February 20, 2015
Over 150 years ago the discovery of gold brought a blush of growth to a small town located about 20 miles south of Charlotte named Waxhaw. Today its luxurious charms continue to lure residents and visitors away from the big-city bustle to enjoy a picturesque All-American downtown. Located just past a row of proud square-faced brick facades and among a tiny cluster of shops, is the culinary lucky-strike known as Heritage Food & Drink.
Inside, the plain white walls hung with artistic black and white photographs of the surrounding community give little hint of the vibrant palette issuing from the kitchen of Chef Paul Verica. Emerging into a quiet, empty dining room on a Wednesday afternoon, the lanky chef sports his ubiquitous Philadelphia Eagles cap and a typically reserved demeanor. The latter masks both a steely determination and a ready, earthy sense of humor, not to mention a wealth of experience.
Beginning in his native city of Philadelphia, Verica’s culinary trajectory has gone from washing dishes at a family business to staging with Michelin starred chefs in France and leading large corporate teams at hotels and resorts. It was in Charlotte, at The Club at Longview, that he forged an influential friendship with then-catering director Kim Shaw. Her philosophy of farmers leading chefs rather than the other way around continues to inform Verica’s approach at his year-old venture where he mines culinary gold from local, seasonal ingredients.
“To me it’s all about the ingredients,” he says emphatically. “It’s just sourcing the best ingredients you can and then letting them talk to you.” At Heritage, sourcing is an active daily concern. His former mentor has now become a farmer herself, and Shaw’s Small City Farm is one of four primary suppliers to Verica’s vision of New American cuisine. Two of the others lie within eight miles of the restaurant’s downtown Waxhaw location. “I’m very, very lucky to have both Sammy [Koenigsburg of New Town Farms] and Poplar Ridge so close,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve texted Sammy or Joe and been like, ‘Hey, it’s 10:00 at night. We got slammed tonight and didn’t expect it, can you have XYZ ready for me in the morning?'”
Verica evinces a deep respect for the farmers who supply his kitchen, refusing to make requests for specific crops or varieties. “[The farmers] want me to tell them what I want, and I’m like, ‘Guys, just grow what’s going to do best. What’s best for the soil, what’s best for the terroir.'” It’s not often you hear a chef use the word “terroir” outside of wine, but Verica is serious about respecting the flavors drawn from North Carolina soil. “I’m not a farmer,” he says, explaining why he prefers to leave the production of raw materials to the experts.
Once inside the Heritage kitchen, however, those ingredients are subject to Verica’s expertise, transmuting into some of Charlotte’s most inventive cuisine. Every plate, which issues through the pass near the front door, demonstrates an artist’s eye for color and composition, bearing out the truth that we eat first with our eyes. The primary target here, though, is your mouth, and Verica pursues a tight focus on the essential flavors of his food. Whether playing off the tension between the earthiness of a sous-vide “beet tartare” and the tang of Goat Lady Dairy cheese, or the crispy char of sautéed broccolini against the tenderest of slow-cooked beef, every dish reveals multiple layers of both flavor and texture.
While most of Verica’s plates come graced with dollops of fluid gels or pillows of lacy foam, he uses such techniques judiciously, seeking always to enhance flavors rather than simply playing with them. After a first flirtation with highly-manipulated food, he says, “I just sat back and I looked at it and I said, ‘This isn’t who I am. This isn’t what my food is.'” A year later, his established style reflects a more down-to-earth philosophy. “Buy the best ingredient you can, do as little to it as possible, and make it look good and taste good.”
In a seven-course tasting prepared for CLTure, Verica showcases the culinary wealth of the region, including vegetables, meats and dairy. The New Year’s Rolls perfectly demonstrate his penchant for drawing from diverse influences to create something new, yet familiar and grounded in tradition. Reminiscent of Asian cabbage rolls or Greek dolmades, the plump rolls of collard greens encase a harmonious Southern blend of tender pork, rich buttery black-eyed peas and the soft heat of a house-made hot sauce. The tastes speak of a rich local heritage which is only fitting for a dish hailing almost entirely from within 40 miles of the restaurant.
As our two-hour culinary tour winds down, Verica is already slipping into his chef jacket, his attention turning toward the small kitchen where he’ll spend the next five or six hours of service. The lucky diners of Waxhaw will soon be arriving to luxuriate in the rich flavors of its newest treasure.
Address: 201 West South Main Street, Waxhaw, NC