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Chef Incoming? [moved from South board]

So, I might be moving back South.

I am a chef - I've worked in Atlanta, New England and Italy ... looking for a city to land in, to grow with and call my home (in both the real and culinary sense).

I buy wholeheartedly into the modern movement of local, quality ingredients presented with skill and style ... but my cooking is traditionalist at heart.

Is Charlotte for me? Asheville? Charlottesville? I would love a few insights into the restaurant scene from a diners point of view ... What restaurants rock? What's missing? I am all ears.

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  1. Durham/Chapel Hill is dining heaven. Towns full of foodies who are knowledgable. Plus farmers' markets selling gourmet produce.

    1. I think you'll find a ton of quality answers to the "what's good down there" question by doing Chowhound searches on the individual cities you mention.

      Asheville is a relatively small town, but it's an interesting blend of college town and resort, so they've got some interesting high-end restaurants *and* more-than-the-usual average of vegetarian-focused joints. It's still a small town, though, and like a beach town, is populated by a lot of folks who're there for the natural environment first & the manmade environment a distant second.

      Charlottesville seems to have a lot of restaurants catering to the well-off alumni who either still live nearby, or who visit a lot. An entree that would cost $15 in a lot of other southern cities seems to be $18-20 in Charlottesville. They have periodic spasms of adventurousness in their restaurant scene, but the overall trend seems to be fairly traditional. There are a *lot* of Charlottesville threads on Chowhound, and you'll see the same 8 restaurants mentioned in all of them, so you can learn a lot in 30-40 minutes of web surfing.

      The town itself is beautiful, but it *is* a college town, and there's still a large % of the students who wear khakis, oxford shirts & blazers, apparently of their own volition.

      Charlotte seems to really really want to be Atlanta, but thus far they've done better at emulating the suburban sprawl portion of that, than the funky downtown neighborhoods and the amazing ethnic dining that I love about Atlanta. There's some of that in Charlotte, sure, but it's tiny compared to Atlanta. Charlotte doesn't seem to have figured out exactly what it wants to be, as a region (they don't even have much decent BBQ nearby). They're sort of midway between their NASCAR past and their Southern Banking Capital present, and the end-result is a lot of strip malls.

      I'm biased, because I live near Chapel Hill, but as Rory says, I think the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area has a lot more to offer (to an aspiring chef, but also to someone looking for a place to live) than any of the three cities you've mentioned. It's bigger than Asheville or Charlottesville, with a fairly mobile population of professionals (a lot of folks live in one of the towns & work in another, so the dinner crowd in any of the three towns is made up of folks from all of them). But it's not so huge and sprawl-y as Charlotte.

      As far as what's missing, I can only speak about Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill . . . the consensus seems to be that we're missing decent Chinese and real Italian (either oldschool NY style or traditional Italian).

      I'm thinking you'll get better responses from Chowhounds, and will learn a lot more regardless, if you post saying "I'm flying in to Charlotte and spending a week making a giant circle, from Charlotte to Asheville to Charlottesville to Raleigh." And then actually make that trip.

      So what are you looking for? Do you want to be the new star in town, doing stuff that's 2 notches above everybody else (but perhaps at the risk of not having many peers whom you respect nearby), or do you want to be one chef in a city of chefs? And how important is the overall environment of the region to you, culturally or otherwise?

      3 Replies
      1. re: rossgrady

        "Asheville is a relatively small town, but it's an interesting blend of college town and resort, so they've got some interesting high-end restaurants *and* more-than-the-usual average of vegetarian-focused joints. It's still a small town, though, and like a beach town, is populated by a lot of folks who're there for the natural environment first & the manmade environment a distant second."

        While this is how I once viewed Asheville, it is rapidly changing. Interesting artsy folks are being pushed out of the area by the influx of million dollar condos taking over the downtown area. Lots of construction and an influx of people (namely the wealthy) who have "discovered" the area. Its kind of sad actually. Most of the students leave after they graduate college, due to lacking job market....except for those in the restaurant industry. We have seen 3-4 new restaurants a year popping up downtown and on the outskirts. That being said, you will find some of the most well educated waitstaff here, it not being uncommon for your waiter to have a masters degree. As for chefing it, there are definitely opportunities here, however the wage is lower than in larger cities, but the cost of living matches those larger cities. That being said, most of us stay here, despite the low wages, influx of people, and lack of jobs, because Asheville is one of the most beautiful and pleasant places to live. Beautiful weather, great scenery, mountains, waterfalls, ect.

        1. re: rossgrady

          Hanging my head and wanting to cry because once again I'm having to defend the fact that my city (Charlotte) doesn't have "good" BBQ. Maybe because most of the eating/dining out population in Charlotte is from NY. Maybe because BBQ is overrated. Who knows.

          1. re: southernitalian

            If you're from Charlotte and thus stuck eating the BBQ in & around Charlotte, I can see how you might consider BBQ to be "overrated." I would certainly agree that anybody who said much good about BBQ in Charlotte would be guilty of overrating said BBQ. (For what it's worth, there's only a small amount of good BBQ in the Triangle as well . . . but we're a lot closer to the source of the great BBQ, the Wilson/Goldsboro corridor, than Charlotte is.)

