales puts it more bluntly: “Erik sews like he used to cook, no shortcuts, never the easy way, and the result is that his aprons last five years, very, very high quality.” Eliot has also been known to call Desjarlais for advice on particularly complicated dishes he might adapt for the Scales menu. “The guy knows French cooking deep down, like the real classics. He cooked at La Pyramide, and that’s serious!”
Even as Warp and Weft Seamsters has prospered—Desjarlais did about $175,000 in sales in 2016, he has had to face some of the same personal challenges as in the kitchen. “Maybe I’m ADD, I dunno,” he says with a shrug, “I sew a lot of aprons. Chefs like ’em because they’re made by a former chef and I know how they’re supposed to fit and I know how they’re supposed to feel, because I went through twenty years of wearing not so great aprons.”
The challenge is the drudgery, the endless repetition. “That’s why I always did tasting menus and that’s why I always had to change my menu every day, because I got so bored, and I didn’t know what people wanted and so I’d move onto something else. With sewing, it’s the same—I can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. So doing custom bags, that’s what I love. That’s where it’s at. Hand-stitching. The chef gets exactly what he wants. Weird requests? Sure. I had one chef who wanted me to make a shiv pocket in his apron. You want a knife in your apron? Then at one point, I had my stuff in a high end cutlery store in San Francisco. You get guys who spend thousands of dollars on these Japanese knives, custom knives. If they’re going to spend up to five grand on knives, they’ll gladly drop five hundred bucks on a leather knife roll. But then I started to get these requests for…other kinds of leather stuff, BDSM, you know, and I stay away from that.”
Roughly poetic once upon a time in the kitchen, this man brings the same language to his current craft, and it’s immediately apparent that he’s found a parallel ethos in this new universe.
“With cooking,” the craftsman says, “it’s trying to get the best possible ingredients and then keeping it as simple as possible. Leather is the perfect equivalent to food because you don’t really have to do much to it if it’s really nice stuff. You don’t have to screw with it. Like breaking down a whole pig, you have to use every part and you learn how to use every part—same thing with a side of leather. Every piece has to get used, because leather is expensive.”
Of today’s Maine restaurant scene, Desjarlais is a little leery. “Everyone I come across who ate at Bandol or Evangeline says I should reopen them because they would be accepted now. No.” He shakes his head emphatically. “Since 2010 I’ve been able to watch from the outsider’s point of view, and with the frequency of restaurants opening and closing in Portland now, it’s terrifying.”
So there’s no Erik Desjarlais 3.0 involving a kitchen somewhere off the beaten track, a little cozy place all his own? “I have retrained my brain from chef life to this life,” he says easily, “and it’s incredible how easy it was. I don’t want to be that man any more. What a dick I was to nearly everyone who crossed my path!”
He pauses, running his fingers over a tattooed forearm. Like all chefs who have put in their time at the stove and the cutting board, it is thick and muscled, the rough skin bearing the minute white scars of a thousand grease burns. His fingers are thick, his palms equally scarred and roughened. He sits back in his chair and looks around the room, not focusing on anything in particular.
“I’m holding on to all of my restaurant stuff,” he says finally, as if making a confession. “All my favorite things, it‘s so bad, I just can’t let it go, my pots and pans. My hope in a perfect world would be when I’m 50 to open up a ten-seat restaurant and serve whatever the hell I want. If I want to do a three-course meal, a five-course meal, I don’t even know. Eventually I would love to cook again, just not now. I do miss it because it’s still part of me. I miss the food, the ingredients, I miss the tools, I miss the ovens, I miss my flattop like a lost toe. I just don’t miss the life.”