The James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour returns to the Queen City

By Alison Leininger

March 7, 2016

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. How do Charlotteans spell “respect”? Well, if they’re chefs, they might spell it “JBF.”

That’s shorthand for the James Beard Foundation, a NYC-based culinary institution stemming from the paradigm-changing career of the titular chef. Along with Julia Child, he brought America’s taste buds to life in the 20th century and the foundation’s dinners, awards and scholarships continue his legacy into the next.

Every year chatter rises over whether Charlotte will finally garner its first JBF Best Restaurant or Chef award– perhaps 2016 is the year, with Davidson’s Kindred in the running. But, the fact is, we’ve already got some JBF bonafides. In April, five local culinary stars will bring “A Taste of Charlotte” to the JBF House in Manhattan. A preview dinner at the end of February helped raise funds for the trip, but that’s not the Queen City’s only chance to enjoy JBF-level dining. On March 23, the Celebrity Chef Tour rolls back into town, settling into its gracious home away from home at Bonterra Dining & Wine Room.

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Joe and Katy Kindred of Kindred Restaurant. Photo by Carter Short

Five Charlotte chefs will collaborate on this six-course meal, along with guest Bryan Skelding, Executive Chef at the historic Greenbrier resort of West Virginia. The event will open with hors d’œuvres from each headliner, followed by plated courses highlighting each chef’s style. As every year, the participants are excited at the prospect of bringing their A game to share with their peers.

“I think the bar is certainly set at a high level,” says Joe Kindred, chef and owner of the eponymous restaurant in Davidson that’s attracted national attention in the past year. While this is his first time on the JBF celebrity team, he expects a typically intense kitchen experience with some exceptional food on the plates. “I’m looking forward to learning some fun new techniques from these guys.”

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Chef Rocco Whalen of Fahrenheit. Photo by Carter Short

Others who have been through this drill before also look forward to some kitchen collegiality. “We live such hectic lives…we are all friends but we never have free time to get together and hang out,” says Paul Verica of Heritage Food and Drink in Waxhaw. “Chefs live crazy lives,” echoes Rocco Whalen of Fahrenheit, adding “It’s very pleasant to interact, collaborate, influence each other, and also dictate some of the future in Crown Town.”

Judging from the menu, that future arises from local ingredients elevated to elegance with influences from around the world. For the third course, Bonterra’s Blake Hartwick opts for an unglamorous cut of chicken thigh, but braises it in pinot. He renders the humble sweet potato into a refined nage, and stuffs delicate morel mushrooms with foie gras– then garnishes it all with fried chicken skin.

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Chef Blake Hartwick of Bonterra

Elsewhere Bonterra’s Jason Lemon uses local Ashe County cheddar in a classic gougère, and Verica presents a North Carolina version of surf and turf with Brasstown beef and local shrimp. On his two dishes, Whalen plays to even wider international flavors with rare beef rolls with miso and a Thai cucumber soup accompanied by vegetable samosas.

While the stated goal of these dinners is to raise funds for the JBF’s scholarships and grants, it also serves to shine a spotlight on the area’s wealth of ingredients and impressive pool of talent. “It will continue to help raise awareness that we have a vibrant, diverse and growing culinary scene,” says Verica. Plus, “It pushes us as cooks to be better. I mean, you’re not going to let one of your friends show you up!”

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Chef Paul Verica of Heritage Food & Drink. Photo by Jonathan Cooper

Whether or not the JBF bestows one of its coveted awards on a local restaurant soon, Charlotte’s food culture will continue to thrive and innovate. “Attitude determines altitude,” says Whalen. He and his peers are determined to rise to the top.

The James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour returns to Charlotte on Wednesday, March 23 to Bonterra Dining & Wine Room. Click here for more info.

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