As part of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, Triangle 2015, I had the pleasure to interview the talented chefs from the four Raleigh restaurants participating in the competition and learn more about their experience, why they think they have what it takes to win, and other fun tidbits about them.
I was so excited to meet Tobacco Road Sports Cafe’s executive chef Patrick Cowden, since I have enjoyed several meals at two of the restaurants where he worked (Michael Dean’s and Jean Claude’s, both which are different venues today). I have also had some great appetizers (sweet chili shrimp and the buffalo chicken egg rolls) at Tobacco Road, perfect to munch on while watching a football or basketball game on one of the numerous flat screens.
Chef Cowden is committed to North Carolina products and local producers, which shows in his fresh approach to food. Everything is made from scratch at Tobacco Road, and at least 75% is locally sourced. That, combined that with Chef’s Cowden’s firm commitment to teamwork, makes him a strong contender for that coveted red chef’s jacket!
Kel’s Café: You’ve never been in the Got to Be NC Dining competition before, but you do have competition experience.
Chef Cowden: The last competition I was in has actually morphed a little bit into what they Got to be NC Competition is. It was “The Best Dish in NC” and was sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. I was a finalist in that. That’s when I was at Weathervane at A Southern Season.
Kel’s Café: How long were you at Weathervane?
Chef Cowden: Just over five years.
Kel’s Café: Was that before you had your own restaurant?
Chef Cowden: Actually, it was after. Patrick’s was in northern Durham, and was in an old Darryl’s that we gutted and remodeled. I loved that restaurant and wish things had turned out differently. It was a partnership that just didn’t match.
Kel’s Café: What are some of the biggest challenges of owning your own restaurant?
Chef Cowden: There are so many, but probably the biggest challenge is consistency. Consistent execution, high level of customer service, and quality of products. However, when you’re used to wanting to do the right thing all of the time, it kind of comes easy, and therefore isn’t really a challenge.
Kel’s Café: What type of cuisine did you have at Patrick’s?
Chef Cowden: Similar to what I’m doing here at Tobacco Road and what I did at Weathervane – a Southern-influenced menu based on local N.C. products. It’s been 10 to 12 years since I had Patrick’s, and even back then I served North Carolina beer and worked with local farmers. It’s always been my biggest mantra as a chef — to use local products as much as possible.
Kel’s Café: How did you get into the industry and where did you train?
Chef Cowden: I was flipping burgers at my first restaurant job, when I was 15 years old, and have worked in them ever since. I was an accounting major at a little school in Michigan for a couple of years and then transferred to NCSU. I love numbers, and I love the restaurant business, and it’s great that I can combine them. So I can satisfy my creative needs and my love for working with people and still crunch numbers. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.
I got my start working with some large chains and spent time working the front of the house for several years, mainly in the Baltimore/DC area. When I came back to North Carolina, I came on board a great little French restaurant in north Raleigh called Jean Claude’s French Café.
Kel’s Café: My husband and I loved Jean Claude’s!
Chef Cowden: I was there with the original owner, Jean Claude Gros-Piron and the first few months I was running the front of the house. But then I moved to the kitchen, and Jean Claude grew me to be the chef de cuisine there. That’s where I got my passion for being a chef. He was my first true mentor, and when he sold it to one of his friends and got out of the business, that’s when I decided to get some classical training. I went to New England Culinary Institute and worked in Boston for a little while. Then I moved to the Outer Banks, where I was a chef at the Sanderling Resort. I was there for a year, and then a friend of mine was opening a restaurant in Morehead City, so I left to help him plan it and run it. That’s where I met my wife. We came to Raleigh when I was given an opportunity to work at Michael Dean’s.
Kel’s Cafe: So I’ve had your food at Jean Claude’s, Michael Dean’s and Tobacco Road, and I must say it has all been quite good and fresh!
So, who are you taking to the competition with you — who’s on your team?
Chef Cowden: We have three Tobacco Road locations, and for lack of a better term, I’m the corporate chef and oversee all three. So the chefs at the Chapel Hill and Raleigh locations, Ryan Foxworth and Scott Jankovictz are on the team. We’re very excited to be working together.
Kel’s Café: Do you have a plan in mind on what you’re going create, regardless of what the secret ingredients are?
