Group Dynamics

Himachi Tiradito at Basan
Himachi Tiradito at Basan Basan/ Terrence Jones

A culinary director helps lead and empower chefs across multiple concepts.

A culinary director helps lead and empower chefs across multiple concepts.

As independent restaurant groups take the country’s food-focused cities by storm, many executive chefs have become culinary managers, overseeing the menu, systems, and team for multiple restaurant concepts. That includes John “Johnnie” Anderson, the former executive chef of Eschelon Experiences’ Mura, who rose to culinary director for the entire Raleigh, North Carolina–based independent restaurant group when he was just 31 years of age.

“It’s been great getting the chance to grow from within the company,” says the Burlington, North Carolina, native, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona. Chef Anderson clocked time in the kitchens at upscale eateries in the Raleigh market including French enclave Margaux’s, Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, and Brier Creek Country Club prior to joining Mura, Eschelon’s first restaurant, a sushi-Japanese concept that opened in 2007 in Raleigh’s revitalized North Hills neighborhood.

The group now has six concepts, each with a very distinctive, elevated menu and a highly skilled head chef. Rather than dictate the dishes for each restaurant, Chef Anderson takes a mentoring role, helping to facilitate brainstorming sessions throughout the group and define the vision of each restaurant without becoming a micromanager.

“One of the best things about our company is that we give all the great chefs we hire [the opportunity] to create their own, creative menus,” says Chef Anderson, who empowers each chef with plenty of autonomy as long as what they plan is grounded in the concept. “The chefs and I talk more about the vision than the actual ingredients. I wouldn’t tell a sculptor what to sculpt, but I might push the artist in the right direction.”

For example, at the recently opened Basan—a contemporary sushi and Japanese restaurant, and Eschelon Experiences’ first location outside Raleigh, in neighboring Durham—Chef Anderson worked with San Francisco master sushi chef Toshio Sakamaki around his particular style.

“We were going for West Coast–style sushi, which is lighter and cleaner and more about the freshness of the food than fried food and cream cheese and soy sauce,” Chef Anderson says. “The further West you go and when you get to Japan, everything is about the fish; there’s none of the fried stuff.”

Chef Anderson, a trained sushi chef himself who formerly headed the hot kitchen side at Mura, brought his ideas for that heartier balance to the menu. This includes playful takes on traditional Japanese dishes in the form of tsukune ramen with chicken meatballs and yuzu aioli; Ishiyake beef, or sliced Black Angus steak cooked tableside on a hot stone; and karaage, a sweet and spicy Japanese-style fried chicken.

For his part, Chef Sakamaki says he appreciated the help from Chef Anderson and the ease of the working relationship. “Johnnie really helped advise me how to create the menu and manage the restaurant,” he says. “If you work in a larger group, you get really great support from other chefs and managers, and it’s a very organized system.”

The pair worked together closely to design and build a new type of sushi restaurant that would make it easier for hot kitchen and sushi chefs to work together when plating. “Most sushi restaurants have a sushi bar and hot kitchen that aren’t connected so there’s little communication between both sides,” Chef Anderson says. “We set up Basan as a rectangle with the sushi bar still out front but backing up to a wide open hot kitchen separated by a table to plate dishes from both sides.”

Chef Anderson’s greatest challenge—in both menu and design—came with the dual openings of Basan and Faire Steak & Seafood within just a few weeks of one another, though this was not on purpose, he notes. Faire opened in October, followed by Basan in January. Construction challenges delayed the opening of Faire, a 6,000-square-foot space with a large kitchen, lounge, dining room, and private-dining enclave.


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