Executive Chef at The Asbury talks dining in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Chef Chris Coleman is a Charlotte, N.C., native who 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 partner with The Dunhill Hotel.
At The Asbury, his menu is inspired by his Southern roots and the culturally diverse community of the New South. He sources 90 percent of ingredients for his menu from about 40 local farmers, fishermen, and food artisans.
We recently talked to him about the dining scene in his hometown.
How long have you lived in Charlotte, North Carolina?
I’ve lived in Charlotte almost my entire life. I was born and raised here.
How long have you worked as a chef in Charlotte?
I started my career at age 14 in Charlotte. I left for a chef job when I was 20, but came back. I’m 31 years old and have spent 11 years working in Charlotte.
What’s your take on the current dining scene in Charlotte?
I think a lot of great things are happening right now. There are multiple culinary schools putting out pretty good talent. Charlotte is a transient city; people are moving in to Charlotte from all over the country and internationally. And they expect a higher level of service when it comes to food and dining, which allows chefs like me and others to be inventive, creative and play around. We have a lot of farms right around Charlotte—there are 350 farms in the surrounding counties—so we have a lot to draw from. A lot of chefs are really kind of jumping hard on that ‘farm to fork’ bandwagon and it’s a good thing to see.
Isn’t ‘farm to fork’ already pervasive across North Carolina?
It’s not super new here in Charlotte, but the broadness of it has picked up in the last few years. I’d say it started in 1991 or 1992, so it’s been around awhile, but with so many restaurants doing it we’re living in a boom right now. Just three or four years ago, there were maybe a few restaurants you could count, but now almost every restaurant is sourcing something locally.
Is Charlotte’s dining scene concentrated in Uptown?
No, it’s spread out. There is a big concentration in Uptown for fine dining and then you have pockets throughout the rest of town with different styles. Uptown Charlotte tends to be fairly expensive restaurants, and that tends to be fine dining which is what JWU students latch onto.
In addition to The Asbury, what do you consider to be some of the great restaurants Uptown?
Uptown I like Halcyon. I really like Roosters, they’re doing a Southern small plates type of menu. Then right outside of Uptown on Elizabeth Avenue is Passion8, a bistro and custom shop that does especially well with local farm to fork food.
What’s next for Charlotte’s food scene?
I think that we are just now on the cusp of doing great things and I hope we’ll get attention from James Beard Foundation and some bigger prominent magazines. I think we’re just a year or two from that coming into fruition. There are a lot of exciting things happing on menus throughout the city. I’m a member of the Piedmont Culinary Guild and we’re working really hard; the tag line is “connecting the food chain.” We’re working hard to bring farmers more into celebrity chef status, to bring Charlotte as a whole into the same sentences as Atlanta, Charleston and Raleigh, and trying to educate each other and push each other as chefs and culinarians. I’d say keep your eye on Charlotte over the next two to three years.
How would you define/describe “Charlotte cuisine”?
A lot of Charlotte restaurants do ‘new Southern’ or ‘modern American.’ I’m not sure that there’s really a ‘Charlotte cuisine.’ With so many restaurants using local products we do see lots of sweet potatoes, peanuts, greens, strawberries and other things from farmers. If you’re going to compare Charlotte to another city, we’re most similar to Atlanta as far as the food scene goes. Not a majority of Charlotte has bought into ‘farm to fork’ as much as Raleigh and Durham and we’re not as funky as Asheville—but we’re close.
– Photo courtesy The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel