Chef Eric Sayers is the first to admit his story is not the typical sentimental one that involves cooking at his grandmother’s apron strings.
“I'm from Connecticut and started as a busboy at a conference center. I was really wanting to work the back of the house and so the chef put me on salads and desserts,” he said. “Eventually, an Austrian chef with fiery red hair and enormous hands named Hakken Blakken was hired and he made these elaborate food designs on mirrors. He took me aside and showed me his secrets on how to make chocolate mousse and other dishes. I wish I had taken notes.”
The new chef saw Sayers’ potential and encouraged him to pursue a career in the kitchen. One of the externs from the Culinary Institute of America took Sayers under his wing and brought him to the prestigious cooking school to show him the state-of-the-art teaching kitchens and the Escoffier Room student-run restaurant, named for Georges Auguste Escoffier, a famed 20th-century French chef known as the “king of chefs and the chef of kings.”
“This completely changed my perspective on cooking — I never thought it could be more than just putting food on a plate. I started to know good ingredients,” Sayers said.
The visit to the school made a profound impression on him, and made him seriously consider enrolling in the culinary institute.
“I told my mom and she wasn't too thrilled about it, but once I took her there, she was on board. My aunt and uncle, who had served in the military and traveled around the world, really understood fine dining and what it meant to be in the culinary arts, so they were my cheerleaders,” Sayers said. And so he cooked for them while attending the institute. “Back in the day, it was OK for chefs to yell and scream. Culinary school was like boot camp. The goal was not to get yelled at and, in a way, it really worked. You learned your recipes before arriving in class. There were tough days, hard days and they told us, point blank, at the end of the term, you won't see 70 percent of your classmates — they will have dropped out. I also remember meeting Julia Child at school.”
After graduating with honors in 1991, Sayers moved to Switzerland to work as an assistant instructor at the Institut Hôtelier César Ritz with founder and hospitality pioneer Wolfgang Petri. This experience exposed him not only to a European culinary world, but also to life lessons that he said later contributed to strong management skills.
“In culinary school, we learned Asian, international, Italian and American bounty, but there were so many multiples on classic French cooking,” Sayers said. “The French turned cooking into an art form. Basic recipes from French cuisine are the bases for many chefs today, but they make it healthier by tweaking and putting their own spin on it. Charlie Trotter expanded on French cooking and fortified the flavors.”
Trotter’s Chicago-based restaurants garnered Michelin stars and he was a recipient of eight James Beard Awards throughout his career. Trotter’s cookbooks make up a good part of Sayers’ cookbook collection, and he shared a friendship with the chef, who passed away in 2013.
HAPPY CHEF, HAPPY CLIENTELE
CQ’s Restaurant in Harbour Town was Sayers’ kitchen for over 13 years. While there, he set out to build his perfect team — many of whom he remains friends with to this day.
"Every chef will tell you that at one point he had the perfect team, and that was my perfect team. It took four to five years to bring the team together,” Sayers said. Thanks to his American menu with French and Southern influences and a cellar of 10,000 bottles of award-winning wine, customers came back time and time again. “I think our record number of guests served was 369 in one night. And if you could have seen the size of our kitchen…”
To say the kitchen was miniscule is an understatement.
Eventually, corporate America came calling. Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s kitchen was considerably different than that in a restaurant for Sayers.
“We were catering to doctors, staff, patients and visitors, seven days a week, around the clock,” he said. “We also had high-end events for donors as it was a not-for-profit hospital. I enjoyed the experience and the view of the river and learned so much there, too.”
But after a three-year run, Sayers returned to Hilton Head Island.
Today, Sayers manages a staff of 30 offering a variety of delicious menu items at The Cypress of Hilton Head, an award-winning retirement community catering to active adults. “Here at The Cypress, every month we change the menu. I like the creativity part of it. We ask our members for their favorite choices, and we have over 430 members here. Meals are served in our formal dining room and we also have a bistro, which has a more casual atmosphere serving salads and bistro fare,” he said. “Our clients have traveled the world and really know and appreciate fine cuisine.”
Many of the community’s members have eaten in famous restaurants around the world, and Sayers enjoys discussing their most memorable meals with them. But he isn’t always focused on the past — he’s always looking to learn new skills or develop new recipes.
“Right now, I'm on a bread-making kick, and recently I was on a sushi kick,” he said. “I learn everything I can about that particular food and how it's prepared and some of the best techniques. I can then incorporate new recipes into our menu. But at home? I love pizza.”