There are several traits of Paul Verica’s that become quickly obvious when you spend any time talking to the chef.
Tall and shaggy-haired, he frequently sports a Philadelphia Eagles ballcap that proclaims both his origins and one of his non-food obsessions. Soft spoken, he has no problem deploying f-bombs in casual conversation. Belying the strength of his passions, he carries himself with a natural reticence bordering on aloofness. And when it comes to his work, he has a humble streak about a mile wide.
“It’s the farmers,” he says, when asked what makes the North Carolina Piedmont region worthy of his talents. “Everything we do is first and foremost driven by the ingredients.”
That’s another of his traits. Every conversation about food comes around to the word “ingredients.”
The chef/owner of Heritage Food and Drink in Waxhaw, NC is not alone in that, of course. Every restaurant on its game is rolling out farm names across the menu, scattering adjectives like “local,” “sustainable,” freshly harvested.”
Truth be told, with Verica it’s not just the ingredients that drive him. It’s the people who make them available to his kitchen.
When he pushes plates through the pass, he’s sharing his support for a community.
From the modest 36-seat space 20 miles outside of Charlotte, Verica has drawn attention to Waxhaw with his artistic plates showcasing the variety of the area’s agriculture. One of his favorite ways to highlight a particular ingredient is to present it in multiple iterations in one dish. Thus, “beets” listed on the menu might indicate cooked sous-vide, baked into a sponge cake, whipped into a purée and topped with micro-beet greens.
When Verica writes “beets” on his menu, he’s adding more than a root vegetable. He’s including the farmer who pulled that root from the soil, after months of planting, weeding and worrying. He resists farmers’ requests for a list of his preferred crops, acknowledging their superior knowledge of soil, climate and variety. Instead of seeking out particular items, he rolls with the seasons, “putting up” produce for future months, whether through pickling, freezing or dehydrating.
As Kris Reid, Executive Director of the Piedmont Culinary Guild says, “Paul ‘gets it.’ He knows that in order to deepen his relationship with community, he has to put a lot more into it than just suiting up and showing up every day in the kitchen.” When not behind the stoves of Heritage, Verica is constantly communicating with growers about what crops are coming in or going out.
Saturday mornings find him cruising multiple farmers’ markets, shopping with intensity. “People ask why I don’t stop and chat more at markets on Saturday,” he says. “I am working. I hit four markets every Saturday over 100 miles, then have to go back and prep for service.”
It is plain he considers the process behind sourcing ingredients just as important as preparing them.
“Paul supports farmers through all the seasons,” says Kim Shaw, owner of Small City Farm in Charlotte. With a friendship going back a decade to working at the Club at Longview, Verica remains a loyal customer of his former colleague, who has morphed from Director of Catering to small farmer. Even when winter diminishes the variety of crops available, Heritage continues to buy pinecones, cypress, and other greenery from Shaw’s farm to adorn the restaurant’s white linen-covered tabletops.
But don’t think that winter hampers his use of local products. “He treats each season with an equally deft hand,” Shaw says, citing his routine of preservation during the warmer months. “I’m sure that right now he’s missing our humble purple top turnips, and once he has his hands on them, he’ll be looking forward to sugar snaps.”
Verica’s dedication to local support extends beyond the alchemy in the Heritage kitchen. As his strong involvement with the Piedmont Culinary Guild attests, Verica is interested in boosting all of Charlotte’s food scene, and not just the farmers. “The nice thing is that the community of chefs in the city, they’re all my friends,” he says. He references the recent naming of Davidson’s Kindred Restaurant to #7 in the country by Bon Appétit magazine with real sincerity. “I’m so proud of them for accomplishing that; it’s a great thing for them, but it’s also a great thing for Charlotte.”
In an example of fostering relationships within his culinary community, Verica made a big splash in July when he announced that pastry chef Ashley Boyd from 300 East will also be collaborating on the Heritage dessert menu. Both chefs are giddy about the possibilities, and Boyd appreciates the effort her new partner puts into supporting his colleagues. “He doesn’t miss an opportunity to build up those around him,” she says, “Whether that is promoting the growers he uses, or sharing another chef’s or restaurant’s good news. I see him volunteering his time and talent to help other chefs, growers and artisans on a regular basis, working to make our network stronger.”
Of course the PCG dovetails perfectly with this outlook. “PCG has been great,” he says. “It’s fostering relationships, it’s fostering communication; it’s opening up levels of communication and angles of communication that weren’t necessarily there before.”
From online discussion threads debating industry questions like pricing, to organizing and sponsoring public-facing events, he finds great value in the Guild’s activities. “They’re getting more recognition to the general public of Charlotte of ‘Hey, look at us. We’ve got some cool, cool things going on.'”
The feelings Verica has for Piedmont Culinary Guild are reciprocated by his fellow members. In a recent survey, PCG asked its members “Which Piedmont Culinary Guild chef is most deserving of a James Beard nomination?”
After a month of discussion and voting, the answer came back: Paul Verica.
“I am blown away,” he says in typical modest fashion. “It makes me so humble and proud to think that my peers, friends, and colleagues think so highly of what we are doing.
“As I have said many times it is great time to be a cook in Charlotte we have so many people doing such great food and we are just proud to be a part of the scene.
“It is truly humbling.”
Let’s Get Paul a James Beard Nomination for Best Chef / Southeast!
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Verica himself has some cool things going on, too. Down the street from Heritage, he has partnered with Provisions by Sandy Creek to open a sandwich shop inside the local-food store, offering easy, approachable lunches built on many of the same ingredients he sources for his fine-dining venue. He’s hoping to continue to grow into other casual eateries, aiming next at a pizza and pasta restaurant.
No matter how grand an empire he builds, however, one thing will remain constant, aside from that Eagles cap. “My number one most important thing is being behind the stoves at Heritage five nights a week,” he says.
“Heritage is where my heart is.”
Profile written by Alison Leininger
Photos by Richard Israel