Around that time, Carson was running the kitchen for Caffe Phoenix. It was sometime thereabouts when the restaurant would move from its original address on front and market to its final residence at the corner of Front & Princess. When Carson was at the helm, especially at the latter location, I recognized a special talent that he had that was FAR ahead of its time. He was constantly paying homage to the farmer and the places where GOOD food was being grown and sourced—it seemed that those were the places that he wanted to align his cooking philosophies with and the freshness was evident on the plate.
They were the first place that I ever saw that had a chalkboard with the specials and the locations of all of the ingredients on the menu. It even went so far as to inform the guests as to how far the farms were from the restaurant.
As I mentioned, it was far ahead of its time. The idea of “Farm to Table” had been coveted by several restaurants since Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the 1970s, but it had not been dubbed that yet…or at least it wasn’t on many people’s radars especially in the smaller cities.
Sure, lots of chefs were sourcing excellent products from all over the world, but Carson was finding the same things in Wayne County, Ivanhoe, NC, Stump Sound and other coordinates only a quarter tank of gas away from Wilmington. That was a difficult thing to do back in the early 2000s and this community wasn’t ready to pay more for a humanely raised chicken, over Trumpet mushrooms foraged from Pender County out of a kitchen seeking to eliminate most if not all of its wastefulness.
Carson would move to Raleigh and work under the esteemed tutelage of James Beard Award Winner, Ashley Christensen at her newest restaurant, Death & Taxes. After honing his skills in the Capitol City, he would venture to Portland, Maine to work with a friend and fellow North Carolinian, Ben Jackson at Drifter’s Wife—which was named Top 10 new restaurants in the United States by Bon Appetit
Eventually, he would make his way back home and as luck would have it, he and I would run into each other outside of manna. He was looking for work; I was in need of a cook. The timing was perfect for both of us.
His food is simple but there is nothing normal about it and that is the beauty. The plate is strikingly colorful and the fare is extraordinarily flavorful; the menu is playful and honest. I think I am as proud of this menu as he is and I am honored to have him on the team. I am certain that he’ll push me to work harder in order to keep up with him. I’ll look forward to that challenge.
He cooks like he plays music…well, in our kitchen he wears shoes and a shirt, but he is still fearless…I suspect that if the health department would allow it, he would be perfectly comfortable cooking in the kitchen wearing only a pair of cutoff jean shorts and a giant smile. Makes perfect sense to me.