The truth is, Charlotte has had an ever-growing group of talented chefs for the past 10 years. Chefs in Charlotte have trained under such star-powered and diverse chefs as Daniel Boulud, Charlie Palmer, and Alain Ducasse in New York; Todd English in Boston; Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans, Michael Mina at Aqua in San Francisco; Mark Miller at Coyote Cafe in Sante Fe; Jean LaFont in Dallas; and Ben Barker in Durham.
Some local chefs have also trained with would-be future celebrity chefs: chef Axel Dikkers, who once owned Pastis and Cafe Saigon, apprenticed with Wolfgang Puck at the late Chef Raymond Thuillier's Michelin three-star Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux, France.
In Charlotte, many chefs have done stints in a variety of local kitchens, which contributes to the trickiest part of being a food writer here: keeping track of which chef is where. For example, Axel Dikkers' sous chef at Pastis when it opened was Mark Martin, a graduate and instructor at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Vermont. Martin now owns Ethan's of Elizabeth. His sous chef used to be Jamie Lynch, also a graduate of NECI. But Lynch left Ethan's to help his friends at Dish start up their kitchen and now Lynch works in the kitchen of Executive Chef Gene Brigg, formerly of Bistro 100, at Blue Restaurant & Bar downtown. Meanwhile Larry Schreiber, a Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, who used to be the sous chef at Barrington's Restaurant, owned by another CIA graduate Bruce Moffett, now works as the sous chef at Ethan's. Got that? And that's just one link.
Sonoma Bistro's and Town Restaurant's chef and co-owner Tim Groody, a graduate of the CIA, has a lengthy and impressive list of notable chefs with whom he's worked, including Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque, Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Lafayette, and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grille in Durham. Groody also notes how he reads the trade publications to keep up with folks he once worked with in other kitchens. "I try to keep track of Alex (Alessandro) Stratta who is now at Renoir in the Mirage Las Vegas Resort and Lee Hanson who is chef at Balthazar in New York. I worked with both of them at Le Cirque."
For other chefs, keeping up with who you worked with turns oddly coincidental. Tobin McAfee, chef owner of Sir Edmund Halley's, tells the story of applying for a job at Todd English's Olive's in Boston. "English asked me to work on the line that night and I did. Although I didn't take the job at Olive's, years later here in Charlotte I ran across Bill Walker, who is the chef at the Cajun Queen. I realized he was the guy who was standing next to me on the line at Olive's."
Chef Robert "Otto" Graham, owner of Otto's Knife & Fork, is a graduate of the CIA, interned at New York's Rainbow Room, worked with renowned New York chef of Italian cuisine Gennaro Piccone as well as traveled the culinary circuit in Charlotte. He became part of the opening kitchen crew at LaVecchia under Groody, the Chef du Cuisine at Upstream, the Executive Chef at Toscano, and the Executive Chef who opened Luce. "You learn from each experience," Graham said.
Bistro 100's Executive Chef French-native Mickael Blais worked with the legendary chef Joel Robuchon in Paris, as well as Daniel Boulud and the Michelin-honored Alain Ducasse in New York. Chef owner Stratos Lambos of Ilios Noche, a CIA graduate, worked with Charlie Palmer in his Aureole in New York.
Chef Geoff Bragg at the Peaceful Dragon is a Johnson & Wales graduate who came to Charlotte after working in Charleston restaurants. In Charlotte he worked with Ciro Marino, now chef owner of Campania, at the former Cafe Milan, and in Blake Dewey's kitchen at Pewter Rose for seven years.
Another fine albeit less known culinary circuit is the country club route. Jim Alexander, chef and co-owner of Zebra Bar & Grill and graduate of the CIA, came out of Myers Park Country Club. Tim Henderson, chef and owner of Vidalia & Grapes and graduate of Johnson & Wales in Charleston, was in the country club circuit for a long time, first as the Executive Chef at the South Carolina Yacht Club in Hilton Head and then at the Peninsula Yacht Club on Lake Norman. Bruce Moffett, a CIA graduate who has worked in Boston's Metropolis Cafe and L'Efoffier, is the owner of Barrington's. He also worked at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. Moffett said, "A guy I worked with at Cherokee, Mike Vergili, is the new head chef at Carmel Country Club and Paul Sartory, who had been head chef at Myers Park Country Club, was one of my instructors at the CIA."
What does all this connectivity mean to Charlotte? For one thing it demonstrates that the footing is already here in Charlotte before the arrival of Johnson & Wales. This is a benefit that will help the J&W students who will be working in area restaurants. Another positive benefit has been a limit to resume inflation. Fifteen years ago, before the influx of CIA, Johnson & Wales, NECI, and other culinary school graduates and trained culinarians, a chef could boast about working under a noted chef at a legendary restaurant. One chef told me, "One guy was bragging how he had worked at a famous New York restaurant until me and this other guy who actually worked at that restaurant came to town. We couldn't figure out when he had worked there. Now he doesn't make that claim anymore."
But perhaps the most important part about these links is how it raises the bar for Charlotte's culinary community. Chefs work in a creative learning environment and the more input from different sources, the broader the base of knowledge. Those of us who appreciate our fine local chefs' excellent creations are reaping the benefits of all these expanding connections.
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