/ Chef Drew Erickson, Table 301
“It was a Christmas gift that just snowballed,” says Drew Erickson, when I ask how the director of culinary development for Table 301 Restaurant Group got interested in cooking.
He’s referring to the Table 301 Chef-For-A-Day package that friends gave him when he was 16. Spending a day with Chef Shaun Garcia in Soby’s kitchen planning a menu and prepping ingredients whetted his appetite for culinary greatness.
After high school, the aspiring chef went to work in Soby’s kitchen, where he stayed for three years. “I consider Shaun Garcia my mentor,” says the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas graduate. “He taught me all the things.” That experience led to a position as sous-chef under Teryi Youngblood Musolf when Passerelle opened in 2013.
The 27-year-old recently returned to his hometown after spending four years working with Michelin three-star chef Thomas Keller at his celebrated restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, California, an experience he describes as “gratifying and terrifying.” What began as a two-week stage (an unpaid internship in a restaurant kitchen) blossomed into four years under Chef Keller’s tutelage. As a culinary journal, he kept copies of every menu from every day he was there.
Like everyone who works at The French Laundry, Drew started as a prep cook, or commis, and worked his way up through each station in the kitchen. “Discipline is one of the most important things I learned, beyond how to constantly deliver on expectations that are on such a high level. At The French Laundry, we would say: ‘Every day’s the Super Bowl.’ You don’t get any second chances.”
Humility is a virtue in Keller’s kitchen. “The reason I wear the blue apron,” Erickson explains, nodding to the denim-colored apron neatly rolled up on the table in front of him, “is that these are the actual aprons all the cooks wear at The French Laundry.” This is typical of the hierarchical French brigade kitchen system, where the apprentice wears a blue apron, instead of a white one, so the chef can keep an eye on the new kid. “Even though Keller and his team operate on a three-Michelin-star level, everyone wears the blue apron, signifying that there’s something new to learn every day, no matter what your level.”
While in his current role he’s involved with all the Table 301 restaurants, Erickson is also instrumental in developing new concepts. One of those, he anticipates, will be his own fine-dining restaurant in Greenville. “I’m so excited about having the opportunity to step into a space of my own and have it be the combination of all the things that I’ve learned,” the chef shares. “My philosophy will be to have a positive work environment where we can create cuisine of the highest level. And to carry on Thomas Keller’s philosophy of mentorship, collaboration, and humility.”
—M. Linda Lee
/ Chef Vanessa Matonis, Bar Margaret
As this year dwindles endlessly on, and our days are stunted early, a familiar seasonal fare promises comfort, refuge for our worn and weary hearts and minds. I’m speaking, of course, about butter and sugar.
The patron saints of our cold-weather holidays are the time-honored tools of Vanessa Matonis’s trade. Matonis herself seems primed to conjure holiday recipes, having navigated stops and starts of her own this year. Now, the 26-year-old pastry chef has her feet firmly planted in the kitchen of Bar Margaret, in the Village of West Greenville, and is heartily churning out confection after beautiful confection.
Last March, Art Institute alum Vanessa Matonis had her sights on France. “I had been in touch with a pastry chef at a bakery in Paris,” she says, “It was always a passion of mine.” She left her brief but bountiful gig at The Anchorage, preparing for an education in French patisserie and—boom—COVID-19 happened. Matonis wasn’t deterred one bit. “Paris isn’t going anywhere,” she quips, explaining how the unexpected turn gave her the mental space to dream up the desserts that she would make if left to her own devices. As fate would have it, she soon would be. Matonis connected with Chris and Sarah, the owners of Bar Margaret. “All I needed was a kitchen to make dessert and people to eat it.”
