Chefs Darryl Cooper and Oscar Johnson bring the flavors of coastal Virginia to Charlotte.
by Emiene Wright
Charlotte’s best-kept secret in seafood doesn’t have crab legs on the menu. At Jimmy Pearls Southern Eatery, a popular pop-up operating out of 7th Street Public Market on Fridays and Saturdays, that’s by design. Chefs Darryl Cooper and Oscar Johnson are on a mission to bring authentic Tidewater flavors to the Queen City.
The Tidewater region stretches from southeastern Virginia to northeastern North Carolina, incorporating parts of Maryland facing the Chesapeake Bay. It includes Jamestown, the English settlement where enslaved Africans first set foot in the United States in 1619, bringing their many different skills as craftsmen, farmers and, yes, cooks.
“Our ancestors came from Angola and settled there, and it’s only right to tell people the true story and history through food,” says Johnson, who grew up in Hampton, Va. “There’s nothing wrong with crab legs and steamed shrimp, but we want to give the true essence of Tidewater cuisine.”
Cooper hails from Newport News, Va. “We’re channeling that energy they transmitted into the food and elevating it with our classical training,” he adds.
Though the business partners grew up in communities just 10 miles apart, their paths didn’t cross until 10 years ago in the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University, where they formed an immediate, almost familial bond.
“He’s Ray, I’m Claude,” Cooper says, referencing the 1999 comedy Life starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. “Oscar might come up with some wild idea, but we’ll try it. If it sucks, we don’t keep it, but if it pops, we run with it.”
A big reason the duo work so well together is their complementary backgrounds. Johnson worked in the kitchen at Myers Park Country Club for almost four years under two master chefs that encouraged exploration. Cooper cut his teeth in institutional cooking, from his first job as a teen serving at Busch Gardens to working at retirement homes with dietary restrictions to his current 9-to-5 role as a cafeteria manager for an elementary school.
“I learned the structure of food costs, waste and how to cook in bulk,” Cooper says. “Wild ideas don’t come into my brain the way they do for Oscar. I’m consistent, he’s creative. Together we’re trying to get Jimmy Pearls to blow up as consistently creative.”
The two pay homage to their roots with the name and philosophy behind Jimmy Pearls.
“The top species of seafood eaten in the Tidewater region are blue crab and oysters,” Cooper says. “Male blue crabs are called ‘Jimmy’ and females are called ‘Sally.’ And pearls, of course, come from oysters.”
Beyond coastal seafood, the region is also known for a strong rural heritage, with rustic offerings such as boiled peanuts, field peas, apples and country ham. It’s a little bit of everything, and that diversity is reflected in Jimmy Pearls’ menu, where rice and peas are sourced locally from Nebedaye Farms.
“We’re being thoughtful and intentional about what we create,” Cooper says. “Each dish has a history that comes with it, from our families or our culture.”
Cooper worked for five years perfecting his chicken hotlink sausage, based on a family recipe. His version is a little spicy, a little sweet, with a nice snap when you bite into it. The sausage is served on a brioche bun with chow chow and mustard, and, though it’s made with chicken instead of pork, it’s incredibly juicy.
Saltwater standbys like the Uncle Gene fish sandwich, inspired by Johnson’s late uncle, and Freako Misto, a fried seafood and vegetable platter, have become fan favorites.
“Growing up we had Bay Days, a festival based on the Chesapeake Bay,” Johnson says. “Uncle Gene and the other deacons from Queen Street Baptist Church would sell fried fish sandwiches. … They were huge, the best in town. Nothing complicated, just whiting or catfish. Uncle Gene just put his all into everything he did.”
The Uncle Gene has all the makings of a great fish sandwich: a seasoned and fried filet topped with a vinegary medley of peas, cabbage, kale, bell peppers and fish peppers — an heirloom variety dating to the 1800s — for a little kick. The Jimmy sauce is a sweet-potato tartar with chow chow, potato puree and a dab of mustard to cut the fried fat with a slice of acid.
Sometimes, Cooper and Johnson add an item on the menu that’s so special it’s only available for a limited time. One such item is yock, a Chinese noodle dish that’s relatively unknown outside of the Tidewater region. Yock was created by the first Chinese immigrants in the area. Using a very straightforward recipe of wheat flour, water and salt, the hand-pulled noodles were accompanied by a tangy bath of ketchup, onions, soy sauce and seasonings, studded with either chicken or pork. (New Orleans has a different version of yock, influenced by its Vietnamese population.)
“It’s struggle food, a big bowl of comfort. In essence, the first Chinese immigrants were making something out of nothing — a noodle soup,” says Johnson, who prefers his yock brothy, similar to ramen.
The African American community, some of whom worked on the docks as longshoremen or visited Asia while serving in the Navy, adopted the dish and put their spin on it. These days, yock is made and sold at church fundraisers and late-night yock shacks. Recipes are fiercely guarded, with secret ingredients as far-ranging as quail eggs and Filipino banana sauce. Jimmy Pearls incorporates collard greens, garlic and a bit of nori, or Japanese seaweed, in its version.
“We elevate that a bit, but it’s still a box of yock. Yock is automatically Tidewater. I feel like it’ll organically catch on in this melting pot of a city,” Johnson says. SP
Jimmy Pearls is open Fridays and Saturdays from 4-7 p.m. in the 7th Street Public Market. Pre-ordering is available on their website at jimmypearls.square.site. Follow them on Instagram @_jimmypearls.