When Top Chef alum and Taste the Culture host Justin Sutherland visits a new city, one of the first priorities is scoping out a good egg sandwich. He’ll ask hotel clerks and bartenders for their favorites. He’ll prioritize a visit to Black Seed Bagels when in New York. And, historically, when visiting Portland, he’s popped into Kenny & Zuke’s for breakfast.
Soon, Sutherland will be the one supplying the breakfast sandwich goods to tourists and locals: The Twin-Cities-based chef will soon open his first restaurant outside Minnesota in downtown Portland. Big E, set to open in the Moxy hotel this week, will serve snow crab, steak, and smoked salmon sandwiches, all topped with eggs ranging from fried to hard-boiled.
Big E is a nod to Biggie Smalls, one of Sutherland’s favorite rappers; all of the sandwiches at Big E are named for specific musicians or songs that he loves, including Biggie. In true homage, It Was All a Dream stacks steak, American cheese, a fried egg, and Welches’ grape jelly on an Oyatsupan milk bun, a nod to the lyric in “Big Poppa.” The C.R.E.A.M. sandwich, a nod to Wu-Tang and New York, combines hard-boiled egg, smoked salmon, Tillamook cream cheese, and caper aioli. Sandwiches and the songs that inspire them vary in genre, so to speak: Her Name is Yoshimi, an allusion to the Flaming Lips, pairs lump crab with pickled daikon, with a pile of scrambled eggs and miso aioli. The fennel-sausage-egg-and-cheese, Somebody to Love, is a Jefferson Airplane reference. And, for a little hometown pride, Sutherland’s ode to Prince — When Doves Cry, naturally — combines scrambled egg, wilted spinach, hummus, and feta.
Sutherland grew up watching PBS cooking show Yan Can Cook, hosted by Bay Area celebrity chef Martin Yan, with his grandmothers — one a Japanese immigrant, the other straight out of the American South. While one rolled sushi and dredged tonkatsu, the other stirred collard greens and baked mac and cheese. They both had a profound impact on his love of food; he ended up asking for an Easy-Bake oven for his fifth birthday, eventually leveling up to culinary school in Atlanta.
“I have soul food on one side, Japanese on the other, my grandfather is from Norway, so he’s Scandinavian — we grew up eating very globally, and that’s how I grew up treating food,” he says. “For me, it was really having that flavor catalog in my head.”
Sutherland carried that flavor catalog into some of the most celebrated restaurants in Minneapolis, including French destination Meritage. Sutherland opened his own restaurant, the Handsome Hog, in 2016, serving dishes like braised oxtail, crispy pig-ears, and head-on shrimp and grits. Soon afterward, he started overseeing a slew of restaurants as the head of Madison Restaurant Group, serving everything from seafood to Minnesota standards. In 2019, Eater Twin Cities named Sutherland its Chef of the Year, partially thanks to “the single best bite of fried chicken we encountered this year,” served at Sutherland’s O Banchan.
In recent years, Sutherland also began following in Yan’s footsteps, appearing on various food shows: He beat Chopped judge Alex Guarnaschelli on Iron Chef America in 2018 before appearing on Top Chef’s 16th season. Following his runs on two popular culinary competitions, he moved from guest to host, visiting BIPOC-owned restaurants on the food and travel show Taste the Culture, while also regularly competing with other Top Chef alumni on the show Fast Foodies.
Now that the chef has developed a name for himself on the national stage, Sutherland has felt the urge to rebuild his restaurant presence. Many of the chef’s restaurants closed over the course of the pandemic, and Sutherland has learned from the last two famously tumultuous years: Instead of reopening a number of high-end, tasting menu restaurants, he’s more interested in starting more casual, counter-service spots in the Twin Cities and beyond.
“I’ve run 11 full-service restaurants in my day,” Sutherland says. “I wanted to find a concept that could be multi-location, multi-city, transferable ... With the changes of the pandemic, it made sense to switch to different models.”
So the first Big E, opening tonight in the Moxy hotel’s Food Cart Alley, will not be the last: Sutherland is already eyeing future locations, including more in Portland.
“I love Portland, it’s been one of my favorite places,” Sutherland says. “It reminds me a lot of Minnesota, the vibe and music and culture — it’s a place I’ve always enjoyed coming to.”
Big E is located at 585 SW 10th Avenue, and will open for full hours on Tuesday, June 7. See the full menu here.