Monday, December 9, 2013

Season's eatings in Charlotte, Tupelo Honey and more

You know it's the week after Thanksgiving when you can go to a holiday food event every night. Here were just three I fit in last week:

Community Culinary School of Charlotte is good causes rolled in good causes: The culinary program takes people who've had employment problems for various reasons and trains them for jobs in food service. And as part of their training, they do catering and make the meals for Friendship Trays.

Tuesday night's fund-raising holiday party pulled in an enthusiastic crowd (left) with a silent auction, food samples including a pasta bar, and a culinary competition featuring instructors and alumni vs. the most current class, No. 47. That's program administrator Lakesha Lamons, above, in the chef's jacket and Santa hat. She's also a graduate herself, of Class 41.

In my column last week, I wrote about the career of Jeff LaBarge, chef-instructor and director of the culinary program at Central Piedmont Community College. Wednesday night's party for LaBarge was supposed to be a surprise (oops, no one told me), and it still was: His wife, former chef Nell LaBarge, hid the paper and even unplugged the computer so he couldn't go to The Observer online.

The party was a dinner featuring food by the advanced garde manger (cold-food prep) class. But here's one last thing that says a lot about the effect a single teacher can have: Two of the guests were LaBarge's former students, Chicago chef Gene Kato (center) and Ilios Noche chef James Jermyn (right), who stepped away from very busy restaurants just to be there for their former teacher.

And finally, Friday night brought the very packed preview party at Tupelo Honey, the hugely popular Asheville restaurant that opens today in the former Pewter Rose spot at 1820 South Boulevard. If the popularity of the original in Asheville is any indication, if you get in line today, you might get a spot for brunch next Sunday.

There are a lot of funny touches in the new space, including a big crown-shaped light fixture at the front desk. And if you've ever schlepped up those stairs, you'll be happy to see the first welcome touch when you arrive: A new elevator (left).

Executive chef Brian Sonoskus was there and thrilled: He has lived and worked in Charlotte several times in the late '80s and early '90s, including at Talley's Green Grocery, for Fran Scibelli at Metropolitan and at Bayou Kitchen. So he knows Charlotte. ("I've seen every show the Grateful Dead ever played in Charlotte since 1981." Yeah, he's right in home in Asheville.)

The food included the very popular pork chops with Zippy sauce, a kind of smoky/chunky barbecue sauce, huge scallops in a roasted garlic beurre blanc, and crab cakes that were falling-apart tender. My favorite thing was the Honey Pickled Beet Salad. Seriously, even if you don't like beets . . . It will be on the menu, but the recipe also is in the Tupelo Honey Cafe Cookbook, written by Sonoskus and former Southern Foodways president Elizabeth Sims. I'll put it below. You need a mandoline or a some kind of really sharp slicer, like a food processor with a slicing blade, to make it.

My favorite touch at Tupelo Honey proves that Sonoskus and his pals do know our humble city. In the bar, there's a painting featuring a bottle of Cheerwine and the most important of all stock cars, No. 3. Next to it, in a tiny frame, there's the perfect quote about Charlotte, by artist Amy Evans:

"Charlotte likes her drinks sweet, her cars fast and her pockets full."

Yep, that's us.

Tupelo Honey Pickled Beet Salad

2 pounds beets (you can use a variety of colors)
1 large Vidalia onion
2 cloves garlic
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup honey (Tupelo preferred, but non-pedigree honey will do)
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper

Peel and trim the beets and onion. Slice very thinly using a mandoline or slicing blade on a food processor. Crush the garlic with the flat side of a knife and add whole to the mix. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Pour over the sliced beets and onions. Mix well, cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings.