A new turn
October 1, 2020
Chefs Whitney Thomas and Kirk Gilbert offer a modern take on Latin-inspired cuisine at Mico.
By Emiene Wright | Photographs by Jonathan Cooper
Whitney Thomas is a pioneer in the Carolinas’ food scene as one of the few women — and even fewer African Americans — to lead top restaurants. Her latest role as chef de cuisine at Mico, the fine-dining concept inside the posh Grand Bohemian Charlotte hotel, allows Thomas to expand her repertoire while flexing her considerable skills. There, she works alongside Executive Chef Kirk Gilbert, whose résumé includes The Gallery Restaurant at The Ballantyne Hotel and The Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, S.C. The uptown hotel and restaurant opened in August.
Mico’s menu is a hybrid: Argentine-influenced, with nods to Peruvian and other South American flavors, while bringing in Mediterranean, Caribbean and North African notes. Rather than a direct interpretation, Thomas lightens and brightens traditional recipes, often substituting coconut milk for dairy or grilling instead of frying.
“We use their ingredients but in new ways,” Thomas says. “The goal is to make good food with rich flavors and still be as health conscious as we can. My style is experimental; if a dish goes too far one way, I pivot and try something new.”
Before this juncture, Thomas, whose previous positions include executive chef at 5Church Charlotte and executive sous chef at Farenheit, mostly had experience with French, Southern and Mediterranean food. The South American flavors at Mico pushed her to stretch.
“One of the reasons I took this job was because I’d never done this type of food,” the Reidsville native says. “I’m learning something new every day, constantly reading articles and flipping through cookbooks.”
Her latest obsession: a simple-yet-sophisticated plantain mash, one of her featured sides that has become a top seller. Similar in texture to mashed potatoes, the dish gets an incredible flavor boost from the ripe plantains, coconut, shallots and ginger and is topped off with a coriander vanilla oil for a satisfying balance of sweet and savory.
The fall menu was still in the planning stages when we spoke. Seasonal dishes centered around peaches and tomatoes soon will be swapped for heartier fare complemented by broccoli rabe, sunchokes and other fall staples. But sopa de fuba, a Brazilian stew of kale, chorizo and peppers thickened with in-house ground corn flour, will remain. And the unique take on calamari — limbs are stuffed with a steamed mousse of shrimp and crab and finished on the grill — is game-changing.
The secret to Mico’s success on the plate starts in the kitchen with Gilbert, a 30-year industry veteran. In addition to having a diverse staff — he says it’s about 80% women — Gilbert makes a point to foster a spirit of collaboration among his team. Before opening, Gilbert developed the menu and had Thomas fine-tune the recipes.
“The relationship between the executive chef and the chef de cuisine is like that between a comic-book writer and a comic-book artist,” Gilbert says. “The writer supplies the story, plot and character arc, while the artist outlines, colors in and adds shading, giving depth and a fuller story. It’s not about me putting my name on the bottom of the menu. I’ve had that.”
Thomas extends that collaborative feel with a daily line-up, where servers try the dishes and provide feedback on what they like and what might require tweaking.
“It feels good knowing I’m making someone else feel good. That’s one of my main motivators, especially because it’s an open kitchen and I’m able to see the guests’ faces when they get their plates. So getting staff feedback early in the day is definitely a help,” Thomas says.
“It’s a very different culture from any kitchen I’ve worked in my entire career,” says Sous Chef Marketa Appiah. That may be because Gilbert and Thomas play off each other so well. Gilbert has been a figure in upscale fine dining for decades. Years of experience have lent the executive chef a laid-back, confident air. Thomas, just 31, has a reputation for taking the bull by the horns when it comes to kitchens. On busy nights, the chef de cuisine often works the line.
“We’re both very passionate culinarians and complement each other’s style by presenting food in a way that works for everybody,” Gilbert says. “She’s super creative and has a level of intensity. I tend to have a calming effect and keep everyone focused. There are multiple ways to get the job done.”
Thomas agrees. “I can be more high-strung, whereas Chef [has] a cool head, and the mix of both works for the kitchen. The world could come crashing down, and he’d never show it. I crack the whip.”
Thomas weathered a bumpy break with 5Church last winter. After she rose from sous chef to chef to cuisine to executive chef, the restaurant abruptly decided to go in a different direction with management, a move that could have cooled her progress. Instead, it fueled her ambition.
“I’m super hungry now. I don’t see a stop anywhere. My trajectory is to the top. I always wanted success and to be great, but that’s one of the things that is pushing me,” she says.
Currently, Mico’s dining room is seating at half capacity, about 130. The rooftop concept, Búho Bar (named after a type of owl), is slated to open October 1, with indoor and outdoor seating at socially distanced intervals. Appiah will assume the reins of that kitchen.
“Our food is a gateway to expose people to a different kind of cuisine than they’ve had in Charlotte,” Thomas says. “We have a foundation of understanding the flavors and techniques, but it’s a new take.” SP
Featured photo: Mico’s blue crab- and shrimp-stuffed wood-grilled calamari is served with an Aleppo pepper muhammara and walnut and orange gremolata.