The New Southerners

The New Southerners In teams of six, they faced off, puffing out their white-aproned chests, readjusting their chef’s hats, and darting quick glances at what ingredients the competition was plundering from the mystery basket of organic herbs, fruits and vegetables. You could cut the competitive tension with a Henckels knife as meeting planners squared off against The Ritz-Carlton sales staff at Johnson & Wales University (J&W).

In a city named one of the “Top 50 Cities that Sizzle” by Restaurant News Magazine, J&W has earned a stellar reputation for its industry-experienced chefs, state-of-the-art facilities and hands-on teambuilding cooking experiences.

In the beginning, teams were randomly selected and given vital instructions. “Yeah, don’t tamper with the other team’s seasonings,” jokes David Rothwell, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte—scheduled to open in October four blocks from J&W. Afterwards, Ritz and J&W chefs judged the presented dishes while everyone else gathered round and munched out. Medals were awarded for presentation, overall quality and the ever-popular “Stay out of the kitchen and don’t give up your day job” category.

“J&W is one of the premier culinary schools in the country,” says Rothwell. “Everything here is first class. You have that WOW experience immediately walking in.”

FORAGING AHEAD The culinary school opened up its branch in Charlotte in 2004, and since then there’s been a lot of noise about “New Southern Cuisine” supplanting traditional regional cooking to please a more sophisticated palate.

Why Charlotte? Much of it has to do with corporations such as Bank of America and Wachovia establishing headquarters here, making it the second largest banking capital in the country.

“We’ve grown into a young, financially strong city,” explains Mike Butts, CDME, executive director of Visit Charlotte. Charlotte’s response was an explosion of really good restaurants, wine connoisseurs and a style of cooking influenced by the cultures who have settled in the area.”

And due to the influx of corporate America, many area restaurants were designed with groups in mind.

“Our Uptown Charlotte (downtown core) dining experiences are a meeting planner’s dream,” says Butts, “whether guests are enjoying the beautiful view from Bentley’s Restaurant on 27, where on a clear day you can see the mountains in the west. Or munching on crab cakes from Mimosa Grill or having oxtail at Blue Restaurant. Those experiences are all just outside the Charlotte Convention Center door.”

Rothwell adds that, “Probably up to 80% of menus in Uptown Charlotte restaurants use organic or food from farms within 100 miles of the city.”

But what exactly is New Southern cuisine?

“French food gone South,” laughs Clarke Allen, president of dmc Charlotte Arrangements. Some of his favorite Iron Chef-style teambuilding competitions for groups from 75-100, focus on mixing typical foods like collard greens with dishes such as lightly fried fois gras.

“Basically, we take traditional Southern cooking and put a French twist on it,” says Mark Hibbs, owner of Ratcliff on the Green. “Like sweet potatoes prepared with a beignet recipe.” Hibbs says seven years ago, Charlotte was the first city to petition the French government for the rights to import the eggs of the poulet rouge chicken, explaining it’s “the second most highly prized bird in France.”

He prepares that coq au vin (rooster in wine) style, stuffed with bacon, mushrooms and onions. Another fave of his is Vietnamese squid salad with barbecue ribs.

The other part of the New South equation is “farm-to-fork” freshness. So much so that Hibbs grows much of his vegetables and herbs behind his house. And get this, Hibbs doesn’t have a walk-in freezer in his restaurant. Everything comes in from the farmers almost daily, and he often takes groups out to the farms for tours. Hibbs only serves “pastured pork and chicken,” meaning free range and grass fed animals without by-products, steroids or antibiotics.

“Much of what people eat was grown in a pen on concrete,” says Hibbs. “But people are more into finding where their food is sourced from these days.”

Even local barbecue is transformed in Charlotte. The Levine Museum of the New South hosts The New South Barbeque Bus Tour, a cozy excuse for up to 45 passengers to sample barbeque incorporating the flavors of the restaurant owners’ origins, from Mexican to Korean. Also look into catering a group at the 40,000-sf interactive museum, containing America’s most comprehensive collection of post-Civil War memorabilia reflective of Southern lifestyles. The facility hosts groups up to 600.

A LITTLE WINE WITH DINNER? Certified executive chef Jim Alexander is owner of Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar. Housed in the Wall Street Capitol Building, it’s one of Charlotte’s marquee restaurants with a quiet tableau of cocoa-colored stained concrete flooring and distressed pine walls.

