It’s no small feat to coordinate an evening with twelve of Charlotte’s busiest culinary professionals, restaurateurs and creative minds, let alone coax them into preparing a potluck style dish for an intimate dinner discussion inside a trolley. It all came together rather seamlessly thanks to the persuasive magic of SouthPark Magazine editor Sarah Crosland and the design perfection of the brotherly duo known as The Plaid Penguin who, along with their cohorts, Lunahzon Photography and the team at Relish Carolina curated the scene for a sophisticated, yet cozy, evening of candid conversation between Charlotte’s most creative culinary minds. Held inside the Atherton Market, the first ever Trolley Potluck dinner combined rustic decor and raw market space with elegant dinner settings inside a historic SouthEnd trolley. Mixology Magician Bob Peters of Pisces Sushi prepared the aperitif- a modernized version of The Last Word, a classic cocktail made of barrel roasted Cardinal Gin, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino Liqueur and fresh lime, carbonated with a Perlini carbonated cocktail system for an effervescent, aromatic tongue loosener. Guests trickled in carrying their contribution for the evening. Chef Kris Reid of Southminster Retirement Community dubbed the Culinary Crusader arrived carrying supplies to assemble a strictly local version of strawberry shortcakes for the dessert course. Next, Chef Alyssa Gorelick of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen and Chef Chris Coleman of The Asbury arrived with two incredible versions of a salad course. Meanwhille, the young guns continued to file in, Chef Jamie Lynch of 5Church and the “new guy” Chef Rocco Whalen of Fahrenheit Restaurant, the newest addition to Charlotte by way of Cleveland. Jill Marcus of Mother Earth Group arrived in grand bohemian fashion bearing a large wooden platter. I carried in the fresh North Carolina oysters that were to grace the tree-sized serving vessel she carried. Then, one by one, in walked Tom, Tim, Frank and Bruce– four individuals on a first name basis with Charlotte’s foodie set and a rather startling collection of Charlotte veterans and pioneers. For those less familiar, that would be Chef Tom Condron of The Liberty Pub and the new upscale French restaurant, Lumiere; Bruce Moffett of Moffett Restaurant Group, the man behind Barrington’s Good Food on Montford and Stagioni; Frank Scibelli, seasoned restaurateur and owner of Mama Ricotta’s, Midwood Smokehouse, Pacos Taco’s and Tequila, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar and Plate Perfect Catering and finally, farm to table pioneer Tim Groody, owner of Fork! in Cornelius. The caliber of my company had not escaped me up until that point, but something rather surreal came over me as I watched these individuals fill the space, connecting with their peers, some with relationships decades old, to talk about the Charlotte’s culinary community. This doesn’t happen every day, I thought. My next thought? I may never eat this well again. As we all stepped into the trolley, squeezing in side by side, I knew a lively conversation was in order and that this trolley was poised for yet another historic ride. We talked of Charlotte’s past and its future, the strengths and weaknesses of the culinary community and of perception and collaboration. Here is an excerpt of the conversation as it unfolded.
How have you seen the Charlotte culinary scene evolve over the years? Tom Condron: I’ve been here since 1998 when I worked at Mimosa Grill. On a Saturday night, we would literally go out and play soccer on Tryon Street after a shift. When I first moved here, it was all about national restaurants and there weren’t many small, independent restaurants. Now, it’s totally the opposite. I think Charlotte’s got a great scene going on. Frank Scibelli: When I opened Mama Ricotta’s 22 years ago, you couldn’t get fresh mozzarella in this town. We had to make our own. Tim Groody: The choice of local products has grown ten fold. Fifteen years ago, the markets were limited to produce and baked products, now meats and cheeses are commonplace. The word “local” has grown to a greater mile distance.
What about the perception that Charlotte is a meat and potatoes town? Bruce Moffett: I recently attended the Charleston Wine and Food Festival and was talking to a guy that produces great lamb out of Virginia and he asked where I lived. When I told him I lived in Charlotte he said, ‘I don’t bother to come to Charlotte because there is no one there that will buy my product’. There is a perception that Charlotte is a soulless food community,that it’s not even worth coming here. It’s misguided, but he’s not the only one that thinks that. Tim Groody: When I was in uptown [working at Sonoma], the public changed. We had people coming in that were regulars that disappeared. Charlotte seems to be a transient town- they came to Bank of America, they came to Wachovia and then they would get promoted and move out. Charlotte got on the map with banking and that’s when the chains started to come grabbing that crowd. It’s a meat and potatoes town, it’s always been a meat and potatoes town. Bruce Moffett: I think we have had this ‘Charlotte is a meat and potatoes town’ rammed down our throat so much that we actually believe it now. And that’s what gets written about and that’s the perception. I think if we all work together, we can start to undermine that too.
I’m sitting here with people who have had restaurants in this town for over 20 years, people who are using local farmers and producers and people who put beautiful food on a plate. We are obviously so much more than meat and potatoes.
