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Varanese chef Erik Abraham keeping up a family tradition — sort of

Erik Abraham’s father, Craig “Abe” Abraham, worked for a construction company called Buffalo Construction that was in the business of building restaurants, among other service-industry spaces.

The younger Abraham sits down at the bar at Varanese, where he is executive chef, wearing a blue and white Buffalo Construction toboggan and a blue apron over his kitchen uniform. With a soft, even voice, he talks of how his dad helped build hundreds of restaurants over the years, mostly specialty chains like Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s.

He admits his dad inspired him, but that isn’t exactly why Abraham became a chef. At first, at age 18, he was just looking for a way to not starve during his college days in Louisiana.

“My parents kind of dropped me off at school,” he says, chuckling. “I didn’t really know much about anything. It was my first time doing laundry, my first time cooking for myself, and all that. My dad had been building restaurants for years, so I decided to try and work at a restaurant.”

Turns out, it was a perfect fit. First of all, Abraham, now 35, is a night owl. He also learned he enjoys the camaraderie he finds in a restaurant crew, especially in family-owned establishments. And, of course, like so many of us, he likes food.

“I would go in at 3 o’clock and work until 1 or 2 in the morning,” he says. “It just kind of fit.”

And so, he found himself working at a place called Sammy’s Grill in Baton Rouge, La., where he worked his way up to being manager during a four-year stint. He also professes a love for “knives and fire,” and knows the restaurant business is one of the few in which he gets to work with both.

“I love knives,” he admits with a smile. “I do a lot of charcuterie work now, so I have lots of knives. I’ve got a big hacksaw in the back. And there’s always something on fire here.”

It takes knives to make charcuterie. | Photo by Steve Coomes

After college, he eventually found his way back to Louisville, attended Sullivan University, and connected with Varanese nearly nine years ago, not long after owner John Varanese opened his vaunted restaurant on Frankfort Avenue, where knives and fire are the order of the day. He even calls out his boss’ love of fire.

“He loves fireworks, loves blowing stuff up,” Abraham says of Varanese. “We do that every year on the Fourth of July: We have a little cannon that shoots wine corks with fuses and gunpowder, and we have an endless supply of wine corks. We’re going to try to build a raft out of wine corks and float past the River House on the Ohio, so we’re still saving them.”

When he isn’t slicing things or roasting things or shooting corks from a cannon, Abraham spends plenty of time planning theme dinners with pairings, be it wine, bourbon or beer. For instance, just last week, he did a tasting of Grgich Hill Estate wines in preparation for the upcoming annual Grgich Hill dinner, which, he admits, is not a bad job perk.

Another recent dinner involved a pairing with Jefferson Reserve bourbons, including Ocean’s Voyage 9, which is aged at sea. For that dinner, he employed softshell crab sliders, butter poached black cod, clam corn chowder, and other dishes to help complete the ocean theme. Mostly, though, it’s about complementing the product and honoring it with food.

“It’s fun to come up with (a menu) that will pair well with something someone else has put a lot of work into,” he says.

Of course, his tenure at Varanese also goes back to why he realized he was a fit for the restaurant business in the first place: the atmosphere and camaraderie. He says Varanese keeps the entire team involved, and the environment makes employees want to stay. He’s not even the longest-tenured staff member after nine years.

And with River House now in the Varanese family, he gets a taste of not only the new American fare at the original restaurant, but also the seafood side of the restaurant business. After 17 years, he still loves the work, even though he knows it isn’t for everyone.

Erik Abraham | Photo by Dan Dry, courtesy of Varanese

“You really have to want to do it,” he says. “The chaos is kind of nice sometimes. … When it’s slow, I feel like pulling my hair out. When it’s busy, like on a Derby Day or Mother’s Day, you get here at 9 in the morning and, before you know it, it’s midnight. You don’t even realize it because you’re constantly doing something.”

In other words, don’t expect Abraham to seek out a desk job anytime soon — he knows where he’s happiest. Although, he does admit there could come a time when he might want to open his own restaurant.

If he does, he wants to call the restaurant “Abe’s,” in tribute to his father, whom he considers his inspiration. Unfortunately, Abe died in December, which would make the Abe’s restaurant concept even more meaningful to the younger Abraham. He says the concept would encapsulate hard work.

“He was always a very hard worker,” Abraham says of his father. “He was always there for me, and he would come out to eat wherever I’m working.”

Like father, like son. The night-owl Abraham doesn’t blink at a 14-hour shift; no doubt his hard-working dad took notice. Opening a restaurant would require that same kind of work ethic.

So, what would the menu at Abe’s focus on? Steak, which was his father’s favorite meal.

“Definitely steak-oriented,” Abraham says. “My dad loved large steaks — 72-ounce porterhouses, stuff like that. Obscenely large. And he always drank a lot of Coors Light, because he said there was a sandwich in every can.”

Porterhouse and Coors Light. Now there’s a pairing dinner no one has done yet.