January 30, 2019
For two years after opening his beloved Yolk restaurant in Rock Hill, Gregory Collier wouldn’t allow anyone to call him chef. Now, with an expansion into 7th Street Market, he’s getting used to the title and accolades as one of Charlotte’s culinary elite.
“A lot of people call themselves chefs who don’t necessarily have that skill set,” Collier said. “I told everybody at my restaurant to just call me Greg, because it was my first time running a kitchen and I didn’t think I was there yet. Now, years later everybody still calls me Greg and I’m like, ‘Yo, wtf?’”
Collier opened The Yolk in 2012 with his wife Subrina, with help from a $20,000 loan from Subrina’s parents. The plan was to create contemporary breakfasts with a southern sensibility. The shop became known for favorites like their Mojo Hash (coffee-braised beef, diced sweet potato, roasted mushrooms and two over easy eggs with scallion pesto), as well as their friendly atmosphere and easy price point.
“The concept was to elevate breakfast and at the same time people’s palates. Everyone can’t afford a $50 steak, but I felt it was my charge to try to make people think about food differently,” Collier said. He admitted to having, at the time, a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
“I had to prove I could cook as good as the chefs in Charlotte because they didn’t know me, I didn’t know them and I thought they didn’t like me. I used that as motivation,” Collier said. “But once I started to meet them, especially at the Piedmont Culinary Guild in 2013, I saw the culinary scene differently here.”
The Colliers opened Dawn Café in Ayrsley Village in 2016, and later that same year began collaborating on Soul Food Sessions— a series of themed dinners that bring together the crème of Charlotte’s black chefs. Besides Collier, the talent included Hot Box food truck owner Michael Bowling, Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams of the food truck What the Fries and pastry chef Jamie Suddoth. They execute their visions while mixologists Justin Hazelton crafts specialty cocktail pairings for each course.
“Just to be in a space where you are cooking on a high level with people who look like you, none of us had experienced that before,” Collier said. “It was a catalyst to a deeper conversation about the food and us as black chefs. Because the reality is, there have been and will continue to be dinners with all white chefs and nobody will think anything of it, people just think it’s normal. But when we did it, people noticed.”
People did more than notice. Since the first dinner, each subsequent one has sold out, and they invited new chefs into the fold. The sessions raise money for charities, scholarships and provide mentorship support to minority culinary students. Then in 2018, Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated Company sponsored a four-city tour, “The Table Is Set,” with dinners in Charlotte, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Charleston.
“When that happened, it kind of catapulted us to another level. Fortunately, we had The Yolk, which continued to get a lot of press, so that worked hand-in-hand. But behind the scenes, Subrina and I were trying to figure out our next steps,” Collier said.
That next move came in the form of Uptown’s 7th Street Public Market. The application process was rigorous. In addition to a series of interviews and several tastings, the Colliers had to provide a business plan and their numbers. But this is where their seven-year track record came in handy.
“We already had a pretty good reputation so it made sense to bring in [a company] who could do breakfast until 2:30 p.m. And what really put us in good position was the chefs residence program,” Collier said. “The market was originally intended to be an incubation space but because people do so great here, no one really wants to leave. I think they helped us because we help them incubate new businesses.”
The program Collier refers to is another way The Yolk contributes to the food culture of Charlotte. Their chef residence program gives younger chefs opportunities Collier didn’t have access to. Since The Yolk Uptown is primarily a breakfast and lunch spot that closes at 2 p.m., he shares his space in the evenings with hand-picked resident chefs. For two months, these younger culinary artists learn from a seasoned professional, create their own menu, and build up clientele. Currently, the team behind the 225 Street Food truck is in residence.
Because of the dearth of African Americans heading kitchens or running front-of-house operations in Charlotte, the Colliers are aware of the impact their visibility has on the culinary scene. Growing up in Memphis, neither he nor Subrina saw cooking as a way out of poverty. Now, he said, they make it a point to show folks not that it’s a way out, but a way up, too. Asked if their success is making a difference for other black chefs in Charlotte, Collier paused.
“We’ve worked really hard these past seven years,” Collier said. “We missed birthdays, funerals, graduations and vacations to get here and, to us, here was just people appreciating everything we’ve done and sacrificed. Our success shouldn’t make it easier for other black chefs, because we’ve busted our asses for this, but it should take away the issue of them being black. Every time a door opens for us, we hope we can hold that thing open a little bit longer for other folks to slide in right behind us.”
The Colliers have lots of surprises planned with their new 7th Street neighbors, from collaborating on coffee flavors to creating wine and cheese-pairing dinners. Stop by for their phenomenal grits, check out the special events– Collier is hosting a dinner with Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest on February 10— and don’t forget to call him chef. He’s earned it.
Check out more on The Yolk in Uptown.
7th Street Public Market
224 E. 7th Street
Charlotte, NC 28202
Monday – Friday: 7:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Saturday + Sunday: 8:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.