Charlotte chefs used to working nights and weekends get a rare taste of what it’s like to eat — and cook — at home with the kids.
by Ben Jarrell • Photographs by Michael Hrizuk
On January 28th, less than a week before the restaurant would open, nine cooks hovered around a 6-foot long stainless-steel prep table, fresh from the warehouse, a barcode tag still attached to its leg. Outstretched arms, some tattooed, many scarred from minor kitchen cuts and burns, reached for cut-up portions of “goopy burgers” and pork schnitzel sandwiches, seasoned french fries, and vegan mac ‘n cheese.
They were testing dishes for The Goodyear House in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood. One of those cooks was Chris Coleman, the chef-partner behind the menu and the camera, taking photos that would end up on his Instagram feed.
“Excited to finally be in the kitchen on day one of testing and tasting with the @goodyearhouse crew,” Coleman wrote of his burgeoning kitchen family honing its craft before the restaurant’s public debut.
It was still weeks before any local stay-at-home advisories or shelter-in-place orders were enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Goodyear House would press on with its soft opening in early February, hosting a small number of people in its first week of business in order to keep the inherent chaos that exists in a new restaurant — even sans pre-global pandemic — to a minimum. While Coleman celebrated with his team, which he tenderly calls “the goop troop,” he admits he was unprepared for the effects of the virus, like most (read: all) of us.
“I was just focused on opening the restaurant. I had my blinders on,” Coleman says.
Six weeks later, and in much the same fashion as it struck chef Gabrielle Hamilton to close her legendary NYC kitchen, Prune, a week earlier, it occurred to Coleman all at once. He called a meeting to let his staff know he planned to close the dining room for an indefinite period, serving only a limited takeout menu. During the meeting, Coleman learned via text that Gov. Roy Cooper had issued an order suspending all sit-down restaurant service in the state, affirming his decision.
Six days later, with a photo of his entire staff from opening day, many of whom had been let go indefinitely, Coleman announced he was ending modified service and shutting down the restaurant for the time being.
“We are tired. We want to step back, pause, focus on our families and reset for a few,” Coleman wrote.
So during the most anticipated period of his young professional career, amid circumstances beyond his control, the chef ultimately found a chance to slow down, serving an elite clientele of private dinner guests whose discerning palates would offer a bit of saving grace in a moment of uncertainty.
At home with his family, Chef Coleman fulfills every special order. No favorite is left off the menu, no request denied. Daughter Ellie, 4, prefers to cut her own strawberries to top her yogurt and frozen chicken nuggets to fresh. Her brother, Luke, 8, insisted they make breakfast in bed for Mom. Of course, little sister had to follow so, in all of this, Mom wins.
The home kitchen
Coleman wasn’t the only Charlotte chef who found comfort in the food cooked at home with little loved ones. As chefs were forced to shutter doors, furlough or lay off staff — and in some cases, watch their own dollars burn as they navigate labyrinthian government-assistance programs — they found joy in cooking for what — and who — matters most.
William Dissen, chef-owner of Haymaker in uptown Charlotte, was among many fellow chefs who wished Coleman early success. “Can’t wait Chef!” Dissen (aka “Billy D”) commented on Coleman’s early post.
At home in Asheville, where Dissen also owns The Market Place, he’s been teaching his children, along with his Instagram followers, some serious skills.
“Set up your pasta roller and get your Sous Chef ready for the assist,” Dissen wrote on April 3, as he was teaching a four-part, scratch-made pasta course.
Later that day, his sous chefs did exactly that: His 4-year old son stood on a blue plastic stool, eyes closed and covered with dusting flour. His daughter, 5, appeared more determined, her hands a blur as she followed Dad’s instructions to work the dough into shape.
It’s pretty dang adorable.
Off camera and in the family kitchen, the pasta was filled with parmesan, green garlic and kale, dressed with a light sauce from tomatoes Dissen canned himself. Dissen wants his kids to be “connected to their meal,” he says. “From gardening and growing to chopping ingredients — it sparks their curiosity. … It’s a science experiment,” he says.
Chef Jamie Barnes, co-owner of What the Fries food truck, faced a challenge familiar to many parents during this time of social distancing — hosting a birthday party for his 9-year-old daughter, Lily.
“She was pretty down that we couldn’t have a party this year,” Barnes says. Fun and cake, however, were still on the menu. Barnes and his wife organized a surprise birthday parade. “Her friends and their mothers drove by our house, honking their horns. They had balloons and music playing, circling the neighborhood,” Barnes says. “She was speechless.”
Chef Calvin Wright, who works with Barnes in the ongoing Serving the Culture dinner series in Charlotte, cooked with his oldest son, CJ, 14.
“[Three-year-old] Grayson will watch in amazement now that his brother — his older brother — gets to participate,” Wright says. CJ and his dad tried their hand at a classic — eggplant parmesan. And CJ learned that a made-from-scratch sauce requires heaps of small knife cuts. “I explained what brunoise cuts were,” says Wright, echoing his classical French training.
Wright offers a tip to parents attempting to teach their own kids to cook: “Watching your child use a knife is terrifying. Just make sure to show them how to use and respect that particular tool.” Trust is paramount, he says. “Also, step back, watch, and have confidence in them.”
Ben Philpott works alongside father and son team Alex and Paul Verica as sous chef at The Stanley. During the pandemic, Philpott, formerly of Lumiere and Block & Grinder, has picked up a second vocation — homeschooling his two kids.