“The challenge in the culinary industry here is that if your food has a Southern influence, you’d better do it well,” comments Alexander. He says his cooking “incorporates contemporary French technique. If an animal has a spine, we’ll make stock from it.”

The reviews are in.

“It’s difficult to find food of this quality, more classic than trendy, in such a comfortable setting,” says Mary Fiorillo, program coordinator for Carolina Medical. “Jim Alexander has gone out of his way to accommodate my group for several years…. The Zebra Restaurant gives off a quiet, secluded feeling, but is easily accessible.” Seating is 85 inside and 40 on the patio.

Zebra is known for its popular Chef’s Grand Tasting: 10-12 courses of one-and-a-half to three-ounce portioned dishes paired with different varietals from the 900 bottles lining his wine cellar.

Alexander also hosts sold-out winemaker dinners, where past corporate clients have flown in winemakers from as far away as Argentina and New Zealand.

Charlotte? A wine center, too? Robert Balsley, known as the King of Wine Retail in Charlotte, helped created that allure.

“It was the 1970s…. French wine won every competition there was, so some friends and I decided to do something different,” explains the owner of Arthur’s Restaurant & Wine Shop for the past 37 years.

“So we specialized in California wines,” he says, initiating a certain scarcity of Old World wines on local menus. Balsley’s move resonated well with the local community because so many bankers and their clients had frequented California vineyards. He recalls the idea being prescient, at a time when Charlotte was looking for a way out of the Old South.

That’s all well and good, but for worldly corporate travelers like Robert C. Wiley, it’s still all about the food. For 35 years, the president of Liability Insurance Administrators in Santa Barbara has hosted board meeting dinners at high-end restaurants across the country.

His hotel concierge recommended Noble’s Restaurant, which touts its version of New Southern cuisine, defined by executive chef Kyle Krieger as “sustainable-farmed organic ingredients simply prepared to enhance their natural flavors.”

Krieger says Noble’s infuses traditional Southern delights such as shrimp and white grits or greens with a rustic Italian twist, by using condensed micro herbs with intense flavors. Likewise micro vegetables such as maitake mushrooms and delicate beet sprouts that emit a sweet, earthy flavor. Most importantly, everything possible is homemade and natural.

“We buy our pork locally and use all of it, even making our own bacon,” says the chef. “We roast vegetables in a wood-fired oven, make our pasta and our own rustic crusty breads, which is a 3-day process.”

After dining with his wife at Noble’s the night before and praying the phenomenal food wasn’t a fluke, Wiley brought in 15 people the next evening to the Italian villa-themed restaurant with ceiling trellises and three dining rooms for more of Noble’s specialties. “The food was exceptional,” he says. “My guests raved. At the last minute I ordered a fried but sweet soft-shelled crab dish for one of my guests who’s wild about them. He rated them the best he’d ever had.” Wiley called the service excellent but the best part: “Entrees were 25-35% less than I’d find in California or New York.”

DINNER @ EPICENTRE Last year’s opening of the EpiCentre social/entertainment hub made a big impact in downtown Charlotte with a bevy of new restaurants and hotels. The 175-room Aloft Charlotte Uptown at the EpiCentre opened this winter, to be followed by the new Ritz-Carlton nearby. Both are bringing design-conscious, sustainable style to the city’s urban core. We like Aloft’s 9-ft ceilings and the re:mix communal lounge. Meeting space is 2,600 sf.

Within EpiCentre, one restaurant is especially notable for new-age noshing. Mez was awarded best new restaurant in Charlotte for 2009, with a menu devoted to worldly flavors. You can order a Kansas City veal chop with porcini mushroom sauce, sure. But exec chef Klime Kovaceski is most well-known for seafood dishes like black cod with miso, and prosciutto-wrapped prawns. He made a huge name for himself a decade ago in South Florida as one of the forefathers of “New World Cuisine.”

Kovaceski moved to North Carolina because, he’s quoted as saying, “There’s an energy and excitement here that I haven’t seen since the 90s in Miami.” He attributes that to Charlotte’s bi-coastal citizenry, who appreciate the West Coast’s demand for fresh, local ingredients, and the East’s emphasis on technique. Mez caters groups up to 600.