Recently, the media has begun to "discover" — in a manner similar to Europeans "discovering" America — chefs in US cities outside the powerful metropolitan markets. Southern chefs, or, more precisely, chefs who now cook in the South, are more commonly hailed. However, many still go unnoticed, especially in the smaller markets.
Charlotte has become a small blip on the national food media radar; most of the attention in the Carolinas goes to chefs in Charleston or to the Barkers at Magnolia Grill in Durham (see Bill Addison's story).
Nevertheless, Charlotte has a broadening list of gifted chefs who frequently blow me away with their talent and dedication.
To determine the best chefs in Charlotte, I asked area chefs whom they considered to be the best chefs in town. Almost consistently, the following core group of chefs (presented in alphabetical order) were mentioned.
Where You Can Find Those Top Chefs
Jim Alexander's precision in classical technique is highly regarded among Charlotte culinarians. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, and has been in the kitchen for 25 years, including a 10-year stint at Myers Park County Club. Alexander, owner-chef of Zebra Restaurant and Wine Bar, designs his menu to feature regional cuisine using contemporary — and breathtakingly labor-intensive — French technique. Alexander's eloquent dishes show his deft but dramatic hand.
Frenchman Michael Blais is a talented chef brought to Charlotte two years ago by Bistro 100. However, in April 2005, Blais became Executive Chef at Caffé Siena Trattoria. Trained at a French culinary school, Blais worked in the Hotel Ritz and Hotel de Crillon in Paris and under the legendary Chef Joel Robuchon at Jamin Restaurant. In New York, he worked under Daniel Boulud for two years. Blais worked the pantry for Alain Ducasse's Essex House (in NYC) opening. Blais's menu at Siena features Basque, south of France and Tuscan cuisines.
Gene Briggs hails from upstate New York and has been in the Charlotte area for a while, first honing his skills at Sonoma on Providence and then at Bistro 100. Since Blue's opening in 2003, Briggs has been the Executive Chef and is currently in the process of getting that ownership group's second venture, Table in Ballantyne, off the ground.
Another's chef's chef is Chris Ivers Brown, who is the executive chef manager for Bank of America's Roux Fine Dining Restaurant, which is part of Compass Group. Ivers-Brown is a native of England (the headquarters for Compass) and attended a culinary school in London. The first time I had Ivers-Brown's food was a brilliant tasting of caviars during a wine event. His presentation and quality of ingredients still stand out in my memory.
Tom Condron is perhaps the best known of our area chefs, partially due to his association with a large, well known restaurant group. Condron is the executive chef for Harper's Restaurants, which includes Mimosa Grill, Upstream, Zink, Harper's, and ARPA. Condron came to Charlotte to be the Executive Chef at Mimosa Grill in 1997. He earned a degree in economics from the University of Florida, a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University, Charleston, and has worked in Le Cirque in Manhattan and Atlanta's The Blue Ridge Grill. Condron is among that initial handful of chefs in the 1990s that raised Charlotte's gastronomic bar.
Charlotte chefs noted that Tim Groody's dedication to area produce has literally reaped a windfall for all area restaurants. By 7am on Saturdays, Groody is shopping the farmers' markets and cementing relationships with area farmers. Groody, chef and partner at Sonoma Modern America, Town, and Sonoma Kitchen, moved to Charlotte about 10 years ago to open LaVecchia's. Groody is also a graduate of the CIA, NY, and has a lengthy and impressive list of notable chefs with whom he has worked, including Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque, Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Lafayette and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grille in Durham.
Blake Harwick started at Spratt's 12 years ago; he moved to Bistro 100 and then to Sonoma on Providence. When restaurateur JD Duncan opened Bonterra Dining & Wine Room six years ago, Harwick signed on as sous chef and within the year was promoted to chef. Harwick attended a few semesters at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston. Today, he is also the Executive Chef at Duncan's second venture, Ratcliffe on the Green.
Stratos Lambros is a restaurant kid (his dad owned six restaurants in Westchester County, NY) who developed the heart and guts to continue his father's craziness. Lambros has a culinary degree from the CIA, NY, and a BA from a Florida university. With his CIA roommate, Chef Angelo Kalsounis, and Pastry Chef Frank Kalsounis, Lambros opened the stunning Ilios Noche in 2003. Lambros worked under Charles Palmer at Aureal and also worked in Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta before coming to Charlotte a few years ago.
Charlotte gourmands came to know Mark Martin by his creations at Pastis in the 1990s. Martin, a Charlotte native and a Chapel Hill grad, left the mugginess of Carolina for the arid air of Sante Fe where he worked in Coyote Cafe. Once he decided to make a career in the kitchen, he earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Vermont and later became their instructor of fine dining. A family emergency brought him back to Charlotte. Martin's Ethan's of Elizabeth is named for his son. Martin is known for his dedication to locally grown produce and the quality of his ingredients.
Bruce Moffet is often touted by other area chefs as being one of the best in town. One chef noted, "Bruce does such a good job. He has a commitment to the quality of food and it shows." Chef Moffet, a native of Barrington, RI, opened his intimate 42-seat Barrington's in 2000. Moffet graduated from the CIA, NY, in 1995, and before coming to Charlotte he did stints in Atlanta and Boston, notably at L'Efoffier. Without fail, Moffet's creations emphasize pristine ingredients and his appealing combination choices.
Chef Jim Alexander, Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar, 4521 Sharon Rd., 704-442-9525.
Chef Michael Blais, Caffé Siena Trattoria (in the Holiday Inn), 220 North College Street, 704-335-5400.
Chef Gene Briggs, Blue Restaurant & Bar, College and Fifth St., 704-927-2583.
Chef Chris Ivers Brown, private dining room at Bank of America Corporate Center.
Chef Tom Condron, Mimosa Grill, 327 S. Tryon St., 704-343-0700.
Chef Tim Groody, Sonoma Modern American, 100 North Tryon St. (BOA HQ, entrance on plaza), 704-332-1132.
Chef Blake Harwick, Bonterra Restaurant & Wine Room, 1829 Cleveland Ave., 704- 333-9463.
Chef Stratos Lambros, Ilios Noches, 11508 Providence Rd., 704-814-9882.
Chef Mark Martin, Ethan's of Elizabeth, 366 North Caswell Rd., 704-375-3007.
Chef Bruce Moffet, Barrington's Restaurant, 7822 Fairview Rd., 704-364-5755.