“Class 56! Can you guys say hello to our visitor?” Geoff Bragg calls out across the kitchen. Instantly a dozen students of varying ages stop and turn their green-clad bodies toward the door, raising their hands in a sincerely cheerful hello. “Smile and say ‘Geoff is the best!’” the chef jokes, as a camera is raised.
Chef Geoff may go by his first name around here, but Bragg is all business when it comes to preparing students at the Community Culinary School of Charlotte for real life in the hospitality industry. As supervisor of the in-house café, he leads students through breakfast and lunch service and preparing heat-and-eat takeaway meals. With a typical day of 40 to 50 orders, it’s as busy as many small for-profit restaurants.
“I push them in the kitchen. I give them more work than I know they can handle, because I always want them to feel pressure.”
Chef Bragg comes by his hard work ethic from a career spanning over twenty years. While he was always drawn to food and cooking, and landed his first restaurant job at age 15, it wasn’t until starting college that he considered a career in the kitchen. He enrolled at Johnson & Wales’ then-Charleston campus, and has stood behind the stoves of over half a dozen restaurants, from the Low Country of South Carolina to the mountains of North Carolina.
Along the way, he immersed himself in a plethora of cooking styles. Growing up in Charlotte, he absorbed traditional southern flavors from his Florida-born father. He learned the food of his Asian heritage from his Vietnamese grandmother, was drilled in authentic Italian dishes at Fulton Five in Charleston, and developed a flair for seasonal vegetarian offerings at Charlotte’s Peaceful Dragon.
After some consideration, he says today the southern and Italian traditions probably hold the most influence over his cooking. But that’s not the way Bragg thinks about it. “What I’ve found is that despite how different all these cuisines can be, there are always common denominators,” he says. “It’s the fundamentals.”
He credits Sylvia Meier, owner at Fulton Five, with instilling in him a respect for the basic skills of his profession. “She drilled into me probably even more than my chef instructors at Johnson & Wales the importance of fundamentals in cooking,” he says. “It was probably the most influential job I had.” Under her strict direction, he says he learned important lessons about consistency and authenticity in cuisine.
“And not just about [being] authentic to the region that we cook to, [but] authentic to the people,” Bragg explains. Even with a background in elegant, elevated dishes, he hews to the chef’s common drive to just feed people. “The way I approach food, no matter how nice I make it, I want to make sure my dishwasher still appreciates it.”
That comment hints at Bragg’s innate consideration for his fellow man, which has seen him involved with community projects for well over a decade.
From chef demonstrations at the Matthews Community Farmers Market in the late 90s, to cooking classes today for youth with Down Syndrome , he has consistently found a way to give his time and talent. And that has paid him back in kind: he credits his involvement with the Matthews market as his first connection to the community, where he began to establish relationships with local growers.
That connection occurred a decade or more before the Piedmont Culinary Guild arose, and Bragg appreciates the progress made by the organization. He sees the group keeping the notion of a local food economy in the forefront, and giving a larger voice to what could be a disparate collection of small players.
“I’ve enjoyed the PCG’s philosophy from the very moment of its inception, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of it. I love seeing everybody come together around their specialties; like this is one big cohesive movement.”
Connection to the PCG has helped the school in turn. “A lot of local sourcing comes from donations,” says Bragg, naming several members who contribute their products, such as fishmonger Tim Griner, cheesemonger Zack Gadberry, and spicemonger Troy Gagliardo. “I owe [Troy] a huge debt of gratitude,” says Bragg, for filling up the school’s spice rack when he first arrived two years ago. And Bragg has repaid the PCG as well, serving for several years on the Education Committee to help guide the development of scholarship opportunities and professional development for his peers.
Though he says he went from commercial kitchens to education as a way to improve his work/life balance, it’s clear that serving his community is part of the chef’s basic makeup. As the Community Culinary School prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary in June, Bragg is making plans to turn his own backyard into an incubator garden to help source produce. The plan, he says is to “See how much we can supply one restaurant from one garden for one year,” before expanding further.
It’s an ambitious project, but this chef certainly has the determination to make it happen. As Bragg himself says, “Regardless of what ingredients you’re given, it really boils down to the cook and their grasp of the fundamentals.”
With his own foundation of hard work, discipline, and community spirit, we can expect Chef Geoff to cook up continuing success.
Profile written by Alison Leininger