An Italian concept in NoDa with a notable beverage program
February 21, 2023
The Bardo chef found a home in the creative chaos of the kitchen and continues to churn out some of Charlotte’s most inventive dishes
By Allison Braden
Every day after school, Mike Noll used to run home to watch Great Chefs of the World, but he never imagined he would one day be a chef himself. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. He ran on his mom’s routine menu: fried chicken, spaghetti, chipped beef on toast. Noll’s life was skateboarding. “I really thought that I was going to be doing that for the rest of my life,” he says. “Until I started getting older and realized I’m not making any money doing it.” So he took a job as a dishwasher at a place called Peppercorns.
Noll, now 40, fell in love with the kitchen atmosphere before he fell in love with the food. “I liked everything about the chaos in the restaurant,” he says. “I knew nothing about food and putting flavors together. … My palate was terrible.” But the chef and owner, Michael Barbato, trained him, and Noll realized that there was much more to food than spaghetti and fried chicken. When a severe wrist injury derailed his skating career, he leaned into cooking, hungry to learn as much as he could. “I started pursuing jobs at a bunch of different restaurants and landed at one of the best in Pittsburgh,” he says. “And that’s where my career started.”
He spent two years as a sous chef there, at Baum Vivant Restaurant, before he moved to Chicago to take a job at Moto, a Michelin-starred restaurant that offered, according to Frommer’s, the city’s “most jaw-droppingly original dishes.” The tasting menu featured experiments in molecular gastronomy, including carbonated fruit, lasers, and food frozen with liquid nitrogen. The menu itself was often edible — or featured no words at all. From there, Noll went on to work alongside a roster of influential chefs at a number of restaurants around the country.
On a quiet February afternoon, Noll sits near the front of Bardo Restaurant, one of three Charlotte restaurants he co-owns with business partner Jayson Whiteside, and reflects on his career. The music is loud, and a handful of staff prep in the open kitchen, but it’s not chaotic yet. Sun catches the upturned glasses on a neat row of empty tables. He credits his mentors for the style he eventually developed. “It’s hard to be as original as you want to be,” he says. “Picking up pieces from the chefs that I worked for turned me into what I am.”
Even so, Noll concedes, “My brain works differently.” His fascination begins with the empty plate. In his imagination, before he’s considered ingredients or flavor profiles, “I can visualize what I want to put on it.” Many of his best dish ideas, he says, have come to him in that in-between place — the bardo — before sleep. “My brain is processing and turning,” he says. “Then I wake up and see if it makes sense.” Usually, it does.
In fall 2020, two years after it opened, Bardo switched from a menu of small plates to a tasting menu, a format that gives space for more invention and surprise. “I come up with a weird 3-D model in my head of what I want a plate to look like,” Noll says. He likens it to painting by numbers or putting together a puzzle, often starting with an idea for presentation, then toying with flavors and seasonal ingredients until the dish meets his standards. The courses surprise diners — they receive the list of dishes at the end of the meal — and have included hamachi crudo in sake broth, kabocha squash custard, and persimmon-topped pork cheek.
Shows like Great Chefs of the World make it look like chefs do nothing but cook, but as an owner, there’s much more to the job. Noll and Whiteside opened a sophomore concept, VANA, focused on wood-fired cuisine, in August 2020, and will open VANA LKN, in Cornelius, early this year. Noll has an exacting attention to detail, but over the years, he’s learned to step back and trust others. (“I don’t think my son had a babysitter until he was 4.”) Management is not the part of the job Noll likes best. It’s not that he doesn’t like it, he clarifies, but it’s an aspect of the work he didn’t sign up for — just part of being an owner. “There’s glamorous days,” Noll says, “and there’s not-glamorous days.”
Noll still spends most of his time at Bardo, the restaurant that best reflects who he is as a chef and person. “This place has a big spot in my heart,” he says. “We built this place with our two hands.” Like his dishes, the intimate restaurant, its walls noisy with graffiti, is an expression of Noll’s distinct vision. He used to care more about accolades. Everybody wants recognition, he says, but his focus has evolved. “My priorities are keeping my staff happy and keeping my business open.” If you chase awards, he says, everything else falls by the wayside. “We’ve always stayed true to what we’ve wanted to do.”
That can be hard in Charlotte, a city that often seems to prize novelty over quality and style over substance. “The new thing is always the hot thing,” he says, “You always have to keep moving in this city. You have to keep things interesting. Otherwise, you’ll be forgotten.”
But Noll’s mind is always moving, too. “I’m in my head a lot,” he says. “If I’m laying down to go to bed, it does not stop spinning until about three hours later. Finally, I exhaust myself. I don’t get a lot of downtime in my head.” (He doesn’t get much downtime at all — Noll has a 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, and 9-year-old son, Ellis, who just started travel baseball.)
As Noll twists and invents and reinvents, he still finds motivation in the thing that first drew him to this career. “It’s the vibe of the kitchen and the chaos and the adrenaline rush I get from that,” he says, “that continues to drive me. I like that feeling.”