In the basement of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, PCG member Naomi Knox pushes a cart loaded with donated food into a small elevator. Behind her enter Nick Kepp of First Presbyterian Church and Ed Price of Central Avenue’s Project 658.
Once upstairs, the trio heads out to St. Mark’s parking lot, where they lift boxes filled with everything from Morton’s salt to locally-grown kale into a burgundy minivan. “Tell her if she needs anything else to let us know,” says Knox as the van’s door slides shut and the chefs head back inside.
This was not a planned activity. The chefs had gathered for a roundtable interview, but when help was asked, well … these three live to serve.
Though PCG members include some of Charlotte’s best-known chefs, many less visible kitchens around the city house culinarians with equal drive and dedication, serving a less typical clientele. The three brought together in this church basement focus on different groups presenting different challenges, yet they find common ground in the age old fellowship of breaking bread together.
Knox, originally from southeastern Michigan, found her way to Charlotte in 2012 via her husband’s job transfer. With a few careers already under her belt, including journalism and paralegal work, she happened into the professional kitchen on a whim. “I got my start in culinary with my great-grandmother,” she says, recalling time spent watching her put up the bounty of a home garden. Still, says Knox, “I had no desire to be a chef at all.”
After arriving in Charlotte, she approached the Art Institute with the intention of entering their Media program, but changed directions when she found the culinary school more appealing.
In mid-2014, following the advice of Chef Instructor (and PCG member) Terra Ciotta, Knox accepted a volunteer opportunity for culinary students to help out at St. Mark’s. “I’m thinking when I get here, it’s going to be a kitchen full of all these culinary people,” she recalls, “Johnson and Wales, CPCC…I got here and I was the only one that actually came.”
Within two months the church approached her to take charge of the program that hosts a soup kitchen twice a week, serving about 100 residents in need of nourishment.
That nourishment extends beyond plates filled with attractive, well-balanced meals.
“This is the love zone,” says Knox. “We don’t just feed the homeless, but we hug them, we sit down and eat with them and we talk to them.” Diners are treated like restaurant patrons, served on real plates with real silverware. Some stay for hours, seated in groups to socialize and enjoy a meal like any of us.
Seated next to Knox, Kepp nods in agreement. He also sees meals bring people together.
A Yankee like Knox, he was born in Pennsylvania, but his family relocated to Albemarle over two decades ago. He spent a couple of semesters at Appalachian State before entering the restaurant industry simply to pay the bills. “My first gig was washing dishes at a Cici’s pizza,” he says diffidently.
That undistinguished peek into a commercial kitchen hooked him though, and after eight years of working his way up at chain and independent restaurants, he headed to Charlotte for formal training at the Art Institute. “I got my internship through that program, at Fern,” working under PCG member Alyssa Gorelick. He remained there after graduation, until AI’s career services notified him about the opening at First Presbyterian Church.
Now three years later, Kepp oversees daily meals for 120 daycare students and staff, as well as all internal catering for the 1700-member congregation.
Part of that catering includes dinner served before an evening of meetings, rehearsals and other church activities, where Kepp sees himself offering a respite from the typical busy American lifestyle.
“It’s special to me to know that at least there’s one night where they come in as a family, and they all may branch off and do different activities, but at least they’re sharing a meal together,” Kepp says.
As Kepp states, “We’re focused on the food, but our focus is more on using that food to feed people,” Price joins him, finishing the sentence in unison, with intensity. Price’s driven manner demonstrates that his entry into service through food was wholly intentional.
From the age of eleven on a Cub Scout camping trip, he says he realized “People will surround you if you’re doing the right thing in the kitchen.” From there, taking his first job in his own father’s restaurant came naturally, and when he joined the Air Force it was as a cook, traveling to Europe and receiving intensive training.
Once out, he changed his focus to sales, becoming a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” and spending two decades as a small business owner.
Between businesses, Price satisfied a desire for more culinary training at Charlotte’s Johnson & Wales campus. Then, in 2013, a mission trip to Kenya focused his vision on the overwhelming poverty he witnessed there, and he returned to the Queen City with a new plan.
He recognized that in Charlotte, as in many cities, “There’s this sort of unrecognized population of people that are hungry, homeless, hurting.” For nearly two years he sought the right fit for his vision, until connecting with the director of Project 658 in July of 2014. They established a culinary program within the Christian nonprofit, which ministers to a community comprising a large immigrant and refugee population.
Price’s curriculum offers ground-level culinary training and job placement, while using the resulting meals to feed hungry residents in the community. In a little less than a year, his kitchen has served over 10,000 meals.
Price seeks to improve his students’ earning potential, setting them up for a lifetime of productive employment. He gives the example of a graduate now working at The Asbury under PCG member Chris Coleman. “Someone who was making $9.20, getting maybe four days’ work out in Gastonia, is making $9.50 and getting 50 hours a week.”
As other members’ names crop up in the conversation, it is clear that the PCG’s goals mesh well with these nonprofit chefs’ pursuit of fellowship. While focused on serving others, they appreciate the opportunities for networking, advice and mutual support.
As the interview winds down and the chefs rise to leave, they tarry to exchange contact information, extending that support just a little bit further.
“There is no ego,” enthuses Kepp. “No one’s even worried about competing with each other. It’s all about supporting each other.”
Profile written by Alison Leininger
Photos by Caron LeNoir