How do we, as a food community, make noise about our city? Bob Peters: We take time to educate. The cocktail world follows behind the food world, I have to take the time to talk to each person I serve. Tom Condron: It’s up to you, actually. The print media needs to put Charlotte on the map. Chefs and restaurateurs do their part everyday. The print media needs to push past this perception of Charlotte being a second class city. Frank Scibelli: I think if we continue to do what we’re doing and continue to keep our head down and do good work, ultimately we’re going to get noticed. Jill Marcus: I think the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA) is really trying to promote Charlotte as a cultural city but they don’t know how to take the chefs or the culinary scene and get it there. Reach out to them because they want to help. Kris Reid: We, as chefs, have to go outside the kitchen. Our chefs can make an impact nationally if we create a united front. Why don’t we do something that other cities aren’t? Why don’t we make a really big impact and create a more sustainable food culture and drive the city to make changes?
Does the city make it easy for the independent restaurant? Jamie Lynch: I think the city of Charlotte is a good point. Our city is really difficult to work with. (Frank Scibelli nods in agreement) I got my health inspection Friday of last week. It had been a year since my last inspection. I was calling the health inspector myself. Frank Scibelli: The consistency is crazy. They [the Health Department] are so inconsistent in how they do it and what they look for, it’s frustrating to do business. Kris Reid: Do you think other difficulties with the city have anything to do with lease agreements and retail value? Jamie Lynch: Absolutely! 100%. Landlords want that corporate guarantee. Frank can speak to that. Frank Scibelli: The big issue is the real estate costs. The rents are too high, the economics don’t work. But, it’s a game you have to know how to play. Jill Marcus: How can a small, independent restaurant pay $18,000 a month?!
What are some of Charlotte’s strengths? Chris Coleman: There’s alot of farms. We’re surrounded. We’ve got the coast 100 miles away and the mountains. We’ve got an abundance of things that other places in the country wish they had. I feel like there are more and more chefs plugging into that and that’s what’s driving the food scene here. My generation, we’re following what Tim Groody, Tom Condron and Bruce Moffett did. Tim Groody: We’re seeing changes at farmer’s markets, young guys who are farming and doing incredible stuff. Jamie Lynch: Look at this table, this is the culinary strength of Charlotte. Joe Haubenhofer: We have chefs willing to take a risk, young and old. We have a strong cocktail scene, fresh markets and an abundance of farmers, we have community gatherings and dinner clubs, we have a plentiful fleet of mobile options and authentic ethnic.
Its weaknesses? Chris Coleman: I feel like it’s all sports bars and high end places, there’s very few in between. That’s what Charlotte is lacking. Bruce Moffett: I think at times we all feel that the dining public is so small, that we’re a little more competitive than we need to be and a little less collaborative than we should be. Joe Haubenhofer: Highly acclaimed destination restaurants, at least in the progressive, highly crafted cuisine category, is an area where Charlotte is not excelling for one reason or another. Not for the lack of efforts by any particular restaurateur, chef or group, but as a whole. We have national worthy destination spots- Rooster’s, Halcyon, Stagioni, Barrington’s, Asbury, Fig tree, Customshop, 5 Church- but they are not getting recognition. It seems that when “destination restaurants” and Charlotte are mentioned in the same sentence, the focus is centered around railroad side fried chicken or drive-in burger joints. It’s a slippery slope if we allow our food story to become permanently “branded” as that of a casual southern fried food city.
How do we continue to invest in a food culture? Alyssa Gorelick: You have to have consistency above all else. Rocco Whalen: I came here to take a chance on Charlotte and add to the already great scene going on here. I want to watch this city grow. It takes consistency, taking the accolades as they come and using them to pay it forward. Tim Groody: It’s the marketing. We need help getting Charlotte the national recognition it deserves. Charlotte is still the red-headed stepchild when it comes to North Carolina Travel and Tourism. Joe Haubenhofer: I think it comes back to education and the sexiness of marketing, visuals and branding. People come to a restaurant for an entire sensory experience. Jill Marcus: Charlotteans are going to need to support the small restaurateurs in this city instead of the larger steak house chains. The locally owned restaurants and talent are here, we just need to support their efforts. Otherwise, the creativity gives way to complacency on a plate. Kris Reid: We need to bring others [developers, city organizations, health department] to the table and get them to talk about how they can allow chefs to be innovative. Bruce Moffett: I think we have to own it. I think if we all agree that we have a great food scene, if we get comfortable with that thought, it’s going to get better. That’s a big start right there.
The night ended with a custom creation from Bob Peters- a digestif made of Fernet Branca, egg white, apple/rosemary/mint simple syrup and cayenne pepper. The group lingered long after the trolley meal ended, using this rare occasion to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. A wealth of ideas and perspectives passed through the air that night, though nothing spoke louder than the collective thread that ran through this group of passionate individuals– they all care deeply about this food community that we call Charlotte.
It must be said that no one, save an ethereal heritage pork meatloaf from Chef Jamie Lynch, served anything close to meat and potatoes.
Styled by Relish CarolinaDesigned by The Plaid Penguin