On a recent Wednesday night, the kitchen inside Bonterra Restaurant was abuzz with activity. Charlotte Chef Blake Hartwick of Bonterra Dining & Wine Room had gathered a few culinary comrades inside his kitchen to host the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner; the second dinner of its kind in the city. On one end of the kitchen, Hartwick and sous chef Mike Long tended to the smoked pork loin on Bonterra’s wood-fired grill, while chefs Paul Verica (Heritage Food and Drink, Waxhaw) and Rocco Whalen (Fahrenheit, Charlotte) got chummy over a sea of green garlic panna cotta, joking with one another as they painstakingly garnished the bite-sized preludes with flower petals. The atmosphere was convivial, though the chefs were hard at work prepping a six-course meal for more than 100 guests.
“Fifteen years ago, it was every man for himself,” says Hartwick of Charlotte’s former days. He cites the handful of chefs who swam against the tidal wave of chain restaurants and corporate steakhouses, working to secure a small share of the dining public that sought out chef-driven dining experiences. Today, the vibe is decidedly more collaborative. The scene has grown exponentially, mirroring the rapid development of the city itself. Chefs are coming together to shed light on Charlotte’s burgeoning culinary scene; hosting collaborative dinners, opening restaurants at a steady clip, unifying the city’s talents through organizations like the Piedmont Culinary Guild, and inspiring one another to new heights.
During service, Chef Joe Kindred (Kindred Restaurant, Davidson), a recent starling on the national food scene, thanks to nods from the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appetit’s Hot 10 list of Best New Restaurants in America, worked alongside Chef Brian Skelding (The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, WV) to push plates out to the dining room of enthused eaters. A pleasant commotion arose as the chefs lined up, side by side, to make the magic happen.
In April, four more Charlotte chefs, including Hartwick and Verica, will head to New York to cook at the James Beard House. It seems the hard-working hands of Charlotte’s chefs are doing double-time these days, moving the needle ever forward, plate by plate.