“Challenging,” is how Philpott describes the task. “But rewarding.”
Like Jamie Barnes, Philpott had two birthdays at home. His 8-year-old daughter, Nancy Sage, dives into any baking project with gusto — including her own birthday cookie cake. But his son Cabell, 11, wanted Southern fried chicken for his big day, three days later. So Dad served it alongside homemade mac n’ cheese and bacon-braised cabbage.
“He prefers Price’s,” Philpott says, honestly.
Philpott has also used the time at home to experiment with various flavors. When asked if the recipes would end up in the dining room at The Stanley or in his own at home, Philpott’s answer was straightforward.
“Could be either way!” he says. “Actually, my timer’s going off.” Another cookie cake?
“I gotta go pull some wagyu skirt steaks from the sous-
The seasoned chefs
Some chefs requested the early shift prior to our world flipping upside down. One of the kitchens where Coleman earned his chops was at The Asbury inside The Dunhill Hotel, building a farm-to-table reputation with Chef Matthew Krenz. In November 2018, Krenz decided to leave professional kitchens to spend more time with his newborn daughter, Annie.
Whether making biscuits at 3 a.m. or adapting to a baby whose taste buds seem to change more often than her diapers, Krenz relished the time at home. Making his daughter a priority for 14 months is a life experience Krenz sees as irreplaceable.
“Precious time,” says Krenz, who now works for Sycamore Brewing helping develop food and coffee programs.
“Looking back, I couldn’t imagine it any other way,” says Krenz, whose wife, Rachel, works in commercial real estate.
Even before graduating from Johnson & Wales in 2008, David Quintana’s restaurant career had him cooking beside the likes of Sean Brock in Charleston, S.C., as well as Wyley Dufresne at WD-50, his legendary, and now retired, temple of molecular gastronomy on the Lower East Side.
Quintana’s experience in those elite kitchens affects the way he looks at food to this day, he says. But the arrival of his son early in his chef career also forced Quintana to reevaluate his life goals.
“I can’t say that prior to leaving the restaurant industry that I had a work/life balance. I worked long days, late nights, holidays, weekends, and missed family events,” Quintana recalls.
Quintana’s current role as a corporate chef at Compass Group has allowed him to achieve that balance, typically so elusive in the food world. Now, Quintana has traded late nights for lazy Sunday mornings with his family.
“I have three kids and can say for the first time that I haven’t had to miss anything with my youngest. I work Mon. – Fri. and am able to be home for dinner every night.”
And for family meals at home, Quintana has help.
“My 5-year-old daughter has definitely taken an interest to helping me in the kitchen and gets her stool and cutting board ready when she sees me cooking. She loves mixing things and has deemed herself the best ‘egg cracker.’”
On Easter Sunday, instead of gelling agents and pâté-en-croute, it was silver-dollar pancakes, cut-up bananas and confetti-colored sprinkles.
“In the shape of the Easter Bunny,” Quintana says.
Marc Jacksina, host of the culinary video series Order/Fire, slowly backed away from restaurant kitchens before assuming his current role as executive sous chef at Southminster retirement community.
“Being able to go running with my wife on a Saturday, or pack the family up to go hiking or kayaking — when in the past I would have been cooking brunch for strangers and their families — feels like a bigger accomplishment than cooking at the James Beard House,” says Jacksina, who cooked at the prestigious New York dining room in 2012.
Ironically, while he now finds more time than ever to spend with his two teenage sons, at work he’s cooking for elderly diners, a population most at-risk during the pandemic.
“Our biggest challenges on a daily basis include creating moments and offering a sense of calmness for our staff, as well as our residents,” Jacksina says.
On the other side…
Most chefs find little time away from the restaurant to cook in their home kitchens. While the post-cornovirus future of the industry is uncertain, a cadre of Charlotte chefs had a chance to catch their breath in this rare air — taking advantage of an anomalous schedule to spend more time at home and with their children. Because, added to the list of growing responsibilities these professionals now face, they’re also dads.
When asked about any special moments during this stretch at home, Coleman describes what essentially is an every-weekend occurrence for most families with young children — only with better food: Tostadas with coal-grilled flank steak from Shipley Farms, a fire in the backyard and s’mores with the kids.
After being closed for six weeks, Goodyear House resumed delivery and curbside pickup on May 2 and planned to reopen its dining room as soon as government restrictions were lifted, Coleman says. During the down time, the business expanded its patio, adding 73 seats and space that eventually will be used for corn hole, bocce ball and a kids’ play area. The owners had planned to build out the space later in the year but accelerated those plans to provide more socially distant seating. The restaurant was among the lucky ones who received a PPP loan to help get through the early days of the shutdown, but the long-term effects of the pandemic on the industry are yet to be seen.
“Like the rest of the world, our state, our city and NoDa, we don’t know how the other side of this looks,” Coleman said in that Instagram post announcing The Goodyear House’s temporary closure.
On this side, however, Coleman and other culinary professionals saw a glimpse of what life should be like for those making the daily sacrifice to walk away from birthday parties, from recitals, from weddings, from little leagues. They do this work so we can have a family dinner.
They do it so their kids can eat.
“That said, we know one thing,” Coleman continued. “We have lost no love, no appreciation, no optimism for the future. … Keep your chin up and enjoy your family. We love you.” SP