It took 40 years and a pandemic to bring Anthony Harris, now executive chef at Holly Tree Country Club, back to Greenville.
Son of Pearlie Harris, the educator whose image is the main subject of an 18,900-square-foot mural on Greenville’s Canvas Tower, Anthony Harris left his hometown in 1980 in pursuit of a musical career. With a college degree in hand, he became a successful studio and touring musician, until a succession of health tragedies left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair while still in his twenties. Through months of rehabilitation, he regained the ability to walk.
“You learn life all over. And about the stuff you take for granted, like how heavy your legs are. I got through it. I did not want to go through it,” the 59-year-old says. It also set him on a globe-trotting career trajectory that would take him to some of the highest rated hotel and resort kitchens in the world, until 2020, when he found his way home.
When did you start cooking?
I started working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in high school. After that, I swore I would never ever ever work in a restaurant again. But, I needed money in college. I got a gig at this hotel in Dallas as a dishwasher. And I was a terrible dishwasher. I was mesmerized by the line. When it was busy, it was like a choreographed dance, and that just amazed me. A couple weeks in, chef says, “This ain’t working out. Get yourself a jacket or get out.” So I got myself a jacket and learned how to make some salads. Back then, they called me Black n Decker because I was always in the weeds. I started to up my game. I went from salads to sauté to grill to line supervisor. I worked there through college. When I tried to put in my two weeks’ notice, they came out with a big check and sent me to culinary school.
I was mesmerized by the line. When it was busy, it was like a choreographed dance, and that just amazed me.
What about your music career?
I was still playing music and touring when I moved to Los Angeles, but after my accident, music wasn’t working for me anymore. I was a performer and couldn’t roll the wheelchair on stage. I went back to the kitchen and learned how to work that line on two wheels. They told me I couldn’t. I had to prove them wrong.
What’s the first dish you learned how to make?
I would make it for my parents. It was like French toast—butter the bread on both sides, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon and bake it. And I always made the salad dressings at home.
How much of an influence was your mother on your career?
My mom is a great cook. But she doesn’t measure anything. I was always watching her. One day I was home and told her, ‘I’m trying to figure out that cornbread recipe, and she said, “Come on up. I’m about to make some.”’ Her way of measuring was ‘Just put it in your hand like this.’ Don’t even ask how much and why. She doesn’t even know.
Where has your culinary career taken you?
As I say, ‘Have knives, will travel.’ So let’s see, Texas, California, New York, Alaska, Wisconsin, Washington State, Oregon, Atlanta, North Carolina, Hong Kong, Dubai, Japan, the Philippines, Poland, and Rome.
What brought you back to Greenville?
My best friend from Mauldin High School, Bobby Graydon, is a member at Holly Tree. He’s the only person other than family who calls me by my middle name, Lewis, because he was always at the house. He called me up one day and said, ‘Lewis, why don’t you come back to Greenville?’ I said, ‘No way.’ Do you know how many Black executive chefs there are in Greenville? I can count them on one hand and still have fingers left over. While I was working as executive chef at The Club at 12 Oaks in Raleigh, COVID hit last March. As one of the highest-paid employees, I got furloughed. I started throwing out resumes but knew nobody was hiring. Bobby called me and said, “Look, we need you here. Your ma is in her 80s. It takes you five hours to get here. You could be only 20 minutes away.” So, two or three days later, I came down and talked to a [Holly Tree] board member and the GM. They called me the next day and offered me the job. I’ve learned here I’m not limited in what I can do, but I have to play to the audience.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with and why?
Goat cheese or carrots. I did an Iron Chef when I was in New York that never aired, and the secret ingredient was carrots. There’s so much you can do with them. They can be sweet, savory, dessert, soup, salad, anything. And goat cheese, I just like it.
What’s a culinary achievement you’re most proud of?
I’ve achieved a lot in my career. One of my favorite stories was when I helped open the Hotel Carlton in Paso Robles [California] in 2004. I was the executive chef for three years and brought a pastry chef with me from my previous job. We called her The Bear. She was 18 years old but a natural. She started working with me at 16, and I was like a dad to her. Right before opening, our executive pastry chef was a no-call, no-show for days. So I said to her, ‘Can you do this?’ And we went down the list. She said ‘Yes, chef.’ The next morning I came in, and that place was tight. I broke down sobbing. So did my sous. It was incredible. The people I’ve mentored matter the most.