New Man Behind the Menu

Eric Mendoza takes the reins as new head chef at The Lakely

Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Chef Eric Mendoza has run back-of-house in farm-to-table restaurants in Alaska and Utah, using skills developed at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
Chef Eric Mendoza has run back-of-house in farm-to-table restaurants in Alaska and Utah, using skills developed at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

In early July, the wind blew Chef Nathan Berg along his way, and Chef Eric Mendoza into his spot as head chef at The Lakely, 516 Galloway St., Eau Claire. Mendoza comes to Eau Claire’s locally sourced downtown restaurant from California, where he headed up the kitchen at several Napa Valley farm-to-table establishments.  He has run back-of-house in farm-to-table restaurants and boutique hotels in Alaska and Utah, armed with the skills and techniques he developed at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

“I’ve kind of always been in the midst of working in a farm-to-table place,” Mendoza said. But he and Berg say that in the industry, phrases such as “farm-to-table” and “locally sourced” are beginning to go without saying.

“That’s almost taken for granted now, because if you want to serve the best food you just buy good fresh stuff that’s as close removed from the ground as possible,” Berg said. “At this point they’re not even calling it farm-to-table, they’re just calling it the best ingredients.”

“Food has healing powers – people have known that for eons.” – Eric Mendoza, head chef at The Lakely

Mendoza says that The Lakely’s mission runs parallel to that of the restaurants he has worked in all over the Western United States. “That’s why I was so excited to work here, even as a server initially,” he said. He came on with The Lakely at the start of the year as front-of-house staff, eventually moving into the kitchen. When Berg decided it was time to move on from the restaurant, business leadership (which, for full disclosure, includes Volume One Publisher Nick Meyer), invited Mendoza to take on the challenge.

He has spent the past several months planning meals and menus, familiarizing himself with The Lakely’s operations, and making connections with local farmers. Networking with suppliers is one of the most important aspects of Mendoza’s role, as he collaborates with growers to get the ingredients he needs to plan creative Midwestern meals. But being a newcomer to the area hasn’t set him back; one mention that he is a Packers fan was enough to ingratiate him with the people he works with (even though his No. 1 team is the Chargers).

Mendoza also works as a personal trainer and nutrition coach in the Chippewa Valley, and is passionate about the relationship between food and health. Organic farming and local sourcing are what connect healthy eating with mouth-watering cuisine, he said. “Food has healing powers – people have known that for eons,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza is planning on keeping true to The Lakely’s mission of serving up delicious, locally sourced food in a comfortable, friendly atmosphere.

“The fun part is going to be trying to figure out how my California style meshes with the Midwest,” he said.

The latest seasonal menu at The Lakely, which Mendoza created with Berg’s input, includes the restaurant’s signature koldtbord appetizer, chicken pot pie, housemade fettuccine, and marinated skirt steak among various other tantalizing dishes.

“Every chef puts their own stamp on a thing, and I’m excited to see what Eric’s is because he’s been awesome to work with in the short time that we’ve had,” Berg said.

The Lakely is open for dinner Sunday-Thursday from 5-9pm, and Friday and Saturday from 5-10pm. Catch brunch on weekends 7am-1pm. For more information, including entertainment schedules and special event announcements, visit theoxbowhotel.com/lakely.