Chef Cowden: Maybe a loose one. The biggest thing for me in a competition like this is execution and making sure the items are perfect. For us it’s going to be straight-forward flavors. And having fun.
Kel’s Café: Are you familiar with your competitor, Chef Curt Shelvey of Curt’s Cucina in Southern Pines?
Chef Cowden: No, I’m not. I met him for the first time at the media event for the competition. I hear good things about him.
Kel’s Café: Tell us about the maps of North Carolina you keep in each of the Tobacco Road kitchens and how they help your servers and customers.
Chef Cowden: I constantly keep the maps updated as well as a notebook that has profiles on all of our producers, so our servers can study and learn about them and then talk about the food at the table.
Kel’s Café: Is the menu the same at all three locations?
Chef Cowden: Yes, it is.
Kel’s Café: Tell me about the owners — three brothers, if I remember correctly.
Chef Cowden: Yes, there are three brothers, Alex, Brian, and Rommie Amra. Their ideas and vision totally matches mine when it comes to food. Plus they love their sports, and I love mine as well. They were tired of wanting to go out and watch sports and being served the same old “bar” food – frozen tenders, etc. They appreciate good food and wanted a place to watch sports that was food and chef driven. So think of us as an upscale, casual restaurant that just happens to have a lot of TVs.
Kel’s Café: What is your signature dish?
Chef Cowden: What I love that day [laughing]. I can’t really say that I have any one dish. The one dish that I think most people put my name to is shrimp and grits. I know you hear that a lot around here, but I’ve gotten good reviews on it. Greg Cox from the N&O said they were some of the best in the area, and Bill Neal’s wife said that it rivaled Bill’s dish, which is great validation.
Kel’s Café: What has been your best moment(s) as a chef?
Chef Cowden: It was back when I had my restaurant, Patrick’s. We were closing early because of an ice storm. I was going out the door when a group of six or seven people pulled up and said they were hoping to catch us open since they didn’t have any power. So I reopened for them, laid out a really good meal, and actually sat down with them and had a great dinner. That’s what I like to do – take care of people.
Kel’s Café: What is your favorite cooking tool, besides your knives?
Chef Cowden: Believe it or not, I like a good blender. One of the things I learned early on from Jean Claude was to make sauces — vinaigrettes, purees, etc. So a blender and my mandolin, which is indispensable.
Kel’s Café: What is your favorite area restaurant?
Chef Cowden: It just depends on my mood. I love George at Roast Grill. I’ll go there and get a hot dog and a Coke. The week before last, I went to Bruno Seafood and Steaks in Wake Forest. I love Bruno’s. It’s a small place, maybe 20 tables. It’s a classic New York-style Italian steakhouse. He does fabulous stuff with his seafood, has a great Delmonico, spot-on clams casino. You have to check it out.
Kel’s Café: So you have a grown son. Do you have any other children? Do they cook?
Chef Cowden: Yes, I also have a beautiful daughter who’s a sophomore in high school. Even when they were small, they liked to help in my restaurant. They’re adventurous food-wise — our mantra around the house was, “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.” You had to try everything at least once. So they’re sushi hounds — they’re definitely foodies.
Kel’s Café: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Chef Cowden: I’m a geek. I like to play cards and read. I do try to get out and play tennis. But mainly it’s taking advantage of being with my family and doing things together.
Kel’s Café: What advice do you have for up-and-coming chefs?
Chef Cowden: A few little things. One is to understand what you’re getting into. It’s not easy work. You may work six or seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. Don’t compromise. Don’t send something out to a table with the attitude, “that’s good enough.” It’s got to be perfect, every time. It’s something slightly burnt, toss it and start over. It’s got to be perfect. Don’t be complacent. Always try to learn something new. You don’t know everything, and there’s someone right next door who knows a lot more than you do. There may be a dishwasher or line cook that has this cool recipe that would knock your socks off. Just understand it’s not all about you. You’ve got a team, and you can’t do it by yourself. Everyone has something to bring to the table.
I thank Chef Cowden for spending time with me and wish him the best of luck in the competition. I may have to venture to the Durham location to take in a Durham Bulls game on Tobacco Road’s awesome patio overlooking the ball field! Chef Cowden’s first battle is on January 28th, starting at 6:00 pm. Click on this link for ticket information: http://www.competitiondining.com/events/2015-triangle
Eat, drink and be merry!
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