Biscuits & Company’s Johannes serves them up as a matter of course
The main ingredient in Biscuits & Company’s success is founder Stacy Cooper’s Canadian grandmother’s recipe for northern biscuits: bigger, heartier, and more colorful than their southern cousins. Chef Erik Johannes, just as colorful and hearty as the biscuits, joined the small and vibrant Biddeford café in 2017 as executive chef before staking a partnership claim in the operation. He corresponded with edible MAINE editor Christine Burns Rudalevige about finding emotion in biscuits, clarity in cake, and comfort in simplicity. The conversation has been edited for length and flow.
How did you land in Biddeford at a biscuit place?
I attended culinary school out of high school and graduated from the New York Restaurant School in 1994. I stayed in New York five or six years, working with as many chefs as I could. If they were doing something intriguing, I got an apprenticeship and gleaned as much experience as I could. I moved home to California and worked with more chefs on the central coast and up in San Francisco, too. I came to Maine a lifetime ago to open my own restaurant up in the Saint John Valley on Long Lake.
I took a break from the restaurant world to pursue a career in education, teaching high school English and eventually teaching psychology at the college level. But the itch to get back into a kitchen eventually became too much to ignore. I landed at Biscuits and Company by chance. I spoke to owner Stacy Cooper on the phone about the possibility of stepping in as her chef, and the rest is history. There is something about the energy of this little bakery and cafe, and the city of Biddeford, I could not resist. [I made] the decision literally overnight to put away textbooks, computers, staff meetings, and pick up my knives. I haven’t looked back.
What makes your biscuits so comforting?
Biscuits are one of those foods everyone understands. They are versatile and delicious, no matter what you do with them. [Our recipe] combines all-purpose flour, locally grown grains, sweet cream, and buttermilk that gives our biscuits a sweet, nutty flavor. They are hearty, [able to] stand alone or be used in combination with meats, eggs, and vegetables. These aren’t your average White Lily hockey pucks. They have character.
What’s the best biscuit combination you’ve ever made?
That’s impossible to answer! New combinations come about, usually by accident. [We could be] playing around in the kitchen with something completely unrelated [to biscuits]. Next thing you know, we’re throwing a biscuit into the mix and, voila, you’ve got the world’s next best thing.
What do you think is the most comforting item on your menu?
I’m a huge fan of our Pop’s Cure. I find you can’t go wrong with a thick, sweet, spicy sausage gravy, applewood smoked bacon, smoked local cheddar, and a few eggs on a fresh-baked biscuit. It’s like gift wrapping a hug and sending it to someone.
What are the basic ingredients—actual and emotive—that amount to a dish becoming comfort food?
Comfort food is familiar. It doesn’t require a map, a dictionary, or a professional forager to explain to you what it is that you’re putting into your mouth. The fine dining part of the culinary industry is a combination of chemistry, art, and marketing. We’d leave those kitchens at midnight and search for our favorite food truck to get some “real” food. We’d eat our tacos, burritos, BBQ, whatever it was we had found, drink a beer, laugh and talk, and just sink into a warm pool of bliss.
Comfort food really is all about the basics. It’s yummy. It’s something you crave. It’s something you can’t go wrong with. Flavorful and filling. Simple. Simple. Simple.
How do you tie food to memories?
When you have memories, you get to experience the emotions that went along with them. Customers tell us their favorite stories about their grandmother’s biscuits. We’ve heard so many biscuit stories I’ve lost count. But it’s always fun to hear them because they end the same way, with the person smiling, sometimes crying.
Besides biscuits, what are your other comfort foods?
As a fat kid, I always loved cake. I was excited in the late 90s when cupcakes suddenly became stars. I’d drive all over, stopping at places renowned for their $10 cupcakes. Mostly, I was so disappointed. It was a sad time. There’s nothing that makes me cry more than dry cake. In the end, the idea that cupcakes had been forced into the world of fine dining made me angry. I started playing with my own cake recipes and finally, this kid has something to smile about once again.
Are there any foods that make you uncomfortable?
What emotions do you associate with your comfort foods?
I love food. Of course I’m a stress eater! Of course I eat when I’m bored! Love it! Hell, I embrace it. Some people run or jog or work out or drink; I make something delicious. I fill my kitchen with the smells and flavors of happiness and dive in.