Healthy addiction

Cuisine People

October 1, 2020



Neither a pandemic nor past struggles are keeping Sam Diminich down. His latest venture — a farm-to-table meal-delivery service — honors locally grown food and allows the chef to pursue his lifelong passion. 

By Ken Garfield  ·  Photographs by Michael Hrizuk

Cooking has been a way of life for Sam Diminich. Growing up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he’d hop on his bike after school and ride over to his grandfather’s Italian restaurant, Roma, to bus tables and wash dishes. He surrendered early to the aromas of the kitchen, the frenzied passion of the work, the rewards of empty plates and smiling faces. Today, several lifetimes later it seems, cooking for him remains an act of pure fulfillment, a stage on which to unleash his energy. Only now, after the addiction and homelessness, it is also an act of redemption. Each time he prepares a three-course, farm-to-table meal, he is proving to himself, his kids and all of us that the bourbon and cocaine are behind him. That the kitchen is his home now, not a gas-station bathroom. Today, there is a sweetness to his blueberry bread pudding that cannot match the sweetness of the story behind it.

Chef Sam Diminich hand-picks produce at New Town Farms, a family-owned organic farm in Waxhaw, in July.

You may not know Diminich, 44, but there’s a good chance you’ve tasted his food. Trained at The Culinary Institute of America, he’s cooked in several Charlotte restaurants since first moving to the city in 2004, among them Blue, Arpa, New South Kitchen & Bar, Fran’s Filling Station and Vine American Kitchen.

Charlotte restaurateur Frank Scibelli, who employed Diminich as executive chef at Cantina 1511 at the Stonecrest shopping center in south Charlotte, praises him as both a culinary artist and mechanic. “He understood that consistency was very important,” says Scibelli, who has since sold the Cantina restaurants. “He’s also artistic and creative but not so much that a dish came out different each time. Sam’s great. I’ve always been a fan.”

Before Covid-19 changed everything, Diminich was executive chef at Upstream, the upscale seafood restaurant at Phillips Place. That’s where he earned his 15 minutes of fame. His take on lobster and bay scallops risotto walloped celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s version on Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay. Diminich says he was laser-focused on making Upstream a success before he lost his job at the start of the pandemic. Owned by Burke Hospitality Group, which operates Mimosa Grill and Harper’s locations, Upstream closed after 20 years, an impressive run for any restaurant. Suddenly out of work, Diminich was about to apply for a job processing packages at Amazon when an idea came to him while grilling steaks and veggies with friends.

More on Your Farms, Your Table in a bit, and how Diminich is delivering a three-course meal to your door, with a twist. But you can’t fully appreciate the joy that Sam is putting into this venture until you understand the journey that led him to embrace locally grown vegetables as a healthy addiction.

In 2002, while working at Aspen Grille in Myrtle Beach, Diminich succumbed to what he calls the underbelly of the food and beverage industry: Beer, bourbon, pot, cocaine, “All the lines we promise ourselves we won’t cross have been crossed,” he says. His family intervened, and Diminich wound up in treatment. Admitting now that he had one leg in and one leg out of Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery never took. He relapsed in 2009 while cooking at Cantina 1511. He says a doctor prescribing the opioid painkiller Percocet for a separated shoulder contributed to his return to the darkness. In 2013, he hit bottom. “One-hundred percent unemployable,” as he puts it. Separated from his wife and children, his car repossessed, he spent a year on the Charlotte streets. Once an accomplished chef, he slept in the ER waiting room or a gas-station bathroom — anywhere but a shelter, because shelters have curfews. “If I took a shower in that year,” he says, “I don’t remember it.”

This he remembers, though: “I recall the lengths I would go to manifest my addiction. It was an unstoppable force.”

What saved him? He says he didn’t want to die. And a beating on the streets in November 2014 landed him in the hospital for five days. That’s when he saw the light. Or at least enough of it to show him the way. When he got out of the hospital, he took a bus home to Myrtle Beach and spent six months at Any Length Recovery in Sumter, S.C. It was his second stay. This one took.

