The Jonas name has topped Billboard charts, but when Kevin Jonas Sr. returned to the famous family's nesting grounds in Belmont, North Carolina, he wanted to honor a different Jonas legacy: his grandmother, Nellie.
Born into humble beginnings, Nellie Jonas worked in the textile mills and earned a reputation around small-town Belmont for her soulful home-cooked meals. When she passed away in 2011, Jonas made a commitment to keep her spirit alive in Belmont. That commitment lead Jonas to purchase several storefronts along Belmont's Main Street and combine them to create Nellie's Southern Kitchen.
At 10,000 square feet, the space incorporates elements of old (the restored wood plank ceiling is original to the building and over 100-years old) and new (hand-crafted custom glass light fixtures shaped like bolls of cotton dangle whimsically over the bar).
But the most impressive detail is an ethereal, larger-than-life portrait of Nellie that presides over the dining area. With cotton in her hair, a banjo in one hand and a chicken perched on the other, the Jonas family matriarch smiles wisely.
"Kevin wants everyone that walks out of here to feel like they've been hugged by Nellie," chef Ben Sholiton says, taking a seat beneath her watchful eye as we chat. Hand-picked by Jonas, Sholiton was tasked with re-working Nellie's signature recipes and bringing them to the masses. No pressure, right?
"The town is full of people that knew Nellie," Sholiton says, "so when they walk in and see something on the menu, they have a preconceived notion of what that should be."
For Sholiton, perfecting Nellie's signature Chicken-and-Dumplings was a particular challenge: "I'm a midwestern Jew, so to me, chicken and dumplings is a matzo ball soup," he jokes. "The first time I served chicken and dumplings was to Nellie's daughter, and she went, 'Eww, that's not chicken and dumplings!'"
"It came down to figuring out the dumplings; how to make the chicken right, how to make the broth right. I had the components, knew what it had to look like and taste like. Now how do we make it consistently?"
Certain secrets, like the fried-chicken recipes, are off the record, but Sholiton isn't shy about his loyalty to local ingredients. "My concept with food is that I want everything local. If it can't be local, I want the best possible." Personally sourced by Sholiton, Nellie's menu is full of Carolina-bred meat and farmer's market produce.
He also keeps things fresh. "I told Kevin, if I do all these fresh ingredients, I'm not using frozen bread," Sholiton says. "So I sold Kevin on hiring a pastry chef."
That pastry chef is Emily Pentecost. She provides all the baked items on Nellie's menu — from appetizer biscuits to the sweet rolls used for burgers — fresh, every morning.
In addition to emphasizing fresh and local ingredients, Sholiton has attempted to tow the tricky line between stick-to-your-ribs southern comfort food and lighter, healthy choices. "There are certain things you can't really mess with," he admits. "You can't make a biscuit low-fat and still have that taste you're looking for. So instead of trying to alter, we try to add on. We try to use those southern ingredients, but with healthier techniques. Instead of frying shrimp, we can grill it. It's about using the ingredients and equipment we have to create those options for people."
Still, "there's just no getting around the unhealthy nature of fried chicken."
Though Ohio-native Sholiton is new to the south, he's no stranger to comfort food. After leaving a career in television and politics for a fresh start, he moved to the Carolinas to attend Johnson & Wales.
Talking with Sholiton, it's easy to see why Jonas chose him to carry out the vision for Nellie's; he takes food personally, just like Nellie did: "Cooking is how I've always shown love," he says. "If someone is going through something rough, it's like a hug."
Besides comfort food and atmosphere, there was one last family legacy that Jonas wanted to incorporate at his new Belmont eatery: music. A stage is set up in the dining room, and live music is played throughout the day — country and a little bit of gospel. Most of the waiters and bartenders are trained musicians, and are known to join the house band on stage.
There's also the rooftop patio that overlooks the intersection on Main Street and Catawba Avenue, where giant white letters on the bar spell out "JONAS," a homage to a certain trio of brothers. While the family's musical legacy is very much a part of this Belmont eatery, it's clear that the true star of the show will always be Nellie.