Big Daddy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar
An old school fish camp delivering much more than average fried seafood
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Food Network star and 2023 StrEATs presenter offers her culinary impressions of the Queen City
by Kristen Wile
Celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli informed, engaged, and delighted the standing room only crowd at the Charlotte StrEATs festival stage, Sunday April 16. Before that, she took a little time to explore Charlotte and sample a taste of our local culinary scene. After her visit, we spoke with her about her visit to the Queen City and how it rates as a food city.
UP: What were your big takeaways from Charlotte, and more specifically, the restaurant scene here?
AG: Charlotte has a tremendous food community. The chefs celebrate local ingredients and also support one another. Local ingredients, comfort foods, Southern classics, and the new modern takes of food can all be found here. The StrEATs Festival is instrumental in connecting all of these dots. There is clearly a great interest in great products made by local artisans and tips and tricks of the trade. People are, in a nutshell, super excited about food and cooking.
UP: After visiting, how would you describe Charlotte’s culinary style?
AG: There are, obviously, historically significant dishes and cooking that typifies Charlotte. That said, there is also a group of emerging chefs who are paying homage to the history and the locally prized ingredients and taking the narrative in a new direction. The respect chefs exhibit for classic dishes and flavors diners expect is folded gently into new ideas. That makes eating out very exciting. So: the style is classic South with a special Charlotte twist.
UP: Did you see any dishes or ingredients that surprised you or were memorable at the festival?
AG: I was surprised by all the artisanal chocolates. It’s not something I was aware of that’s part of the Charlotte community. I also ate a delicious katsu from a food truck.
UP: Did you eat any dishes or have any cocktails that were memorable while dining out around the city?
AG: I had delicious arancini and egg toast at The Goodyear house. I also loved the cheesecake at Fin & Fino.
UP: Charlotte is always comparing itself to bigger cities, like New York. Should we be?
AG: The beauty of Charlotte is that it’s a small and intimate town where the connection between food and community is still very strongly felt. It reminded me of other wonderful cities I love, but it has such a uniqueness to it. Striving to grow the food scene is always a good idea, but I don’t really think it has any need for comparison. Charlotte is so unbelievably charming.
UP: As a city with no James Beard Awards, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder for a while now. How much do you think awards matter?
AG: There are so many wonderful actors who don’t have Oscars, and so many great musicians who don’t have Grammys. I myself don’t have a James Beard Award. I suppose awards are always nice and worthy of striving, if they mean something to the people wanting to procure them. That said, there’s so much good food in Charlotte with or without Beard awards.
UP: What really matters to creating a successful restaurant scene?
AG: It’s difficult for me to speculate about what makes a good restaurant scene above and beyond the chefs who have a great desire to share food and great hospitality with their communities. I’m obviously going to say chefs are a crucial piece of the puzzle.
UP: You’ve had a number of Charlotte chefs on Chopped and Alex vs. America. Have you noticed any trends in the styles and traits of local chefs? Any particular standouts?
AG: I think chefs who go on Food Network competition shows are striving to push themselves to a new level. They want to know how they measure up in a culinary arena with other chefs from different parts of America. This makes complete sense to me. I don’t think there’s any way to chart particular trends or styles and attribute them to specific areas. Chefs who are imaginative and make great use of the ingredients in a short period of time who emerge victorious.
UP: We had a lot of culinary students on hand at the festival. What advice would you offer them?
AG: People ask me how you can build a good career in food, whether it be food media or cooking in restaurants or food styling for publications. I always say the same thing: start cooking – and don’t look back.