            As for how I can say that the Triangle has more to offer than Charlotte, well, that depends entirely on your tastes. I will certainly concede that Charlotte has more miles of roads & highways to offer, more suburbs, more chain restaurants & strip malls. Also more bankers, more professional athletes, more tall buildings, and more neon-lit restaurant windows downtown (as of the last time I drove through, anyway).

            I'm not sure whether Chowhound itself can be used as a gauge for how much a city has to offer (although I'd wager the OP believes that it does, since he/she posted here looking for advice & information). If we assume for a minute that Chowhound *can* be used as a yardstick for the level of culinary excitement in a city, then let's turn to the search function (and widen this out to include all the OP's curiosity cities, as well as Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill & Cary, the four towns that make up the 4 corners of the Triangle (heh)):

            398 results for charlotte
            441 results for raleigh
            441 results for durham
            327 results for chapel hill
            314 results for asheville
            302 results for cary
            89 results for charlottesville

        2. I live in Raleigh and encourage you to add this area to the mix. As you can see by the "south" board there is a lot of culinary interest in the area and as Rory and Rossgrady have pointed out there are a lot of options within the Triangle.

          Durham particularly comes to mind because of your "local, quality ingredients presented with skill and style." Recently the restaurants that have been opening and generating a lot of positive buzz have been in this category... Piedmont, Rue Cler, and Watts Grocery. These are all smaller restaurants that have passionate chefs working with local producers. Additionally with the great farmer's markets, area colleges and a long growing season, it seems like the availability of local ingredients and willingness by the community to accept them is pretty good. I think Chapel Hill also has some great places and Raleigh is coming along nicely. I admit that while I live in Raleigh I spend most of my free time in Durham so I am biased.

          I think the best thing would be for you to come down and wander around a bit. Charlottesville is a neat town, Asheville is beautiful and Charlotte is more like a big city. Each of these areas, as well as the towns of the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, Carrboro, Pittsboro... I don't think it can be considered just three towns any more) have their own feeling and culinary highpoints.

          I will agree that really good italian is missing in this area though there are some pretty good italian american places in Raleigh.

          1. I would love to state my case for Birmingham being a great foodie/hound town. We have many fine dining establishments that rank as some of the best in the South. Birmingham is home to Frank Stitt who is nationally renown in the culinary circles. He operates several restaurants with varying cuisine. He owns Highland's Bar & Grill is the premiere spot, Bottega (fine dining Italian), Bottega Cafe (more casual Italian) and Chez FonFon (yummy French bistro). Chris Hastings owns the Hot and Hot Fish Club and has won the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award for Excellence a couple of times. Anthony Marini operates Local and is completely committed to the local movement. And his restaurant rocks big-time!!!! There are too many great chefs or places to mention here, but we don't go hungry for excellent cuisine here.

            The Bham metro area is growing by leaps & bounds. Especially Shelby County down the Highway 280 corrider. That area and Hoover are seeing unsurpassed growth. If you open a restaurant in either of those areas, they will come!!!!!!! We've got a pretty substantial annual household income here in Bham as well. Lots of banking industry and tons of medical professionals. After all, we have UAB as the largest employer in the city.

            Birmingham also boasts being about a 4 hour drive to the Gulf coast or 4 hours from the lovely mountains of Tennessee. What's not to love about that???!!!!!!

            1 Reply
            1. re: sheilal

              Well don't forget Athens, GA. 100,000 people 30,000 of them at the University but at heart a rural small town 70 miles from Atlanta. One nationally known chef and a number of fairly good Local ones. Farmers Markets and local organic grocery store. A good middle class lots of Doctors, Lawyers, College Professors and school teachers. More Liberals, intellectuals, musicians and artists than you will find in similar towns. Low cost of living, pleasant climate and 4 seasons but we are in the middle of a drought right now. I've been here almost 20 years and there is no where else I'd choose to live. (I moved from Long Island New York.)

            2. come to Richmond, VA!

              It's a great town that seems to have the desire and ability to handle a bunch of great places but only ends up with mediocre ones... (sorry - there are a few so if you are one of them i didn't mean to insult you)

              but if you want to be a standout chef in an interesting - as a transplanted bigger city midwesterner/northerner i like it and think so at least - and charming southern city. i actually know plenty of foodies here - we're just quiet since the restaurants are average at best.

              but the town - mid sized. few colleges. big business. capitol amenities. great 3 hour radius (the beach, the mountains, DC). very liveable with great cultural life for a city its size and other such amenities. surrounded by farms and close to the ocean so if you wanted to really focus on local foods it should be great - and something that i haven't noticed as much as i'd have liked.

              there are some fun high-end restaurants - and a bunch new opening to great acclaim and business. the customer base has gotten pretty sophisticated (but i think your description of modern but traditionalist at heart fits here PERFECTLY) and i think they are searching! there is also a great (this is actually what i like better about richmond because i've been spoiled by highend in other cities) collection of interesting more casual divey and ethnic places. great boutiques. cool neighborhoods. but still a good place to raise a family.

              check us out...

