Since his first restaurant job at age 17, Charlotte Chef Anthony Smith has worked tirelessly to beat the odds in a tough business.
by Emiene Wright
Life happens fast for Anthony Smith. The 33-year-old opened Chef’s Kitchen at Lake Wylie last year in the midst of the pandemic while running two other companies with business partner Taylor Bishop. In July, the partners plan to open a second Chef’s Kitchen in Pineville. It’s no surprise — over the course of his 16-year career in the culinary industry, Smith has shown a knack for finding opportunity in misfortune. Add in a preposterous workload and stacked odds, and you have his recipe for success.
Smith was born in Chicago, the oldest of four. His dad, a Navy man from New York, leaned hard into instilling a sense of duty and responsibility in his son.
“Everything he did was like a lesson,” Smith says. “He’d ask me, ‘Do you know why you did that, son?’ When he was home, it was all math equations and books and making sure you learned as much as you could so no one could say you didn’t know something.”
The family moved often according to where his father was stationed: Virginia, California and Massachusetts before settling in Charlotte. Then, when Smith was 13, his parents divorced, leaving the family in his maternal grandmother’s care. It put a lot of weight on Smith’s shoulders.
“My mom worked two and three jobs, so there was a lot of, ‘You’re the oldest, watch everyone.’ So I did,” Smith says. “But I was also rapping and playing ball and running the streets,” he admits.
He attended Olympic and Myers Park high schools, participating in ROTC and looking forward to joining the military. But an unplanned pregnancy his senior year pushed him to drop out in favor of finding a job to support his new family. Just 17, Smith found work as a dishwasher at Bank of America’s executive fine-dining division.
The stability was good, and the perks, like bringing home dinner every night, helped — but it wasn’t enough money. Smith asked for a raise and was denied. Instead, his boss took him off dishes and put him on prep work, chopping vegetables and making stocks. The learning curve was steep, as Smith had zero culinary experience.
“Chopped was on TV, and everyone wanted to be a celebrity chef, but I had never even cooked at home. I learned everything right there,” Smith says. “They taught me how to hold a knife, dice and make everything authentic and in-house. Because I was at the bottom, I did everybody’s prep. [I was] making soups, salads and sandwiches but watching them make the fancy stuff, asking questions, clocking out but staying and pitching in.”
Over four years, Smith worked his way up to sous chef. He left Bank of America for a rapid succession of positions: helping UNC Charlotte establish its dining hall, working at Hawthorne’s NY Pizza in Elizabeth, then at Wells Fargo hospitality catering, where he cooked for thousands of businesspeople daily.
“I know it looks weird on resumes, and people always disparage it as a practice, but job-hopping helped me learn a lot and home in on what I wanted,” Smith says.
Smith was 23, and what he wanted was more excitement in his career. While his pay at Wells Fargo was excellent, “I was making potato salad and sandwiches for business lunches. It was killing me,” he says. “I realized I’d never been to college and I didn’t have a culinary degree. I could never be more than a sous chef.”
This point was driven home in an interview with a veteran chef. After grilling him about mother sauces and how to build complex flavors, the man challenged Smith’s fitness to run a kitchen.
“He told me, ‘A fortunate turn of events your whole life has led to you being a chef.’ He called me a kitchen manager and said, if my circumstances were reduced, would I still be a chef or just a line cook? A chef should be a chef wherever you go.”
“A lot of people just want the title of chef without the work, the learning, the love. What I do, you can’t just go to a restaurant and know what it is. When I get in the zone, it feels like magic.”
That jibe stuck in his ribs. Shortly thereafter, Smith took a position with a company that serviced private jets. He took a $50,000 pay cut in exchange for the title of executive chef, Smith says, hoping it would help him garner more respect. He hired a young Johnson & Wales University student who was just as brash and talented as he was, but with a flair for front-of-house operations and customer service. Taylor Bishop, at 20, became his right-hand employee.
Their celebrity clients included Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and several Carolina Panthers players, which led Smith to a job cooking for the NFL team in 2015. When the team’s head chef had to step away for personal reasons, Smith was ready to step into the position. He takes a bit of credit for their success the next year.
“I tell people the only reason they went to the Super Bowl [that season] was because I was cooking for them,” he says, laughing.
Smith’s almost obsessive hustle did not slow down. He was still moonlighting as a caterer, preparing food for weddings and banquets, and with Bishop’s help began a meal-prep company servicing Charlotte and Atlanta. To drum up business, he followed personal trainers, gyms and other fitness experts on social media.
“I liked and hounded everybody,” he says. He and Bishop gained dozens of clients and were making 300-400 meals a week, plus papering the city with close to 20,000 fliers a week. When his youngest son was born, Smith, a father of six, stayed at the hospital long enough to see the baby and agree on a name. Then, he left to distribute 2,000 fliers that night.
Smith and Bishop contracted with apartment complexes to cater themed nights: Wine Down Wednesdays, Caribbean Fridays, Saturday brunches and Sunday pool parties, complete with DJs, beer sponsors and photographers.
“It was going really well until Covid,” Smith says.
Even established restaurants and caterers often survive on razor-thin profit margins, rarely more than 10%. The pandemic effectively kneecapped the catering business, shut down by social-distancing precautions and low occupancy limits. So, Smith cashed out his savings and flipped his business model completely, opening Chef’s Kitchen in South End in April 2020. The cozy location was takeout only, and the kitchen allowed him to continue the meal-prep business. Business was good — a little too good, even.
Smith needed a bigger place and more staff to meet the demand. He found it in Clover, S.C., a 10,000-square-foot dining and banquet space right off the water. The original plan was to offer takeout only, but the price was so good on the former River Rat location he decided to open up a sit-down restaurant, too. The menu at Chef’s Kitchen Lake Wylie is sort of a Creole-Italian fusion. In addition to steak, wings and pork chops, entrees like salmon New Orleans, seafood Creole over wild rice, and scallop and shrimp caponata are also on the menu.
“I take everything I learned over the years from French, Southern and Creole cooking and put it into the menu,” says Smith, who recently announced plans for a second Chef’s Kitchen at Carolina Place Mall in Pineville. “A lot of people just want the title of chef without the work, the learning, the love. What I do, you can’t just go to a restaurant and know what it is. When I get in the zone, it feels like magic.”
The menu changes frequently, because that’s how Smith gets his inspiration.
“I just changed the menu two hours ago,” he says with a laugh. “I jot it all down and send it to my partner. I get up at 2 or 3 in the morning and text her ideas. She’s like, ‘Whatever. We’ll see.’” SP
Chef’s Kitchen serves dinner Wednesday-Sunday at 5301 Hwy. 557, Clover, S.C. A second Chef’s Kitchen at Carolina Place Mall in Pineville is expected to open in July. Follow Chef’s Kitchen on Instagram @chefskitchenclt; chefskitchencatering.com
Featured photo by Justin Driscoll