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Food, Frontward & Backward

Meditation and speculation on '03 and '04

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The year 2003 has brought the best of times and the worst of times for restaurant owners everywhere. They hope the recent fourth quarter recovery will not only continue, but also be reflected in the year-end bottom line. Assuming the economy stays steady, some exciting things should be happening here in the coming year. As 2003 winds down, this is where we stand, with a few looks back and a few more ahead.

First and foremost for food lovers, the opening of Johnson & Wales in 2004 could prove to be the Charlotte culinary landmark everyone has talked about. Just as the 2003 summer series Queer Eye brought gay style to a broad television audience, perhaps having the center city populated with a few thousand people who are serious about perfecting their palates will make a difference in Charlotte's culinary habits.

In 1999, I wished for four changes. First, I asked for more food competitions. Four years later, we had Food Network people covering Charlotte Shout's culinary events in September. Thousands of Charlotteans flocked to Gateway Village to watch local and "celebrity" chefs create and compete. Although Shout's barbecue component was for some reason relegated to a gravel parking lot and the health department wouldn't permit uninspected vendors (i.e., the barbecue contestants) to sell their wares, enough 'cue was given away to get a true taste of the talent presented.

In the spring, the annual Taste of the Nation competition became bigger than ever and not only raised money for local food banks, but once again allowed local chefs and cooks to take part in a friendly competition. Taste of the Nation is more inclusive than Charlotte Shout and is a larger, judged competition. In 2004, I hope Taste of the Nation and Charlotte Shout will seek the city's ethnic restaurants' participation. We have a lot of talent in this town, oftentimes in surprising places.

My second wish in 1999 was that we as a community would stop maligning our native cuisine and our local chefs. Since the early 1990s we've had many talented people in kitchens throughout Charlotte. When Johnson & Wales opens in 2004, the culinary students will be required to work in restaurants throughout Charlotte. Will overall quality improve? Yes.

In 1999, I wrote: "Are restaurants with creative culinary schooled chefs more popular than the glitzy corporate steak houses with their "kitchen technicians'? Nope." And still, four years later, faux restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory have a line out the door while many locally owned SouthPark restaurants manned by culinary school graduates do not. This essentially defines our community's biggest culinary problem.

More suburbs are predicted for Charlotte. Suburbanites are very often people who've moved from other suburban areas and are comfortable with that lifestyle. Faux restaurants gravitate to these areas, while adventurous local ethnic restaurant owners who venture into suburbia often subdue their national dishes in order to remain open.

Then I get the indignant emails: "I just moved here from Ohio/upstate New York/Boston/Atlanta and can't find a really good Chinese/Indian/ Italian restaurant!" Have they been anywhere along Central Avenue? Well, no. Have they tried our Latino restaurants? No.

Well, get out there and try them, folks. The city's best reasonably priced ethnic restaurants are in Charlotte's ethnic enclaves that currently reflect the lastest influx of immigrants into the US: Mexican and Central American, southeast Asian, and Caribbean. Rents are lower in those areas than newly built suburban shopping centers and the customer base is built-in. Charlotte is fortunate to have a number of good Vietnamese, Thai, and Latino restaurants and Caribbean restaurants are sprouting up across the city.

Last spring I wrote about the plethora of locally owned restaurants that had closed: over 380 restaurants shut their doors between July 1, 2001, and March 18, 2003. Under-capitalization is the most common reason, along with poor restaurant management: non-payment of taxes and rents is a quick way to find yourself out of business. Opening in the wrong location is another. Fortunately for future restaurateurs, Johnson & Wales offers a business school program -- yet another positive benefit for the community.

The past year brought the close of the venerable Restaurant Tokyo, but the opening of Saigon Cafe. Mr. Le retired from Taste of Asia, but we gained Joy Lucky. In the fallout from Atkins dieters, 2003 wasn't a great year for bakeries generally, but locally, more Mexican bakeries popped up. One of my fondest hopes for 2004 is the opening of a European pastry shop. Maybe two. I spoke with Kim Ortego, the manager of Charleston's Ambrosia Bread & Pastries and a 1997 graduate of the culinary program at Johnson & Wales. Ambrosia supplies bread and pastries to many Charleston restaurants and does a voluminous retail business. Many of her employees are students at J&W and the city's other culinary programs. Ortego said, "One of the benefits to Charleston's pastry programs is the competitive market it has created. The downside for students is its pay rate is lower, but the plus side, as witness here in Charleston, is a better talent pool. Nothing but good will come of Johnson & Wales being in Charlotte." Will we have pastry shops? "You can count on it." I can't wait.

What else is in store for Charlotte's culinary landscape? With the economy picking up again, folks are drinking better wines. For years Raleigh-Durham was known for the amount of quality wines consumed. Doug Cohen of Tryon Distributing said that this year the Charlotte market became the most important state market for premium wines. Wine drinking has become so popular that writing about the weekly wine tasting events would fill a column or two. More than half of the wine dinners for next April's 2004 Wine and Food Weekend, a biennial event, sold out as soon as they were announced. Plus, we've had a change in the North Carolina import wine law, as of October 1. Now Tar Heel wine lovers can have their favorite boutique winery ship directly to them. So drink up -- here's to 2004.

Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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