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VOL. 126 | NO. 212 | Monday, October 31, 2011

Oliva Looks to Make Imprint at Erling Jensen

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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A quality one doesn’t find often in chefs is modesty. We’ve all dined at restaurants where the primary ingredient is the chef’s ego, served with side-dishes of arrogance and hubris.

Fortunato Oliva is new chef de cuisine at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Fortunato Oliva, on the other hand, is happy to admit the debt he owes to his family – especially his grandmother, mother and aunt – and to the mentors he worked with since he was 16 years old, that is, for half his life.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for the people I worked with who taught me so much,” said Oliva, 33, recently promoted to chef de cuisine at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, after the departure of Karen Roth. His surname is pronounced AH-live-a, not Oh-LEEV-a. And he goes by Nate. Oliva has worked with Erling Jensen off and on since 2004; the restaurant opened late in 1996.

“Erling is absolutely, without a doubt, the biggest influence and mentor, professionally and personally, in my life,” said Oliva. “Most people have a misconception about him. I’ve heard other chefs that have never worked with him say that Erling is tough to work for and demanding, and he does have high standards and expectations, but he’s really a funny, light-hearted person.”

Oliva’s heritage is Italian, and he came from a cooking family.

“I grew up in the kitchen,” he said. “Mom and dad separated when I was young, so I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom and aunt. Cooking for me is just a thing that we do as a family. It’s always like holiday times and big meals and a heavy Italian influence, pasta and comfort food. We rarely ate out. My mom was really frugal. She’s great at making something from nothing.”

Could Oliva possibly bring an Italian slant to the fine dining menu at Erling Jensen? He laughed, “Well, Erling always teases me and says that they don’t want meatballs in marinara, but he’s being flexible. For one of the Sunday dinners I did truffled gnocchi with duck confit.”

Oliva is a perfect illustration of a chef who did not go to culinary school but came up though the ranks.

“I started as a dishwasher when I was 16,” he said, “at some high-volume chain restaurants. I seemed to have ability and aptitude, so I kept getting promoted. I developed this passion about what seems to be the immediate gratification you get as a cook. It’s a cliché, but I’m passionate about eating good food and drinking good wine and living the good life.”

Oliva was grill cook at The Butcher Shop and then got his “big break” at Ronnie Grisanti & Sons. “I learned a lot working with Ronnie and Alex and Judd.”

Another formative experience was at Uchi, a Japanese restaurant in Austin, Texas.

“I really fell in love with Japanese food,” said Oliva. “Working there really influenced me and helped mold my current style. Tyson Cole” – former chef at Uchi – “really forged me and pushed me to become better.”

So, Japanese as well as Italian. Those cuisines should make an interesting mix, though it must feel daunting to try to make a mark on a well-known, beloved menu.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Oliva said. “Because I’ve known Erling as long as I have, I have a good idea of the direction he wants the food to go in. We have dishes on the menu that he was serving at La Tourelle. He’s giving me a lot of freedom, and I feel this obligation not to step in and change something that’s already good.”

On the other hand, as any chef elevated to his responsibility would want to do, Oliva would like to see the menu at Erling Jensen bear his imprint.

“For the Friday dinner” – four courses and five glasses of wine for $75 – “I step out and push the envelope a little, maybe do some flavors and ingredients that people maybe would not associate with Erling’s.” In any case, reverting to his typical modesty, “I’m just grateful for the chance.”

Oliva was recruited to work in the kitchen at Erling Jensen by then chef de cuisine Justin Young. When Young resigned for a corporate job, Oliva left the restaurant but returned to work under Karen Roth, who replaced Young. And now Oliva has her old position as chef de cuisine.

“I wasn’t surprised that Karen left,” Oliva said. “She has so much experience that the next logical step for her would be a partnership with investors and being executive chef in her own restaurant.” That place is Alchemy in Cooper-Young, which, after delays, may be open this weekend. Or not. Would Oliva like to have the same opportunity?

“Sure, for a chef having a restaurant is the result of all the years of work and training. If I had any sense I’d know better, but that’s what I’ve wanted since I was a kid.”

When that happens, Oliva’s restaurant would be less formal than Erling Jensen, where service is old-school, ingredients are luxurious and prices are high.

“A casual restaurant with a big grill right in the middle of it so I could cook meat over the fire,” Oliva said. “Meat and fire – that’s something beautiful.”

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