              1. Charlottesville - Not sure why people seem to think dining is expensive here. There are quite a few good places with $10-15 entrees. And yes, there are great higher-end joints too. What is seriously lacking is high-quality ethnic/street food. The Indian, Mexican and Chinese places are astoundingly mediocre. There's no place for Pho or Dim Sum. After living in LA and having such variety at my fingertips, it's a bummer. Cville does embrace local products. I don't have the stats, but I know the local coffee shops do a lot more business than Starbucks here (the coffee is better). Chain restaurant don't do nearly as well as the locally-owned options. And chefs/cooks are doing more and more to source local ingredients.

                Asheville - Never lived there, only visited. In my outsider's opinion, it seems to be very focused on local and organic foods. Seems that most restaurants have the names of nearby farms in menu descriptions. Kind of a crunchy, outdoorsy town, so it makes sense.

                1. If you are interested in local, quality ingredients, I think the Triangle would be a great spot, too! You can obtain locally grown poultry, pork, beef, vegetables, farmed fish, all within 100 miles. Raleigh has the State Farmer's Market, with it's daily offerings of local, fresh vegetables, and weekend markets in Durham, Chapel Hill and Carroboro are excellent. In the Triangle, you can also contact the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a membership organization for sustainable farming, and promoting local food webs. They publish lists of producers you can buy from, as well as locations the general public can purchase locally grown foods (restaurants, farm stands, CSA's, and the like). Finally, Eastern Carolina Organics, located in Pittsboro NC works closely with NC growers, and acts as a go-between for growers and restaurants in the area. So, if you aren't able to do a full search for something locally grown yourself, ECO does it for you.

                  The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill dining scene is increasingly vibrant, active, and seems to be exactly what you're looking for!

                  1. You should take a hard look at Charleston South Carolina.

                    1. Chef, the 3 aforementioned areas are ripe for growth. Check the demographics on Savannah, Hilton Head/Bluffton,SC and Charleston.
                      Charleston is a massive growth market, yet, super saturated with well educated, talented, good cooks and chef's. Hilton Head area is growing well, too. However, you still are dealing with a very seasonal market. Savannah is a growing market, with very few fine dining spots. Many chefs here are betting on the come and succeeding.
                      Also, check out a few smaller markets; medium sized college towns have always been good spots for fine dining. Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill, Athens, Clemson, Statesboro GA, Tuscaloosa ALA, Wilmington NC.

                      1. Please come back to New England...specifically Connecticut! We could use a great chef, and some great food here! Seriously, I'm originally from Atlanta, and I really miss the variety and uniqueness of the many ethnic foods available in Atlanta. I've lived in Connecticut for the past twelve years, and I'm homesick for really good food! All we seem to have here is pizza, pizza, pizza!


                        4 Replies
                        1. re: ctflowers

                          hey, don't lump all of Ct in with Northern Ct! In Fairfield County we actually have some VERY good food! I haven't lived in CT in 10 years but see how defensive I get of my hometown :-)

                          1. re: SweetPea914

                            Whoops, so sorry! I don't live in your area, so I didn't mean to diss all of CT, my apologies. I should have said that where I now live in CT ( near Vernon) doesn't have wonderful restaurants.

                            1. re: ctflowers

                              No worries, I just had to clarify!
                              BTW, We stopped at a rest stop in your area a few weeks ago on our way home from Boston. I got the worst coffee EVER at a Dunkin Donuts at the TA (?? I think that's what it's called). So even the chains don't seem to be as good up there.
                              At least you're close to Hartford where you probably have some decent restaurants!

                              1. re: SweetPea914

                                SweetPea914, I'm not sure which Dunkin Donuts you were at (in my area), but the Dunkin Donuts on Route 83 in Vernon usually has horrible coffee. (At least the five or six times I've gone to the drive-thru & swear I'll never get coffee there again!) However, the DD about three miles from that first one has great coffee. I think it depends on how long the coffee sits there, how fresh it is, and who makes it.

                                Whoops, I guess I'm getting off of the subject matter that was originally posted.


                        2. Washington DC wants you! For a city abounding in farmers' markets, it astounds me how slow the city has been in coming to the local foods table. The "top tiers" of dining in DC all seem to be French or steakhouses with the emphasis on being places you take clients to impress them, but there are some great places with more seasonality once you start to look around for it. Restaurant Nora and the Tabard Inn are good examples.

                          I also love the near-total absence of chain dining in downtown DC - you have to go out pretty far to find an Applebees. This characteristic combined with the multicultural flavor of the city means that there is always a wide variety of good independent restaurants for everything from no-frills casual dining up to fine dining. You've got to try the Ethiopian!

                          As far as absences go, my list is colored by things I miss from other places. Tex-Mex and Cajun with real kick, for example. I would also welcome a really good mid-priced Italian place; I lived in Bologna for a year and loved it, but my Italian options in DC seem to be limited to fine-dining places I can't afford, or bland and unsatisfying red-sauce eateries. There are some exceptions - Sette Osteria has my approval, and I've heard good things about 2Amy's, though I've not been there yet.