Charlotte chefs huddle up and share tips for a game-day football watch party.
By Michael J. Solender * Photographs by Justin Driscoll
As the hazy days of summer fade into fall, inspiration for casual entertaining at home is easy to find in a season-full of Sunday (and Monday night) football games. For many local chefs, tailgating at a Carolina Panthers game or enjoying a watch party with friends and family is a rare treat. Most Sundays, working chefs are busy in their restaurants or catering kitchens preparing for someone else’s good time — or resting up from the late Saturday-night dinner rush.
When the scheduling moon and stars align and an open Sunday afternoon or evening appears on the horizon, a chef-inspired watch party is just the ticket for a menu of shoptalk, trash talk and kicked-back good times fed by an elevated take on the game-day potluck. SouthPark got in the kitchen at a recent football viewing party, where eight talented local chefs showed us how they get their game on when cooking for friends.
Matthew Krenz and his wife, Rachel, hosted the party at their Villa Heights home. Krenz is a chef’s chef, known to his peers as a friend and connector — he often coordinates collaborative meals promoting Charlotte’s culinary scene. He’s a key principal at Krenz Family Ranch, his family’s farm in New Salem — about 45 minutes east of Charlotte — that raises Hereford/Angus mix cattle yielding richly marbled, flavorful beef for local restaurants.
“Charlotte chefs are a rare breed,” says Krenz, who was recently named chef and head roaster at Sycamore Brewing’s Beach Shack Coffee. “There’s more of a sense of camaraderie than competition when we get together. We’re generally a band of misfits, written off by the national media [as irrelevant], and we have something to prove. Charlotte has a [distinctive] culinary point of view.”
Not surprisingly, most of the action at this party was in the kitchen, as chefs milled about registering mental notes on their counterparts’ dishes.
“We are after all, a bunch of chefs,” laughs Krenz.
“It’s great to be able to spend time outside of a commercial kitchen with other chefs,” Matthew Krenz says. “It is much too easy to be trapped in a routine with a clipboard in one hand and a sauté pan in the other.” Krenz’s Smoked Short Rib BBQ on a Sour Cream and Onion Biscuit is a uniquely Southern take on sliders, one that showcases a product from his family’s farm.
PRO TIP: “I start my menu with the party’s time frame in mind,” Krenz says. “If it is going to be an all-day affair, you’ll want to start with light snacks and bites prior to kickoff and have additional dishes throughout the day, like wings or pimento cheese biscuits. Make sure you have a ‘go-to’ crowd pleaser that most everyone enjoys. That could be anything from a taco bar to build-your-own pizzas. By doing most of the prep and cooking ahead, you can enjoy the game and time with your guests.”
Mike Long, executive chef at The Asbury at downtown’s Dunhill Hotel, has a special relationship with tailgating. Before coming to The Asbury, Long was a sous chef at Bonterra Dining & Wine Room and supported Executive Chef Blake Hartwick as the Carolina Panthers’ official representative at Taste of the NFL, an annual Super Bowl charitable event supporting hunger relief.
One of Long’s potluck favorites is a twist on Pigs in a Blanket. “I like to do a nice Southern play on the concept with Pork Belly in a Blanket with Sorghum Mustard Sauce,” says the die-hard Panthers fan. “I char and render cured pork belly and wrap slices in puff pastry, bake crisp and serve with a tangy/sweet dipping sauce.”
PRO TIP: “Choose foods that hold up well at room temperature,” Long says. “Dips are always a good choice, and mixed drinks in a pitcher with ice on the side allows people to help themselves all day long. Already cooked snacks like sliders can be kept in a warm oven and replenished as needed.”
New Orleans Saints fan Chayil Johnson’s Corn Maque Choux is a classic Cajun medley of corn, peppers and onions. He pairs it with crunchy Jambalaya Calas (rice fritters). Johnson plies his chef skills at Community Matters Café, Charlotte Rescue Mission’s uptown restaurant and training center for recovering addicts. “I’m a huge football fan and love to talk sports,” Johnson says.
Greg Collier, chef and owner at 7th Street Market’s Uptown Yolk, loves to be the “side-man” at football potlucks. “I like to have seasonal vegetables that complement smoky meats done on the grill,” says Collier, who recently announced with wife, Subrina, the opening of Camp North End’s first full-service restaurant, Leah & Louise. Collier’s Marinated Cucumber and Pickled Watermelon Rind Salad with Sun Gold Tomatoes and Canary Melon brings bright flavors and packs an acidic punch to match up nicely with the mains.
PRO TIP: “Too often these parties turn into meat fests,” Collier says. “Have plenty of fresh vegetables and complementary side dishes for all the proteins [prepared] on the grill.”
“Going light, seasonal and hand-held is a great way to entertain for watch parties,” says Alyssa Wilen of her eponymous Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen cooking school. Tomato – and Basil-Stuffed Pattypan Squash is a game-day pick for Wilen, who recently catered a special fete for the Roaring Riot,a community of traveling Panthers fans, at her event space in south Charlotte.
“I like spicy and acidic flavors with grilled meats,” says Hector Gonzalez, head chef for Project 658, a local faith-based nonprofit relief organization.Gonzalez’s Carne Asada made with grilled bone-in ribeye is accompanied by a vibrant fresh salsa made with a few simple ingredients: red onion, tomato, jalapeno and a squeeze of lime juice. Gonzalez pairs the Mexican favorite with fresh-pressed, homemade tortillas, served with fresh slices of avocado, fluffy rice, queso fresco and black beans — a taco bar fit for a chef.
PRO TIP: “Make things easy for you and your guests,” Gonzalez says. “A few simple dishes made in advance is all that’s necessary.
Don’t try to do too much.”
Pastry chef Samantha Allen ensures her fellow chefs can slake their sweet-tooth fix with Brown Sugar and Peach Blondies with Bourbon Buttercream. Allen is the owner and executive pastry chef behind Wentworth & Fenn, a mobile bakery cruising about town in a 1961 Shasta camper named Selma. Allen, the former executive pastry chef at The Fig Tree, says she loves desserts that look upscale but have a “down-home” feel.
Long’s colleague and pastry chef at The Asbury, Miranda Brown says she often brings a special cocktail to game-day parties, preferring to stay out of the kitchen on days off. Her signature Caipirinhas, a Brazilian refresher combining lime juice, demerara sugar, and Cachaça (pronounced kuh-SHAH-sa), a rumlike liquor distilled from sugar cane juice, is always a hit.
When she does decide to cook during time off, Brown opts for simple, classic desserts for a casual get-together. Buckeyes — chocolate peanut butter balls with a salty bite — and extra-chocolatey Chocolate Chip Cookies are easy-to-make favorites.
“I like cooking with and for other chefs,” says Brown, a Buffalo Bills fan. “You get straight-up feedback and not false praise. Watch parties like this are for talking a little trash and just having fun. The Bills have such a loyal fan base in Charlotte. I like to represent.” SP
by Miranda Brown
For a single cocktail:
2 oz Cachaça
1 t Demerara Sugar
2 oz +/- Simply Limeade
Muddle together the lime and sugar in the glass and fill with ice. Mix together Cachaça and limeade, pour into glass.
For a pitcher:
½ bottle (about 11 oz.) Cachaça
5-6 limes, sliced
¼ cup demerara sugar
11 oz. Simply Limeade
Muddle together limes with the sugar. Add the Cachaça, add limeade to taste. Refrigerate until very cold and serve.