“He knew if he didn’t find a way to find happiness without chemicals, he’d never find it,” says Dennis Wormlsey, a recovered alcoholic who co-founded the center. “But none of that was available to him when his alcoholism had a hold on him.”

Wormsley says that only when Diminich embraced the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous — trust in a higher power, making amends to those you’ve hurt — could he look up from rock bottom and again see the joy of life and cooking. Even if he had to learn again the proper way to hold a kitchen knife. The date of Diminich’s last drink — Sobriety Day, he calls it — is Nov. 16, 2014, just 10 days after he was beaten.

Despite the summer heat, Diminich is like a kid on Christmas morning. He’s arrived at New Town Farms in Waxhaw, a rural oasis amid the fancy subdivisions, to check out what looks good to cook later that day for Your Farms, Your Table. Sammy Koenigsburg, who oversees the family-owned, 50-acre organic farm, has known Diminich long enough to welcome his visit. “Sam’s just a bright light,” he says. “He always makes your day better.”

After Upstream, Diminich says he was motivated to create a business that was community-based. The chef works with several local farms and the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market, whose produce forms the centerpiece of his new venture. Here’s the business model: First he scouts out vegetables for the day — on this July morning, summer squash, okra, tomatoes (the uglier the better; Diminich calls them “underdog tomatoes”) and the like. Then he writes the menus, building it around the vegetables rather than the protein. “How can I honor those ingredients?” is how he puts it. Customers place their order and pay for it online. The three-course meal is delivered starting at 5:30 p.m. For $30, you get soup or salad, an entrée and veggies, and a dessert.

Now here’s the twist: You don’t know what you’ll be getting for dinner. Menus vary daily, but it’s always a surprise, on purpose. “It’s part of the culinary journey,” Diminich says, “part of the adventure.” So you’ll have some idea of the style, he posts sample menus like this one on his website: arugula salad; North Carolina shrimp with early season corn succotash, jasmine rice and Old Bay broth; and, for dessert, apple-blackberry jam pie. Sometimes, he posts dishes or ingredients on Instagram, offering a hint at what he’s cooking that week. Your Farms, Your Table can accommodate dietary restrictions.

Diminich started out preparing about 10 meals a day; now he averages 30-40 orders daily, and he employs a small staff, many who are also in recovery. After moving into a new kitchen in September, he plans to launch lunch service in early October. 

You can tell Diminich is getting restless, sitting on the patio at the farm with Koenigsburg and a SouthPark magazine writer, recounting what a long, strange trip it’s been (apologies to the Grateful Dead). Enough looking back. He’s ready to tromp around the garden, then race back to the kitchen and get busy. That’s where his life has begun again.

“Cooking has been the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” Diminich says. “There was a period in my life when I didn’t think I’d be able to again. It makes my life now so much more fulfilling.”  SP

A LIFE OF COOKING

Bio: Sam Diminich grew up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he learned the restaurant business from his grandfather and father. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he’s worked in a number of Charlotte restaurants, most recently as executive chef at Upstream at Phillips Place before it permanently closed during Covid-19.

Current gig: Your Farms, Your Table. Diminich cooks and delivers three-course meals built around fresh vegetables sourced from local farms, which he says are still struggling as a result of the pandemic-related restaurant slowdown. Dinner is served every day except Sunday, with lunch debuting this month. The twist? Each day’s menu is a surprise — you won’t know what you’ll be ordering and getting.

Family: He and his former wife, Tracey, are the parents of Constance, 17, and Allan Grey, 13.

Helping his peers: Diminich is active in Ben’s Friends, a nationwide support group for workers in the food and beverage industry struggling with abuse and addiction. It’s named for Charleston chef Ben Murray, who took his own life in 2016.

Guilty pleasure: Pizza from Benny Pennello’s in NoDa.

What he’d wish for if he was stuck on a desert island: Korean barbecue and his father’s lasagna.

Intel of Your Wildest Dreams!

 

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