The Rise of Charlotte's New Foodie Scene

Johnson & Wales University’s culinary school helps raise Charlotte’s food profile as graduates enter city kitchens

Charlotte’s dining scene is hot.

Many industry insiders say that spark ignited in 2004 when Johnson & Wales University (JWU) opened the doors to its new culinary school, after relocating its Charleston, S.C., and Virginia Beach, Va., campuses to Charlotte, N.C.

What lured the university to Charlotte? “Charlotte is a vibrant, upcoming city,” says Pamela Allison, who holds a doctorate and is the college chairwoman of The Hospitality College at JWU. “It made good sense to come here 10 years ago and build a brand-new campus.”

Fast-forward a decade and "upcoming" is closer to "arrived" as JWU’s impact is felt across the city: “Charlotte’s dining scene is very exciting right now,” says chef Clark Barlowe, a North Carolina native and JWU Charlotte alum who now owns Heirloom restaurant. “We’ve got great restaurants opening up that are doing really exciting things. Now there are more independent restaurants focused on local ingredients.” Many such restaurants are helmed by alums (see related list below).

Culinary students at Johnson & Wales University

JWU’s presence is “certainly making a significant impact, especially within the last four to five years,” says Jerry Lanuzza, the dean of culinary education at JWU. “It takes a little while for people to get out in the industry and get experience under their belts before they can really start influencing change.” While an average of 80 percent of culinary students work in the community while attending school, the first culinary students earning associate’s degrees graduated in May 2006; the first bachelor’s-degree class finished two years later.

Though JWU offers several major programs—including management, business, hospitality, science, liberal arts, engineering and others—the culinary school has made the tastiest impact. JWU culinary students roll up their sleeves to work at restaurants across town, including Good Food on Montford, Stagioni, Barrington’s, Fahrenheit, Harper’s and Upstream, and some independent restaurants helmed by alums, including Barlowe’s (’09), Heirloom and Mimosa Grill, where Thomas Marlow (’09) is executive chef.

“Now we’re starting to see a more modern approach to food,” says Lanuzza. “We’re starting to see more independent restaurants—Charlotte was into chains and steakhouses, but we’re now starting to see some interesting, more diverse offerings. We continue to move toward contemporary cuisine,” which, he adds, employs modern cooking techniques, takes a farm-to-table approach, and offers menus with small plates and tasting portions.

“We’re living in a boom right now,” says Chris Coleman, the executive chef at The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel. “A lot of great things are happening. There are multiple culinary schools putting out pretty good talent. 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.”

Coleman attended culinary school at Central Piedmont Community College, so he’s not speaking as a loyal JWU alum when he says that JWU helped give Charlotte “a slight bump in national credibility, maybe not to the extent we’d like yet. Sometimes we feel a little overlooked for our food scene.”

Uptown Charlotte, the home to many of the city’s fine-dining destinations, specifically benefits from the proximity of the JWU campus, since students can walk to work at restaurants including The Asbury. “By and large, JWU is a big help,” says Coleman, who typically hires an intern every trimester and has hired two grads to join his staff.

For a distinct taste of Charlotte, focus is on seasonal ingredients. The farm-to-table approach “is not super new here in Charlotte, but the broadness of it has picked up in the last few years,” says Coleman. “Now almost every restaurant is sourcing something locally.”

“There’s not a lot we can’t get,” says Barlowe, who is especially fond of local duck and local vegetables. Area farms produce a lot of sweet potatoes, peanuts, greens, strawberries and more.

But don’t look to menus for one quintessential Charlotte dish or cuisine. “I think right now Charlotte is still looking to define its cuisine,” says Barlowe. “For so long it was corporate steak houses but we’re hoping to make ‘local’ the rule more than the exception. I’m excited to be a part of the push.”

“I think that we are just now on the cusp of doing great things,” says Coleman. “And I hope we’ll get attention from James Beard Foundation and some bigger prominent magazines.” He predicts such attention will happen in the next couple of years. “There are a lot of exciting things happing on menus throughout the city.”

The Piedmont Culinary Guild is working to “connect the food chain” and aims to bring farmers more into the spotlight. In addition, “we’re working to bring Charlotte as a whole into the same sentences as Atlanta, Charleston and Raleigh,” says Coleman, a guild member. “I’d say keep your eye on Charlotte over the next two to three years.”

JWU aims to continue to pave the way. “We’ll be continuing to develop our focus on modern cooking techniques; possible new programs may include healthier cooking, nutrition, food science and technology, sustainability—we’re in the process of looking at our offerings to expand our portfolio,” says Lanuzza.

It’s all great news for taste buds.

 Culinary students at Johnson & Wales

J & W Alumni Restaurants in Charlotte

Whether they’re North Carolina natives or fell in love with Charlotte while attending JWU, culinary school grads are expanding and elevating dining options across the city. Among them:

Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar

Adam Long ’03, executive chef
1626 E. Boulevard
704.714.4888
www.baddaddysburgerbar.com

Birdsong Brewing Company

Tara Goulet ’06 & Conor Robinson ’10, co-owners
2315 N. Davidson St.
704.332.1810
www.birdsongbrewing.com

Carolina Chocolate Company

Harold Logan ’09, owner
224 E. 7th St.
803.500.1424
www.carolinachocolatecompany.com

Customshop

Trey Wilson ’97, owner/chef
1601 Elizabeth Ave.
704.333.3396
www.customshopfood.com

Draught/dra:ft

Bruce Florio ’10, executive chef
601 S. Cedar St.
704.375.7563
www.draughtcharlotte.com

Heirloom

Clark Barlowe ’09, owner/chef
8470 Bellhaven Blvd.
980.224.8674
www.heirloomrestaurantnc.com

The Liberty

Thomas Condron ’88, owner
1812 S. Boulevard
704.332.8830
www.thelibertycharlotte.com

Lumiere

Thomas Condron ’88, owner
1039 Providence Road
704.372.3335
www.lumieremyerspark.com

Mimosa Grill

Thomas Marlow ’09, chef
327 S. Tryon St.
704.566.7300
www.harpersgroup.com/mimosa

Owen’s Bagels & Deli

Ashley Wyrick ’11, owner
2041 S. Boulevard, Suite G
704.333.5385
www.owensbagelanddeli.com

The Wooden Vine

David Soper ’08, chef & master sommelier
231 Tryon St.
704.376.2929
www.thewoodenvine.com

Hope S. Philbrick
About the author