Chef Eric Suniga hated his first day working in a restaurant. At the age of 14 he became a dishwasher at a steakhouse in Chico, Calif., and wasn’t too thrilled with the experience. It didn’t take too long though before he worked his way up and fell in love with the restaurant business.
Suniga has come a long way from his days as a dishwasher. He is executive chef at the Hard Rock Hotel’s new gastropub, Culinary Dropout, which is scheduled to open Aug. 21.
After working in restaurants throughout high school, an infomercial on TV one night made Suniga decide to go to culinary school. He packed his bags and headed for Portland, Ore.
“It was the first time I had excelled in any school-type atmosphere,” said Suniga. “ I think having the experience of working in a restaurant before going to school helped out a lot.”
His success at school earned him an internship at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, Calif. That eventually led to the opportunity to open Bouchon at the Venetian in Las Vegas as a sous chef and then executive sous chef.
After another stint back in Oregon, Suniga decided to pursue other opportunities in Las Vegas and went to work on the corporate side of things at the Mina Group before becoming executive chef at Michael Mina’s Seablue restaurant at MGM Grand.
He was looking for a new opportunity when he heard about Culinary Dropout. After researching the restaurant and its parent company, Fox Restaurant Concepts, he said he knew it was his style.
“They use simple techniques, but everything is done really, really well. It’s food that I would enjoy eating every day – that’s kind of the way I like to cook – it seemed like the perfect fit,” said Suniga.
The 6,000-square-foot Culinary Dropout is a gastropub concept where diners can nosh on items from a raw bar or indulge in pub fare like fried chicken and biscuits, burgers, sandwiches, salads, antipasti, soups and entrees.
Additionally, Culinary Dropout features a large rotisserie in their open-style kitchen and Suniga is excited to roast an abundance of meats like prime rib.
Wines, specialty cocktails and beers,including craft and seasonal brews, round out the menu.
While opening a new restaurant takes a lot of hard work and long hours, Suniga said the end result is worth it.
“I’ve just always loved the restaurant industry, the stress aspect of it, seeing everybody’s true colors come out and then being able to handle it and make things happen. I don’t know if it’s a masochistic enjoyment of opening restaurants…while it’s happening it’s horrible – but I like seeing the reward at the end.”
We had the chance to sit down with Suniga to talk to him about what to expect from Culinary Dropout.
Q: How would you describe the food at Culinary Dropout?
A: “Great products, fresh ingredients – we’re doing everything from scratch. We’re doing all of our own baking, to pasta, to butchering – everything’s fresh. We have that gastropub feel with burgers, sandwiches, simple dishes. Simple classic comfort foods – meatloaf, fried chicken – just done really, really well. Fried chicken is not something I would normally order, but after going through and tasting it, I was very well surprised. It’s taking dishes like that – stuff that people know, that they can relate to – and just doing it really well. If we can do a dish that somebody had growing up and kind of relive that moment for them, then I think we’ve kind of hit the mark on what we’re trying to achieve.”
Q: How do you define “gastropub?”
A: “I think it’s kind of a loose term. It’s that pub environment where the food is cared for. There’s that respect for the product – in a more casual setting.”
Q: What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
A: “That’s a tough one to say. The M.A.C. Burger is a great one. It’s kind of a play off of a pretty well-known hamburger. Two patties, secret sauce, lettuce, pickles on a sesame seed bun.”
Q: Is there a signature item on the menu that people have to try?
A: “The fried chicken. We brine it for two days, then it’s dredged in buttermilk and our secret blend of herbs and spices, fried to perfection. It’s served with some delicious fresh potatoes and gravy and some housemade buttermilk biscuits and a drizzle of some spiced honey to finish it off.”
Q: You have an extensive cocktail menu – do you have anything to do with creating that?
A: “Mat Snapp is our mixologist on site. He oversees a lot of that. Once we get up and going there will be a lot of communication between us and the bar program making sure stuff goes together, tastes right. They’re having a lot of fun with the drink program.”
Q: How would you describe the atmosphere of the restaurant?
A: “Relaxed, fun. We’ll have live music on certain nights of the week. There’s a stage right next to the line. So we’ve got an open kitchen, we’ll have a charcuterie and shellfish bar as you’re walking in and then the line is right there. It’s all out in the open and then 10 feet over there’s a stage.
There’s a large patio area right up to the pool. Pool guests will have a walk-up window – they can come up and order cocktails and enjoy them right next to the pool.”
Q: Your wait staff won’t have uniforms. What’s the reason behind that?
A: “It’s just bringing that ‘Dropout’ sense to the restaurant, letting staff express themselves as who they are.”
Q: Do you like the open kitchen concept?
A: “I do. I like that guest interaction. You can see people’s reactions – good and bad. Just being able to go talk with them, chat with them and just kind of bring everybody together.”
Q: You worked with Thomas Keller and Michael Mina – what did you learn from them?
A: “Attention to detail, the organizational aspects of running a kitchen, technique and care for product. There is a lot of product on the market – and I think a lot of people do settle for what’s dropped off at their door – but it is striving to find something better. With Thomas especially – it was beautiful product, solid technique, not a lot of manipulation and just making it good. And Michael as well. Working in the seasons – doing what’s in season, what goes together.”