Chef Paul Verica

The Society for News Design is excited to announce that chef Paul Verica is joining our lineup of speakers for the SND Charlotte workshop on April 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C.

Verica spent 20-plus years working in the restaurant industry before he decided to follow his dreams and open Heritage Food & Drink in 2013. Heritage, which was ranked as the top restaurant in Charlotte last year, is nestled in a small town just outside the city limits, which Verica describes as “a classic, old-school Americana town with train tracks running through it.” 

It’s not uncommon to find Verica sketching his next dish on a notepad. As Verica will tell you, he needs to visualize the dish and its components before he picks up his knife and goes to work back in the kitchen. Verica caught up with SND.org’s Greicy Mella to talk about his culinary journey and how he continues to tell his story through the plates he serves.

What motivated you to open up Heritage? I needed to do my own thing, for lack of a better word. I had just turned 40. I had a great job that paid really well, [it] was flexible with my family life, and I was just not happy. Thankfully, I’ve got an amazing wife who, knowing it was a great dream of mine, encouraged me to take that leap. So we did. Now we’re fortunate that people dig what we’re doing. I like to think of it as I jumped off a bridge three and a half years ago, and I’m still kind of waiting for the parachute to open up.

What role does community play in your career? How do you build community through food? Community is at the center of what we do. We take care of people. We feed people. It’s the heart of hospitality. There’s a great association in Charlotte I’m apart of called the Piedmont Culinary Guild.  It’s a nonprofit organization where chefs, farmers, food artisans, and a bunch of other people from the local food community are committed to building a better and stronger food community. You have to look at all the health issues associated with food nowadays and look at what most people are eating today. And, it’s not good. We didn’t  have these problems when we had a local community and people shopped locally and ate seasonally.

We now live in a society that wants strawberries 12 months out of the year, which simply isn’t possible. We got strawberries [at Heritage] the other day from a local farmer that grows a winter variety and you only can get them for very short window — two weeks. We were jumping up and down when we brought them into the kitchen. We all stood around eating them saying, “Wow, this is what a strawberry should taste like.” And when you eat this way, the money stays in the community and helps build our local economy.

Photo courtesy of Paul Verica
Photos courtesy of Paul Verica

 

How do you deal with the constraints of cooking seasonally and locally? Cooking locally and cooking seasonally makes me a better cook because I have to work with what I have. I know I can’t just order a bunch of stuff in just because it looks pretty. Avocadoes are one of my favorite foods in the entire world but I’ve never served an avocado at my restaurant. … For better or worse, I get tagged for being hyperlocal because local for me is knowing two of my biggest suppliers can be at my restaurant in 10 minutes.

What is your relationship with farm-to-table cooking? Twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to work for two 3-Michelin Star chefs in France — Alain Passard at L’Apege, where I did a six-week stage, and the late, great Bernard Louiseau at La Côte d’Or. The produce there came in twice a day, and I knew then, this is how you have to cook. I realized it’s easy to make good food when you have great ingredients, but it’s not easy to get great ingredients.

Photo courtesy of Paul Verica

How important is presentation to you? On my first day in Bernard Louisseau’s kitchen, he told me that “you eat with your eyes first, you eat with your nose second, and you eat with your mouth third.” Food is entertainment. People go out to eat to be entertained. It’s got to look good, it’s got to smell good, and it’s got to taste good. If it looks good and smells good, then it’s probably going to taste good.

You will be speaking at the workshop with colleague and partner, Ashley Boyd. When did she come on board? How has your own work changed since? Her family owns a restaurant in town called 300 East that’s been open for 30 years. It’s a Charlotte institution. A little over a year ago and looking for a new creative opportunity, she decided to come on board with us, which was completely flattering. I truly feel she helped take us, as a restaurant, to a different level. She completed what I was trying do. I know it sounds cheesy.

She brings creativity. When plating, for example, I’ll try stuff that I’ve seen her do before. She pushes me to be a better cook because she’s super-talented. And I think it goes both ways; we just try to push each other.

You guys cooked at the James Beard House in New York earlier this year. How was that experience? It’s something I never, ever thought I’d be able to do in my career, and it blows my mind to think that I was able to do that. It was pretty awesome.

Photo courtesy of Paul Verica

What do you think has contributed to the growth in the culinary scene in Charlotte? I’ve worked here for 20 years and this is the most vibrant the food scene has been. I think a lot of it is that you’re finally seeing independent, chef-owned restaurants, which is a beautiful thing. We have some great chefs in the city and as one of the old school guys in town, it’s awesome to finally see it get the recognition that I think it deserves.

Register now

About SND Charlotte

• Don’t miss your chance to UNITE & REBEL, register today: Register
• Book your hotel room (before they run out!): Use the SND discount link
• Check out the lineup of speakers we’ve announced for the workshop. What a team!
• Don’t miss the Think Before You Make pre-conference day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center