Matonis’s summer sabbatical from kitchen work left her reeling with young chef energy. “I was like a shaken can of soda.” She hit the ground running in September, partnering with Bar Margaret’s well-versed cocktail staff on booze-inspired desserts like rum flan patissier, macarons with a limey, rum-infused ganache, and this genius idea: a sorbet to add to half-drunk cocktails to cool them back down and mutate their flavor. Matonis is clearly energized by the restaurant itself, feeding off the collaborative atmosphere. “Working with people who are so knowledgeable about what they do gives me direction,” she says. Bar Margaret’s vibe is unfussy éclat, and Matonis’s dessert ethic thrives in that environment. The bar’s foundation of well-made, thoughtful cocktails lays out the welcoming mat for the relaxed refinement of Matonis’s pastry work.
Now that December is here, so is peak dessert season. It’s time to ease into earthly comforts, and few things provide it quite as well as having a drink in one hand and a dessert in the other. “There’s so much heart and love that comes from winter for me,” Matonis shares, offering a glimpse into Bar Margaret’s winter dessert menu. The dishes are imaginative and exciting, evoking idyllic Rockwellian winter and childlike wonder. There’s an ice cream sandwich, for example, with a mint semifreddo and fudge swirl between dark chocolate “cookies”; and a pear frangipane tart with burnt cinnamon and amaretto ice cream.
“When I make this ice cream, I toast cinnamon sticks till they smoke then toss them straight into the milk and cover with a lid, trying to capture that [fireplace] flavor,” Matonis says. It’s a menu you can imagine enjoying with whiskey cocktails or eggnog, with old friends and beloved family.
—Angie Toole Thompson
/ Chef Taylor Montgomery, Urban Wren
“I’m a sponge,” says Taylor Montgomery, executive chef of Urban Wren in Greenville’s historic West End.
This quick summation of his approach to learning came amid retelling his favorite moments of culinary inspiration. There was the first time he tasted real pad Thai, in Thailand, with Buddhist monks; the trip to Vienna, Austria, that led to experiencing authentic wienerschnitzel; and the comfort of his aunt’s sweet potato casserole.
While it may appear one of these anecdotes is not like the other, for Montgomery, any of his fond food memories is as likely as another to inform the next dish he puts on the restaurant menu. “All the flavors that trigger nostalgic episodes—I want everyone to try them,” he says. That “everyone” begins first with his kitchen staff—from his chef de cuisine down to the dishwashers. And that’s the way he’s operated his kitchen since Urban Wren opened, only weeks before statewide mandated closures shuttered all indoor dining in March, which, as it turned out, led to even more teaching opportunities for the entire staff. “Everybody learned how to pickle and brine and cure,” he says of the necessary preservation that took place to salvage the remaining fresh ingredients that would otherwise go to waste.
After culinary school, Montgomery came up through country club kitchens—admittedly not always the most experimental and creative environment—but credits his apprenticeship under a great teaching chef for his solid background. “A country club is a great place to learn,” he says about the structure and technique required for the level of consistency expected. A seven-year stint at Mountain Air Country Club in Burnsville, North Carolina, before joining the Urban Wren team, gave him the creative latitude to incorporate more of the global flavors he was picking up on his travels. “It groomed me for a concept like Urban Wren,” he says.
That concept from the outset has been a scratch kitchen, which sources as much as possible from Montgomery Sky Farm—a circa-1910 dairy farm in Leicester, North Carolina, he and his wife brought back to life in 2018. The resulting dishes are designed to complement one of the largest and most diverse wine selections in Greenville. “We try to put as much whimsy into the dishes as we can to match the extensive wine list,” Montgomery says.
Look no further than the Lobster-Chorizo Corn Dogs with grapefruit slaw and avocado yum yum on the small-plates list for a glimpse of both the playfulness and global flavors Montgomery showcases with each new menu.
He involves his 10 back-of-house team members in constant research and development, asking them, “What are the best flavors you’ve ever tasted?” and helping them translate that to a completed dish. “I want every one of them, who has the passion, to be an executive chef someday,” Montgomery says.
It’s this philosophy that ensures Chef Montgomery’s culinary success, season to season.