Chef Paul Verica didn’t want his son Alex to follow in his footsteps.
“We tried so hard talking him out of it,” he says. “It’s a hard life. Hard work, you don’t make a lot of money.”
But when Verica took the biggest gamble of his life three years ago, leaving a well-paid job at a country club to open Heritage Food & Drink, his small fine-dining restaurant in Waxhaw, he also took another risk: He brought along Alex, now 20, as a chef in training.
“When I decided to jump off the bridge, he and I had a lengthy discussion,” Verica says. He warned Alex how hard it would be.
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Alex still wanted in: “There’s so much more we can be.”
On Father’s Day, Alex will run the kitchen for brunch as he does every Sunday. Paul might come in to help, but he’ll mostly stay out of the way.
There are a lot of names we call our fathers: Dad, daddy, pappa. Alex Verica calls his father only one thing: “Chef. Always ‘Chef.’ ”
“My mom comes in and is like, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know where Chef is.’ ”
For now, anyway, that’s the way Paul and Alex Verica both want it.
First, scare him
No, this wasn’t always the way Paul Verica wanted it.
For eight years, Verica was executive chef at the Club at Longview, the country club in Weddington. He built a reputation as one of Charlotte’s most inventive chefs: one of the first to put in a serious kitchen garden, to adopt locally grown food, to play with the foams and flash of modern cuisine.
Alex, the oldest of his three kids, always liked to cook. When he was 7 or 8, he and Paul made ravioli from scratch, hand-cranking the pasta. Paul remembers it as a disaster – it took hours. But Alex wasn’t discouraged.
“He keeps coming back for more,” Paul says.
At 16, Paul let him work at the club, running plates in the dining room. In the kitchen, Alex would find a spot to lean over and observe his father.
“I’d just watch him flip pans,” he says. “There’s so much you can learn just watching.”
The country club life was good to Paul. The pay was great, and he had a big staff that gave him the flexibility to do things with his kids, go to ball games and recitals. That’s why he stayed so long.
But he was unhappy, too. He needed to break out and make his own food. On his 40th birthday three years ago, his wife, Kit, finally said it.
“She looked at me and was like, ‘I don’t want to live with you for the next 20 years if it stays like this. You’re miserable.’ ”
That summer, Verica handed in his notice. He pulled together $135,000, a shoestring in fine-dining, and found a little building in Waxhaw, 30 minutes south of Charlotte. And Alex wanted to be part of the plan.
But first, Paul wanted him to be sure. He sent Alex to Luca Annunziata at Passion8 with instructions to work him hard.
“His father said to push him,” Annunziata says. “I gave him the run – I made him miserable. I really pushed him.
“He made it through. He’s passionate, he’s listening, he’s respectful.”
Alex came back “with the light in his eyes,” Paul says. So he finally agreed, saying, “All right, cool. If you’re going to do this and I’m going to teach you, you gotta be better than me. That’s the mentality I want you to have.”
If you’re going to do this and I’m going to teach you, you gotta be better than me. That’s the mentality I want you to have.
Paul Verica, to his son Alex
The kind of chef you’ll be
The first year of Heritage was tough on everyone. Opening the restaurant wasn’t the scariest thing he had ever done – that was parenthood, hands down. But it was a big gamble with his family’s future.
“I had him at 22, and that scared the living daylights out of me,” Paul Verica says. “But this was by far the biggest risk.”
Alex started as dishwasher, then stepped up to prep cook, learning knife work and cutting vegetables and meat. Like a lot of chefs, Paul has a temper in the kitchen, what he calls “a spiral of mad.” When things went wrong, Paul would let loose with a string of profanity. It got so bad sometimes that if Kit Verica was around, she’d leave the restaurant. She couldn’t stand watching Paul be so hard on their son.
Sometimes Alex would take it personally. “And that sucked,” Paul admits. But he felt he had to do it, had to push them all to be better.
“It’s tough,” Alex says of his father’s criticism. He admits it hurt him at first, “when I was younger and thought I was better than I was.”
Alex graduated a semester early from Ardrey Kell High School. He went over to Johnson & Wales University for a tour.
“I picked up a brochure and I saw ‘$32,000’ (tuition) and thought, ‘No thanks.’ ”
He tried Central Piedmont Community College for a semester but quit. A classroom wasn’t where he wanted to be, he says.
Working as a prep cook, getting comfortable with a knife in his hand, was what showed him he really could do this job.
“It was just basic stuff,” he says. “But basic stuff is the building block of everything else. That’s the stuff that shows the kind of chef you’re going to be.”
Basic stuff is the building block of everything else. That’s the stuff that shows the kind of chef you’re going to be.
Alex at 20 is a skinny young man with a blond ponytail and wispy beard. He could pass for a surfer, or the skateboarder he was before he gave it up for work.
In the kitchen, he’s serious and quiet, only rarely cracking a smile. He moves with a steady confidence, following his father’s nightly work sheet, paying close attention to the clock. He’s still a kid, though – when they start work, his first move is to set up a portable speaker and load music on his phone, a mix list that leans heavily toward grunge.
Paul sees him asking questions about the business and pushing to do more creative cooking. Every week, he trains with pastry chef Ashley Bivens Boyd and takes charge of finishing the desserts while she returns to her other job at 300 East.
On the menu, one of their most popular items are the deviled eggs, always a classic version and an “Of the Day” that changes often. “Of the Day” deviled eggs are now listed as “Alex’s.” He picks the flavors, like roasted garlic and curry or pimento cheese and pork belly.
“He wants my station (saute),” Paul jokes. “I see him peering over my shoulder.”
Harder than ever
The kitchen at Heritage is tiny, with barely enough room for the two Vericas, assistant chef Logan Wright, who also works at the Club at Longview, and dishwasher/chef’s assistant Pete Wooten. It’s as hot as a laundromat in August, hitting 95 degrees and higher on a summer afternoon. Everyone coordinates their movements, murmuring “sharp, sharp, sharp” when they take a step with knife in hand.
Paul’s gamble on Heritage is paying off. After Charlotte magazine named it the city’s best restaurant in January, they’ve been slammed, seating 60 or 70 people every weekend night and 30 to 40 many weeknights, most coming from Charlotte. Alex often works 12-hour days. Paul is putting in 90 to 100 hours a week “and making less money than I ever have.”
Since the day Heritage opened, Paul has worn a Philadelphia Eagles baseball cap. It’s so grimy, you can barely tell the original color. Alex wears a Villanova ball cap – Philadelphia’s college team. It’s already streaked white from sweat.
The two of them work together so smoothly that Alex can duck under Paul’s arm to grab an ingredient without either of them slowing down. Sometimes, Paul rests a hand, briefly, on Alex’s back or calls out, “You OK, Punky?” –his mother’s nickname for him.
Alex’s reply: “Yes, Chef.”
To grow as a chef, Alex will have to leave Heritage someday. He admits that he thinks about it, about going off to a big restaurant city like Chicago, New York or San Francisco.
For now, though, he just shrugs off the question.
“That’s not what’s best for this place.”
Paul Verica never got to cook a meal for his own father. They had a big fight when he was a teenager and were estranged for years, until just before his father died of cancer.
It isn’t lost on him, this time working as his son’s teacher. Today, on Father’s Day, Alex may be cooking for other people’s fathers. But he’s cooking for his own father, too.
Heritage Food & Drink
Where: 201 W. South Main St., Waxhaw.
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Contact: 704-843-5236; www.heritagefoodanddrink.com.