I'm not ashamed to admit that I've biked to Providence and back on the East Bay Bike path just to earn lunch at Eli's Kitchen in Warren. There's lots of variety on the menu and there are certainly lighter options, but I often end up with my pal the Cubano, the juices of citrus and oregano braised pork on my chin, a full stomach and a dumb smile. That's mission accomplished for a restaurant doing comfort food. It's no surprise that after opening in May 2014, Eli's has fit so convincingly into its spot in the center of Warren that now it's hard to imagine the town without it. I talked to head chef and owner Eli Dunn about the business of comforting.
Where does your love of comfort food come from?
I think my love of comfort food can be traced back to the simple yet incredibly delicious meals my mother used to make for our family when we all lived under the same roof. She had a way of making a humble meatloaf exquisitely satisfying using nothing but a few basic pantry staples. I found great comfort in her food and the experience of eating together as a family. I miss those days.
You cook different cuisines as well as for different diets. How do you keep all this running in a small kitchen, and how do you get all these different things together in a way that feels integrated on a menu?
It's definitely a balancing act. Here at Eli's we tend to get carried away with butter, salt, fat, et cetera… for a chef it can be a challenge to use restraint when composing menus. I use the seasons as my guide most of the time. For example, we serve many more seafood, salads, vegetable sides and cold soups in the late spring and summer months when the local farms and waters are teeming with delicious food. As the weather cools off we start to serve heartier dishes like braises, stews, pasta [and] roasts. It's a challenge to make it all happen in our tiny kitchen but I'm lucky to be surrounded by a talented team of cooks who all come from different culinary backgrounds. My goal when I opened was to have "something for everyone" on my menu, and so far I've been able to pull that off.
A place with your name on it is certainly the culmination of lots of hard work in the restaurant industry. What are the best things and worst things about the buck stopping with you as the owner and head chef of a restaurant?
I was told early on that you have to be a little bit crazy to want to run a restaurant. After a year and a half of business, I've found that statement to be true! I work ridiculously long hours and although my family and I live comfortably, I'm definitely not getting rich. My biggest challenge is being both a chef and a businessman. I wish I could focus on cooking 100% of the time, but invariably some other aspect of keeping a business running pulls me out of the kitchen and down into my office (my least favorite place to be). All that being said, I absolutely love what I do and although it can be overwhelming at times, I can't imagine doing anything else.
Tell me about some of your regulars.
We have the best regulars on the planet. We've become a sort of "family" restaurant, which is an unexpected but wonderful surprise. I love that our guests trust my food enough to bring their kids to Eli's. As a new parent myself, I know how difficult it is to go out and find food that both you and your children will enjoy. We launched a children's menu last year and it's been a great success. We make gluten free chicken nuggets, homemade pizza, kid size burgers, quesadillas. I've had more than one tiny guest tell me that my kid burger was "the best they've ever had." Those are my favorite compliments.
What have been your fondest memories of your time at Eli's thus far.
I'll never forget making buttermilk biscuits one Sunday morning in early June 2014 and getting a phone call from my wife to tell me she was pregnant. That was a special moment for me.
40 Market Street, Warren