Now in charge of food and beverage at Charlotte Marriott City Center, Chef Coleman talks about his newest challenge.
By Hope S. Philbrick
The Charlotte, N.C., native grew up spending summers at his grandparents’ Mississippi farm. He launched his restaurant career at the McNinch House in Charlotte in 2003 as a kitchen assistant and worked his way up to executive chef in 2005. At the same time, he was working his way through culinary school at Central Piedmont Community College. In January, 2014, he moved to Uptown Charlotte to work at The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel.
Whatever brings you to Charlotte, odds are that you’ll need to eat. It’s worth following Coleman to his new location for a meal at Stoke.
We recently sat down with him over coffee at Coco & The Director to learn more.
What inspired you to make the transition from The Asbury to here?
Marriott wanted to do something different. They wanted to kind of reinvent food and beverage and try this experiment: this whole entire hotel is an experiment. It’s called M-Beta because it’s kind of a laboratory, they’re trying innovations in rooms, at check-in, and food and beverage. One thing they really wanted to try was a restaurant that would be promoted as a local restaurant instead of just an amenity for guests. So that idea of creating something that Charlotte would embrace—I’m a Charlotte guy, I was born and raised here—that really drew me in. Then there was the opportunity to open up the bar, open up a coffee shop, re-think the way we do things in banquets….
Because you’re over dining for the whole hotel, not just Stoke?
Right. If it’s food related, I’ve got my hands on it. So the idea of experimentation, creation and trying something new [appealed to me].
What have you been able to do here that you maybe weren’t able to do elsewhere?
With experimentation there came a budget, a big budget, so there have been opportunities for me personally to do some things that I wouldn’t be able to do with promotions and that kind of stuff. Also for brand itself: We just ran into the West Coast Development Team, they’re in charge of entire West Coast operations for Marriott, and every week we get people from within the company and without—like Hiltons, Sheratons, and other companies are sending people in—to check out what we’re doing. There’s a bit of a spotlight on us and chefs have fairly large egos and we like to be stoked every now and then.
They built this dream kitchen and stove, it’s gorgeous, there’s a wood burning oven that we can get up to 1200 degrees, there’s a lot of shiny new toys.
Did you help design the kitchen?
I did not. I signed on to the project pretty late, three months before we opened.
What have you been able to do on the menu that’s different?
The menu is a representation of who I am and what I like to cook. I’m able to still support the local farms that I was buying from at The Asbury, but on a much bigger scale. That’s cool. We have 150 seats between the restaurant and bar area, we serve the entire menu to all those seats, so we’re really impacting the farms that we’re buying from. Whereas I was able to buy two to three pounds of arugula at a time for a 40-seat dining room at The Asbury, and before that 20 seats, to go from 20 to 40 to 150 and really have a bigger spending budget, it’s helping out the community more than a small dining room does. We’re constantly packed, we’re a little slow right now for the holidays, we’re averaging 200 to 300 covers a night. That does a lot of good for the farming community around here.
I noticed that you buy Georgia beef. There must be beef in North Carolina?
It’s Hunter Cattle. There is North Carolina beef, but everything about Hunter Cattle was awesome, I thought it was great, to be purely grass fed.
Local is a touchy subject, it’s a hard definition to pin down, so many chefs have different definitions like ‘it’s got to be 50 miles’, ‘it’s got to be 100 miles’, ‘150 miles’. We’re not promoting ourselves as a local restaurant, we promote ourselves as regional. We kind of came up with this phrase ‘selective sourcing’ where we are going to seek out and select the best possible sources for whatever we want to do, keeping within that regional mindset. We want to support the Carolinas first but if we can’t find anything here that we really like we’ll go to Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and then we can broaden from there. At The Asbury I liked to say we were 75-, 80- to 90 percent local to North and South Carolina. We’re not that high here, we have some demands from hotel guests, but to have as much local, it’s 50 to 60 percent, that’s a lot for a hotel restaurant.
Since you’re drawing from this region, how often does the menu change?
We just rolled out the new menu three days before New Year’s. We hope to change every three to four months. We stay seasonal; some menus may draw out longer based on how the summer is going, as well as demand for a dish. We had tomatoes this year all the way through the end of October so we were able to keep this cool Farmer’s Salad with chopped up tomatoes on the menu.
I was surprised not to see pizza on the menu since you’ve got a wood fired oven.
There are some challenges, it’s not the biggest oven, so to do a pizza or two in there would take up the entire oven space.
I didn’t see anything specifically vegetarian beyond salads and sides.
We’ve got side options, salads, the pastas can be made completely vegetarian. We have ways around it. We can make vegetarian, it’s just not who this restaurant is. It’s family style, supposed to be shared, the idea is larger cuts of meat (12 ounces) and bigger sides. We certainly want to be accommodating to guests here—we had a guest last night who was vegan and gluten free, we said come on in we’ll figure something out—we welcome everybody, but that’s not our focus.
What does this restaurant bring to Charlotte that the city didn’t have before?
I think the ambiance is something that Charlotte hasn’t seen before. There are other open kitchen restaurants but nothing like Stoke so far. We get international guests who come in all the time and say, ‘I didn’t expect to find this in Charlotte, it seems more New York, San Francisco or Chicago.’ So we bring atmosphere to Charlotte. As far as food I don’t know that we’re doing anything that other great chefs in Charlotte aren’t doing, there are a lot of chefs in this town doing really good food. We just really wanted to show that our restaurant can do something different for Marriott.
You don’t necessarily sense that the restaurant is on the lobby level of a hotel.
That was the idea, very deliberate. Nothing about what we’ve done on the first floor screams hotel. The original concept is an open market feel. Because of some zoning and construction issues it’s not exactly the original plan, but it doesn’t feel like a hotel.
A lot of what we’ve done, we try to plug into the community and not just food-wise. The art is local, the plateware was hand-poured in North Carolina, even how we’ve stocked our sundries like our coffee and chocolate makers are local producers. We’ve got local apples, local berries, the food we serve draws from the region. The idea is we’re showing off Charlotte all over the property.
Is there anything not implemented yet that’s coming soon?
In a space in the back, a little hidden room, we are hoping to launch a pop-up series soon where we invite guest chefs to come in and do dinners. I’ve already got friends in New York and Florida who’ve agreed to come and do some dinners here. So it’s a space for me to play in and invite my friends to do something different.
We’re going to do some cooking classes—we’ve got the LG Kitchen on the third floor, designed specifically for cooking classes it also serves as a break space for banquets and meetings. It’s a learning and information center.
The whole food and beverage at this property will constantly change and evolve. Two years from now, nothing we’re doing now will we still be doing. Two years from now it will all be different. I’m not saying that Stoke won’t still be there, I’m saying we’ll be trying something different, experimenting with a new way of doing something. It’s exciting.
– Photos courtesy Stoke/Charlotte Marriott City Center
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.