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A Place At The Table

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A Place At The Table
Photography by Peter Taylor

Matthew Krenz welcomes fellow Charlotte chefs and purveyors to his family ranch for an outdoor gathering.

 

For Matthew Krenz, who’s just as at ease driving through a pasture in a pickup truck as he is helming the kitchen of one of Charlotte’s hottest restaurants, there’s no better place to host a summer gathering than his parents’ ranch.

Thirty miles southeast of Charlotte, the highway gives way to quiet country roads and the landscape loosens its belt. Here, a winding gravel driveway flanked by a pasture of grazing cattle ends at a brick house the Krenz family designed and built in 2002. On six acres surrounding their home, and nearly fifty more down the road, Matthew’s parents, Alan and Bridget, raise Hereford-Angus crosses.

On this balmy night, the Krenzes’ serene flagstone patio, anchored by a stately brick fireplace, hosts a handful of Charlotte-area chefs and farmers who, on a rare break from cooking, crafting, planting, and sowing, take a seat at the table set by Matthew, executive chef of the Asbury, the intimate dining room inside Uptown Charlotte’s historic Dunhill Hotel.

At the bottom of the sloped sidewalk leading to the backyard, Sycamore Brewing’s Justin and Sarah Brigham pour beer from an exquisitely restored 1938 Ford fire truck outfitted with eight taps.

“Matt’s been with us every step of the way,” says Justin, holding the couple’s 8-month-old daughter, Claire. “Before we opened the brewery, he used to come to our house and we’d brew beer together in five-gallon batches.”

Justin Brigham of Sycamore Brewing pulls a tap from his fire truck turned mobile tap house.

Nearby, Zack Gadberry, a chef-turned-cheesemaker at Uno Alla Volta cheeses, and his wife, Victoria, are mid-conversation with Paul Verica, owner and executive chef of Heritage Food and Drink. “Isn’t that Sammy’s smoker?” Zack asks, pointing toward Matthew, circumspect over a couple of cast-iron skillets.

Sammy is Sammy Koenigsberg, who runs New Town Farms with his wife, Melinda. Around here, the Koenigsbergs are known as founding farmers—or, as Matthew refers to them, “the O.G.’s of farming here in Charlotte.” Established in 1990, their organic farm provides vegetables, chickens, eggs, turkeys, and Ossabaw Island hogs to twenty or so Charlotte-area chefs, including Matthew.

Charlotte’s that kind of place—big enough for cosmopolitan clout, small enough that chefs and farmers here are tightly bound, supporting one another by crafting a specific cheese or lending a wood-fired smoker.

As they are at the Asbury, the dishes Matthew has prepared tonight are all at once redolent of his upbringing, imbued with the fruits of local farmers, eye-catching, and pleasing to the palate.

The table is set with family heirlooms.

Fresh, seasonal peas and beans pair with corn, tomatoes, and herbs in a peak-of-summer salad. The macaroni and cheese, bound by cheddar fondue and goat milk gournay, is flecked with piquillo peppers and crispy country ham. At the end of the night, Matthew’s rosemary and honey-tinged peach ice cream will be drizzled withcocoa gravy, just like his grandmother Peggy Kent used to make.

The pièce de résistance, though, is a beer-braised Krenz Ranch brisket rising from a pool of golden raisin barbecue sauce. Ranching is synonymous with the Krenz pedigree— Matthew’s father, Alan, is a seventh-generation cattle farmer—and Krenz Ranch beef is not just any beef. The ranch is a cow-to-calf farm, an industry rarity. As they grow, cows move to different pastures, roaming freely. Instead of hanging for two weeks, as is customary, Krenz beef hangs for at least six weeks, resulting in a more intensified, dry-aged flavor.

Beef shank-braised greens.

The Asbury is the ranch’s primary customer. The ranch only sells half cows, and Matthew is committed to using every part of the animal. Bones become broth; tallow fortifies biscuits; risotto is laced with liver.In addition to the requisite steaks and half-pound Krenz Ranch burger—arguably the best in Charlotte—you can slice into homemade sausage and charcuterie, beef heart carpaccio, and oxtails.

Marinated Bean Salad.

Soon, guests take their seats, some at the teak table, others in wrought-iron furniture that once sat on Grandma Peggy’s back patio. Paul, whose artful incarnations of farm-fresh food at Heritage Food & Drink have earned him near liturgical status in Charlotte food circles, sits across from Rachel Russell, Matthew’s fiancée. Their King Charles Cavalier Kenzie, named after the bygone McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, settles in beneath her feet.

Rachel is no stranger to the restaurant world. Her mother, Anne Avegno Russell, opened the legendary New Orleans restaurant Gautreau’s when she was pregnant with Rachel, her sixth child.

“My mom always said we were never allowed to open a restaurant or date anyone who worked in one,” she says with a wry smile. “So when I met Matthew, I thought, ‘I’ll just go on a date with him. I can’t fall in love with him because my mom said not to.’ And then, of course, that’s what happened.”

Rachel Russell and Matthew Krenz

Anne passed away in 2009, but on this tranquil summer night, the dinner table is set with her heirloom silver. Matthew’s radiant watermelon salad fills an antique silver tray Anne once used for entertaining, and an eighteenth-century vase, also passed down to Rachel, overflows with ivory hydrangeas on the fireplace mantle.

“My parents lost their house in Pass Christian, Mississippi, during Katrina,” Rachel says. “That tray, along with a lot of the silverware, was buried in the sand and we dug it out. When he was preparing for this dinner, Matthew brought it out and polished it. He always makes my mom feel alive through his cooking and the way he entertains. I’ve never met anyone who cares about people as much as he does.”

Toasting with Sycamore Brewing Beer

Soon, Matthew appears with the family-style feast, clad in cast iron—one pan passed down from Matthew’s great-grandmother, another seasoned in Anne’s New Orleans kitchen.

As his friends and family serve one another, Matthew steps back, finally stopping to catch his breath. “To have this many like-minded people around a table talking shop and enjoying life is really what it’s all about. It should happen more often.”

At the end of the night, Matthew’s rosemary and honey–tinged peach ice cream will be drizzled with cocoa gravy, just like his grandmother Peggy Kent used to make. Recipe here.