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The Local Palate....

THE INTERVIEW: CHARLOTTE'S NOBLE EMPIRE
The Chef Talks Turkey--and Roosters

Charlotte's Jim Noble self-identifies as being "possessed by promise". But that is quite an understatement. As a highly successful chef and restaurateur, an ordained minister, and devoted husband and father, Noble makes and keeps myriad promises to himself and to others on a regular basis.

A native of furniture-focused High Point, North Carolina, Noble's father was--appropriately enough--in the furniture business. After graduating from North Carolina State's Furniture Manufacturing and Management program in 1977, the future chef briefly followed in his father's footsteps. Then in 1982 he took a life-changing trip to Napa Valley restaurants and wineries. Noble's first restaurant, the fifty-five-seat J. Basul Noble, opened in High Point in 1983. He was all of twenty-eight years old. Other successful restaurants followed, including the Queen City's groundbreaking Noble's Restaurant (now closed, but may resurface in a more intimate setting); Noble's Grille in Winston-Salem; Rooster's at Southpark and the recently opened Rooster's Uptown, both in Charlotte; and The King's Kitchen, a unique not-for-profit restaurant in the heart of downtown Charlotte that trains high-risk youth, recovering addicts, former convicts, and others to work in the restaurant and return to the workforce. The King's Bakery is just around the corner.

In 2006 Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts honored Noble with its Distinguished Visiting Chef Award for his continuing contributions to the culinary arts on a local, regional, and national level. He and his wife, Karen, have three children: Margaux, Olivia, and James III. They are the founders and operators of Restoration Word Ministries.

The Local Palate (TLP): How has your style of cooking changed since you opened your first restaurant?
Jim Noble (JN): It's been thirty years. When I first started, I couldn't find local herbs. So I grew some myself. I started off in '83 with a gas grill. But, within twelve months, I started using a wood grill. And I've been cooking with wood ever since. My main style of cooking, which is using food that speaks for itself--simple, clean cooking--that's still the same. I don't really follow trends. I just watch what people are eating and my food has evolved over the years.

TLP: What one dish shouldn't be missed at Rooster's and what's the deal with all those roosters at both Rooster's locations?
JN: For me, it would charcuterie, but the customers would say fried corn. And the banh mi sandwich they are doing now at both Rooster's on the bar menu...that thing's off the hook! The roosters have been our logo for twenty-five-plus years. They were the hospitality symbol in France. If we had named our casual restaurant something with the name Noble in it, everyone would have thought it was high-end.

TLP: What about at The King's Kitchen?
JN: If you come for lunch, you've got to eat the fried chicken. I like fried chicken more for lunch than I do for dinner. Our dinner menu is a little more upscale Southern. For dinner, the scallops are really, really always good. The shrimp and grits are wonderful, as well.

TLP: What excites you most right now on the culinary scene?
JN: The resurgence of local. The readily available food knowledge. It wasn't that way when I started. But now, people share recipes...if you don't share, someone will get it off the internet.

TLP: What has surprised you most about The King's Kitchen experience?
JN: It's a mission-based restaurant. I wouldn't do it if it didn't have the mission base. It's challenging: we did the food side first and the mission side later. If I'd done it at the same time, we probably wouldn't have made it. We're still on a learning curve on the mission side. It's amazing to me to see how much need is out there. My main goal is not to make money. If it were, I'd open a McDonald's franchise. My main goal is to do good food paired with wine and not to get it too buggered up.

TLP: Do you plan to reopen Noble's Restaurant?
JN: Noble's takes so much personal attention. We didn't go out of business; we just decided not to renew the lease because it just wasn't economically advantageous. The food trends are shifting. This goes back to the question about how things have changed since I first opened. That whole thought of fine dining where [diners] spend two to three hours on a meal...my wife and I don't do that. We end up going back to Rooster's because we can sit at the bar and be casual and eat and laugh and have a good time and not feel like we're being disruptive. Dan Duckhorn said once that the only thing worse than a noisy restaurant is a quiet one.

TLP: What are some of your food indulgences?
JN: Bacon from time to time. Butter we can't do without. We use it moderately. When we went to the beach, my in-laws brought chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels. They were awesome!

TLP: What's your favorite Southern ingredient?
JN: I'd probably say pink eyes, black-eyed peas, crowder peas, field peas...they are indigenous to the area. You just can't find them elsewhere. We cook [them] with olive oil, butter, and chicken stock...that's just heaven to me.

TLP: What's your perfect Sunday night dinner supper with your family?
JN: I barbeque chicken. Family gig. I'll get some free range birds from Whole Foods or Earth Fare. I have a Big Green Egg, but it definitely has to be wood burning or natural lump charcoal--not briquets. I slow-smoke barbeque the chicken. Then I'll sauce it in the end.
I pair it with wines from the south of France. Cotes-du-Rhone. And some of those California blends that are similar I like a lot. Sometimes Cotes-du-Rhone can be more rustic and earthy, but anything red pretty much works for me. I also like wines from Spain; my favorite area is Priorat. We do a lot of vegetables with the chicken. We may blanch and smoke some Brussels sprouts, fresh avocado, and pink eyes or field peas. If it's warm outside, we'll do a little rosé to start the evening and then we'll go to the red with the chicken.

TLP: Who would you like to attend the Sunday party, aside from family?
JN: If it were a dream: Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham, and Reinhard Bonnke. And, my buddy Dan Duckhorn!

TLP: What one food have you just never grown a taste for?
JN: There was one for the longest time in my life and that was bananas. But, now I love them!

TLP: What's next for you?
JN: Charlotte desperately needs a barbeque restaurant. We're still looking for a place. It's going to be done the most authentic, painstaking way as possible to make it as true a wood-smoked meat as I can. We're also looking to do a Rooster's in Charleston.