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3 questions with Greg Zanitsch, chef at The Fig Tree

The co-owner of the Elizabeth restaurant admits cooking is about finding the right balance

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Tucked behind three fig trees in Charlotte's scenic Elizabeth neighborhood sits a bungalow with a story. In 1913, it was the home of the Charlotte Evening Chronicle managing editor, John Paul Lucas; in the '70s it became an antique shop and today it's been transformed into a restaurant, The Fig Tree (www.charlottefigtree.com), which specializes in seasonal French and Italian cuisine.

Like the palatable pairing of an entrée with a glass of wine, elegant décor complements the craftsman charm of the historic Lucas House. For co-owner and executive chef Greg Zanitsch, cooking has always been about striking the perfect balance. "There's a creative side, but you can't get too creative and you can't be too scientific," he says. After culinary training and experience across the country, Zanitsch decided to settle in Charlotte with his wife. They immediately began renovating the Lucas House and opened The Fig Tree Restaurant in March 2005, offering a seasonally changing menu and a wine list of almost 30 pages.

Creative Loafing: What made you want to be a chef?

Greg Zanitsch: I was working in restaurants through college, and I found that I liked the restaurant industry more than I liked college. I graduated and went to New England Culinary Institute in Burlington, Vermont. The culinary school I was really happy with. They did a good job in training, but they also had a lot of connections to world-class restaurants, so I was able to go to Hawaii and open up the Ritz Carlton in Maui immediately after school. I left there and went to Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley.

The restaurant got its name from the fig tree that grew in the backyard — is it still there? Do you use any figs in your recipes?

We struggled with a name for a while, and we decided on Fig Tree because there was a giant fig tree. When we were doing renovations, we were going to transplant, but the roots had grown so far into the house that the architect decided to just cut it down. So, we bought three fig trees and planted them in front of our sign. We do use the figs, and when we cut them back, we use the wood to smoke, and we wrap fish in the leaves, which is very good. They take a while to get ripe, and the birds get to them fast, so we have a very short window in Charlotte to use them, but we do use them. Right now, our most popular dish with them is a risotto, which is fig and pig risotto, so it's barbeque, fig, risotto and parmesan cheese. We'll do some appetizers and a stuffed tart.

How would you describe your cooking style?

Classical. I try to stay pretty grounded in country European with a French and Italian influence. I don't follow too many trends. It's very simple. I try to keep things basic with high quality ingredients and let them speak for themselves, manipulate them the best we can. We do a lot of wine pairing, so I like things that are versatile with wine. The veal chop is probably my favorite dish. Oregon Pinot Noir is a very nice pair with that.

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