Kitchen commander

Cuisine People

December 1, 2021

Steak 48 Executive Chef Heather King leads the culinary team at one of the hottest restaurants in town.

by Michael J. Solender | photographs by Kenty Chung

Heather King has worked for just four employers during her nearly 30 years in the restaurant industry — an anomaly in a notoriously transient business known for high turnover. The 47-year-old western New York native cut her teeth in the business as a teen working at a national quick-service chain. A family move to Tampa, Fla., landed her in the kitchen of Bern’s Steak House, one of the country’s most storied fine-dining institutions. A serious approach to mastering her craft took the self-taught King from separating silverware and washing dishes through various prep roles, the sauté station, grilling steaks and ultimately managing the kitchen at the award-winning steakhouse.

King came to Charlotte in 2006 to take on an operations role for the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. At the time, the business operated Lone Star Steakhouse, Sullivan’s Steakhouse and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. Last fall, she joined Steak 48 Charlotte as executive chef, overseeing a team of nearly 60 kitchen personnel. After a $9 million buildout, the upscale steakhouse opened at Apex Charlotte the week before Christmas 2020, and the crowds have not let up since.

Steak 48 Executive Chef Heather King working on a dish at the restaurant in SouthPark.

Since its opening, Steak 48 has become one of Charlotte’s most sought-after reservations — a feat in a town known for high-end steakhouses — with the restaurant serving 350-400 guests a night, King says. King attributes the success to a hardworking team, quality ingredients and a service level second to none. 

In a recent interview with SouthPark, King discussed staffing for attitude vs. aptitude, second chances and what’s fun about working in hospitality. 

Comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How is your role as executive chef at Steak 48 different from other jobs you’ve held?

In previous roles, I would work the line, and that’s what I’m used to. This job is a lot more involved with staffing, training, ordering and operations. Also, I oversee everything that leaves the kitchen for the dining room. That’s [one reason] why we’re so successful, because we are touching every plate that goes out. 

What is it like to be always busy, with such high expectations from diners night after night?

It’s exciting — I don’t know any other way. I think honestly, the energy here is what is so attractive for both diners and the staff. It’s not a stuffy steakhouse. There’s energy when you walk in. Guests can experience different dining rooms: One is quieter and more romantic, others are livelier. I think that makes us different from any other steakhouse. 

Performing at a high level is motivating for me and my team. I’m relentless. I read the online reviews to learn where we can do better, and I walk the dining room three times over every shift to interact with guests. When guests come out for an evening with us, they deserve the very best, and we deliver for them. 

What’s the secret to being successful in your vocation?

The secret sauce is hard work, as always. I’ve always said that. It’s not an easy job. You’ll see all these kids coming out of culinary school, and they’re like, “I want to go right to the executive chef role.” It doesn’t work that way — never has, and never will. 

I don’t feel there have been barriers for me as a woman. Nowadays, there are a lot of women chefs out there. They might not get the same publicity as the male chefs, but they all did the same thing I did — they started at the bottom, and they worked their way up. It depends on how far you want to go. I’m not finished yet — perhaps I’ll own my own restaurant someday.

Many restaurants have struggled with staffing throughout the pandemic, yet you have a full team and a reputation for excellent service. Can you speak to that?

It comes back to being respectful. I’ll give you a shot, if you want to learn. There are two types of people in my world: There’s can’ts and there’s won’ts. If they can’t do it, then we’re going to show them how to do it. If you won’t do it, then we won’t want you on the team. It’s that basic. I’m also a believer in second chances. Everyone deserves that second chance. I’ve been given a second chance, so everyone that comes in the door gets that same opportunity for success.

What’s fun about working in the hospitality industry?

These kids (pointing to staff members enjoying a pre-shift family meal) keep me young. I’m like a mom to some of them. There’s no place I’d rather be.  SP

Heather’s hot takes

Go-to cocktail: Don Julio 1942 anejo margarita

Favorite home kitchen toy: My new smoker — I smoke a dynamite brisket

How she unwinds: Listening to classical music

Unexpected Charlotte find: The Thirsty Beaver Saloon – I mean Mick Jagger, wow

Favorite vacation spot: Coronado Island, the most beautiful place on Earth!

Most underrated dish at Steak 48: Everything is great, but if I had to choose one, it would be the double-baked potato. You’ve got to have potatoes with your steak, and these are the best.

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