In controversial move, Big E out as Viva Brazil chef

CARAG — Before the restaurant has even served its first rack of ribs, Viva Brazil is embroiled in controversy. Eric Austin is out as chef just days before the restaurant opens.

Austin, better known as Big E, made a name for himself in the Twin Cities culinary community as chef at Big E’s Soul Food and Bourbon Street Steakhouse. He announced his departure from Viva (913 W. Lake St.) on his Facebook page Wednesday morning, writing:

AFTER PUTTING MY ENERGY, SWEAT AND CREATIVE HEART INTO THE DEVELOPING AND OPENING OF VIVA BRAZIL RESTAURANT, I REGRETTABLY INFORM MY FB FRIENDS AND SUPPORTERS THAT MY FAMILY AND I CAN NO  LONGER SUPPORT ANY ENDEAVOR MADE BY THIS RESTAURANT AS THEY HAVE WITH BLATANT DISREGARD FOR OUR CONTRACT, SOUGHT TO REMOVE ME AS CHEF.

Reached for comment later in the day, Austin said things boiled over on Sunday night, the day before Viva was to begin a soft opening.

Austin claims that a check sent to the restaurant’s produce supplier bounced, leaving his kitchen bereft of ingredients. That, coupled with the fact that he hadn’t been paid in over two months, culminated in Austin telling Viva ownership and management that he wouldn’t go along with the planned Monday opening.

According to Austin, a new general manager hired by co-owners Olmedo Albarando and Carlos Zhagui interpreted his intransigence as a resignation and asked him to leave the restaurant on Monday. The soft opening was delayed a week, a new chef and sous chef were quickly hired and Viva Brazil is now slated to open its doors for the first time on July 18.

Austin expressed disappointment about the turn of events and said he plans to take legal action against Viva ownership for breaching his one-year contract after just four months on the job.

Asked what’s next for him, Austin said “I’m still sitting here going ‘what the [heck]’? I was supposed to be knee-deep in tickets right now and open.”

Albarando disputes Austin’s characterization of his departure.

“We didn’t fire him — he quit,” he said.

Though he acknowledged that Austin is a good cook and wished him well, Albarando said he’s a “tough guy to work with,” citing the fact that Big E had sudden, contentious departures from both Big E’s Soul Food and Bourbon Street Steakhouse.

Albarando said Austin was unreliable, wouldn’t put his recipes in writing and wasn’t sufficiently organized to be an effective kitchen boss. Put it together and one can see why ownership and management chose to interpret Austin’s intransigence as a resignation.

“We made a big, big mistake” in hiring him last winter, Albarando said.

Albarando acknowledged that he and Zhagui were behind in paying Austin’s salary, but said the situation was unavoidable given that the restaurant’s opening has been repeatedly delayed. He said ownership and Austin had an agreement that his salary would be paid in full once the restaurant was up and running.

Albarando also denied that he and Zhagui cut a bad check to a produce supplier, and said ownership did everything they could to accommodate Austin’s culinary demands.

Though this week’s soap opera is regrettable, Albarando said he is looking forward to finally getting Viva Brazil off the ground next Monday.

“Things happen in this kind of business. We’re strong, and we just have to stick in there,” he said. “We’ll bring good food to this community.”

Austin, meanwhile, is left to stew.

“I was there since before dust ball one was swept away. I helped decorate that place, setup the kitchen — I’m not going to resign the night before we open,” he said.

 — Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]