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Charlotte chefs prep tomorrow's culinary tastemakers




Fine dining restaurants are contradictory microcosms. Out front, guests sit in a quiet, linen-draped cocoon with solicitous servers moving quietly between tables. In back, cooks ply their trade amid noise, pressure, heat and ribaldry. We food lovers have absorbed an image of the professional kitchen as a place filled with shouting, knife-wielding maniacs kept under control only by an inhuman level of discipline. Thanks, Gordon Ramsey.

Of course, Charlotte is different. Whether it's the gracious Southern heart to our city, or a collective yearning for respect, most of the Queen City's top chefs approach their profession more congenially. The local restaurant celebrities featured on magazine covers and top 10 lists generously praise their peers, and readily give credit to the area's culinary pioneers like Bruce Moffett and Tim Groody, who loosened the steak-and-potatoes necktie formerly choking our banking town's style.

In recognition of the opportunities opened by their predecessors, many of today's leading chefs are doing the same for the fresh-faced cooks learning the trade in their own kitchens. Troll the Facebook pages of Davidson's Kindred or Waxhaw's Heritage restaurants and you'll see chefs Joe Kindred and Paul Verica consistently thank the assistants, cooks and sous chefs working elbow-to-elbow with them behind the pass. Underlying those thanks is an understanding that these behind-the-scenes teams will give rise to Charlotte's next generation of culinary leaders.

During his career spanning nearly 20 years in the city's culinary cauldron, Blake Hartwick of Bonterra restaurant has seen the birth of a culture that encourages chefs to actively mentor their subordinates.

"All these people that...have sustained a decade or more in Charlotte," he says. "They want to pass that along. They want to show these sous chefs that this is how we've done it, this is how it works, these are the skills that we think you need."

His current mentee, sous chef Mike Long, has worked — and learned — under Hartwick for six years.

"He gave me pointers on the first day, things I'd never heard before," says Long today. Seated together at Bonterra's bar on a quiet afternoon, the two joke like an old married couple, but it is clear that Hartwick is the leader. Says Long, "In our relationship, he knows when to be a friend and when to be a boss."

A literal stone's throw from this conversation (well, maybe if you're Cam Newton), lauded pastry chef Ashley Boyd enjoys a similar relationship with her assistants in the kitchen of 300 East. Ansley Rawlins came on board in 2014, and Miranda Brown a year later, and both have been spotted with Boyd at competitions and benefits around town.

In conversation, Boyd and Brown speak admiringly of each other, though for the chef it's more about Brown's potential. Boyd feels an obligation to the talent she sees in the 22-year old assistant.

"I want her to always be learning," she says. "I want her to have learned as much as she possibly can before she goes." Part of that learning includes Brown working a second position back over at Bonterra, with her boss' full blessing.

Not every cook has the chops to draw such support from his or her leader, but every chef interviewed for this story pointed to the same quality needed in their Number Two: drive.

"You can tell the ones who get it," says chef Paul Verica of Heritage Food & Drink in Waxhaw, regularly found at the top of Charlotte's "best of" lists.

In his eyes, worthy cooks demonstrate "a sense of urgency and a desire; a willingness to learn and to take criticism." And it doesn't matter to Verica if his "go-to person" happens to be his own 20-year old son Alex.

"My responsibility with all of my cooks is to make them better at our craft," he says. "To push them to be better; to have them push me to be better."

Dedicated chefs spot that drive immediately. Hartwick saw it in his sous chef from the beginning. "Mike was a young version of who I was at his age," he says. "He was hungry; he wanted to soak everything up."

And at 300 East, Boyd says of her own protégée, "I knew after the first day that I could definitely work with [Miranda]... She obviously was a hard worker, but also asked a lot of questions and was careful to make sure she understood."

While the developing cooks have plenty of technical skills to learn from their mentors, their formation goes beyond prepping and plating. Long says one of his strengths today is turning over the reins to his own cooks, instead of trying to do everything himself.

"You have to learn how to delegate and how to teach people new things," he says, proving he's already taken a page out of his mentor's book.

And though Brown looks forward to leading her own pastry program some day, she still feels the need for continued experience. "There are so many aspects like learning how to choose your vendors and menu production," she says, "Tiny little things that, to be a good pastry chef, you have to know all of them."

From his long experience in Charlotte, Hartwick sees a larger context for the successful development of the next culinary generation. Having established close relationships with his own peers through collaborative benefit dinners and similar events, he's seeking to reproduce those opportunities for Long and his cohort.

Last October, Bonterra hosted a "Sous" dinner featuring the seconds-in-command from restaurants like Heritage, Block & Grinder and Passion8. Hartwick hopes to repeat the event, perhaps as soon as April, and hopefully with a shifting team of protégés.

Not only will this give the dining public a chance to meet tomorrow's notable chefs, but it continues a trend of remarkable professional collegiality in the Queen City's kitchens.

"In the last eight years it's gotten to be even more of a culture and a brother- and sisterhood," he says, citing the rise of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, a Charlotte-based nonprofit tying together chefs, farmers and other food artisans (as well as food writers, including this one).

By bringing together the upcoming talent from kitchens around the city, Hartwick wants to catalyze another round of professional ties.

"The ones underneath us are going to be the new generation in Charlotte," he says. "They need to make that bond." In so doing, he hopes that his own generation of chef leaders will pass on a legacy started twenty years ago.