Chef Chris Coleman is the director of culinary experience at Charlotte Marriott City Center and chef at Stoke, which opened in August 2016. (Photos: Reuben Bloom)
Chef Chris Coleman loves a hunt. His quarry: heritage meats and heirloom produce from the Charlotte region. At Stoke, inside the Charlotte Marriott City Center, local is the name of the game. If the menu doesn’t say who grew the tomato you’re eating, Coleman himself will be there in the open kitchen ready to tell you a story.
Coleman is Charlotte born and bred, locally trained and long steeped in North Carolina cuisine. Putting local foods and artisans front and center isn’t pandering to trends — it’s all part of crafting a restaurant for and of the local community.
What was the inspiration for the food you serve at Stoke?
We wanted to cook the type of food that brings people together around a table to break bread — both literally and metaphorically — with generous portions of proteins at reasonable prices.
We use fresh local proteins and vegetables that we’re selectively sourcing from 30 different farms and producers in the Charlotte area and across the region. Before Charlotte boomed with banking and energy and technology companies, it was an agricultural region. Even today there are more than 400 registered farms in the counties that surround Charlotte.
What can diners expect that’s special from Charlotte-area farms?
Charlotte — in fact, North Carolina and the whole region — is big on pork. We source our pork from two local farms. Carolina Heritage Farms (in Pamplico, SC) just raises heritage breeds — things you definitely won’t find in just any store. And Wild Turkey Farms, from right down the road in China Grove, they raise Berkshire hogs, another specialty heritage breed.
On a related topic, where does Charlotte fall on the North Carolina barbecue debate? I hear that can get pretty feisty.
Ha! Yeah, that’s true. We’re right in the middle here — a balance of eastern style (vinegar sauce, whole hog) and western style (tomato and vinegar sauce, just the pork shoulder meat). We’re 45 minutes from Lexington, where I think you get the very best western-style barbecue, and an hour from great eastern-style. And because we’re so close to the South Carolina border, you get a little of the mustard sauce sneaking in, too.
What is it about Charlotte that feeds your creativity as a chef?
Charlotte’s a young city. We didn’t really boom until the 1990s, and as a city we were just getting our feet under us in the 70s and 80s. There are some locals like me, but it’s really a city of transplants. People from the northeast and west coast moved here to work for Bank of America or Duke Energy, and they brought their cultures and foods with them.
The chefs in Charlotte that are doing the best work right now are the ones who are using those influences and also leaning on the agricultural past of the Charlotte area. My favorites are The Asbury (my old haunt), Heritage, Fork!, Heirloom, Passion 8 and Kindred. But almost every great place is utilizing local ingredients.
How did you go about reimagining what a hotel restaurant could be?
Stoke was very consciously designed to be not just another “hotel restaurant.” Of course, we love it if guests join us for dinner or a drink at Stoke Bar, but really, we’re for the Charlotte community first. That’s why we feel it’s important to invest in local businesses and artists — from the food on our plates to the art on the walls, it’s all local.
Travelers these days are looking online and using apps to find where to eat, not just walking downstairs to the hotel restaurant. We really aim to be a place that locals love and recommend. If we’re a local favorite, then the guests will give us a try, too.
You put a lot of emphasis on community. Did that influence the design of the restaurant?
Definitely — the philosophical idea of community runs throughout the space. We have shared plates, larger tables for big groups and the kitchen counter table, which is right up next to the kitchen. The kitchen itself is right in the middle of the restaurant. There’re no walls in Stoke — it gives it an open market feeling.
I think of it like this: When you go over to a friend’s house, people often end up gathering in the kitchen, right? We wanted to break down walls and invite guests in. Come in — hang out in our kitchen.
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