Carlos Baez is as new to his executive chef position at Stella’s Southern Brasserie as he is to Greenville. He moved here last August from Atlanta, where he cut his culinary teeth at such esteemed restaurants as Empire State South, Holman & Finch, and Abattoir. After acclimating himself to a new staff and a new kitchen, the chef, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, is settling in with his wife and two young sons, ages one month and 18 months. As he tests the waters of the Greenville restaurant scene, Carlos offers his thoughts on the new role and his drive to be ever better.

You were born in Kentucky, but you moved around because your father was in the Army. So do you consider yourself a Southerner? // I have to be. I’ve been living in the Southeast almost my whole life. I’ve been in Atlanta since 1999, so I’ve lived in the South more than half my life. And, you know [geographically], it doesn’t get any more southern than Puerto Rico [where he lived for a time].”

How did you land at Stella’s? // “About eight years ago, I was working at Abattoir as a sous-chef and Jason [Scholz, who owns both Stella’s restaurants] invited my executive chef Josh Hopkins to Greenville to cook with him at Euphoria. Josh planned to bring me with him, but at the last minute, something happened at the restaurant and Josh couldn’t go, so he told Jason he would send me. Jason responded ‘I want you to come, I don’t want your sous-chef!’ But Josh convinced him I would do [the dinner] justice. So I came up, and Jason and I cooked together and the dinner went perfectly. Jason remembers that, and one day I told Josh, ‘I’m looking to get out of Atlanta and raise my family someplace more quiet.’ Josh told me Jason was looking for somebody. So Jason and I talked and I came up here and staged at the Brasserie for a couple of days, then came back a couple of weeks later and started working here.”

How would you describe your cooking style? // “Not fussy. Focused, complex. I like lots of layers, as far as building flavors. I believe that every food combination has been done before, so it’s important to pay respect and homage to history and tradition, and respect the ingredients and put a lot of love into it.”

What do you mean by “fussy” food? // When there’s like four different sauces on a plate and eight different garnishes, and it just doesn’t taste like it goes together. Everything on a plate should be on there for a reason.”

How do you stay motivated to keep creating day after day? // One of the things that really drives me is the Japanese concept of kaizen. It’s a philosophy they use in many Japanese companies. It means change for the better—the constant drive to improve. All those small details I get pretty obsessed over. In a small way, I will never be satisfied with what we’re doing. I always feel we can do better.”

How do you approach a new dish? // “I generally start by asking, ‘What do I want to eat right now?’ That changes all the time. I like to approach cooking and food like a jazz musician—with a lot of improvisation.”

WHAT’S the biggest challenge you face going into a new kitchen? // “The biggest challenge is staff training. We’re building a core group and gelling as a team—like a good football team, an offensive line that knows to shift to the left or to the right at key moments. I’m really excited to see where it leads us, because as we get better, that’s when we can change the menu more often. I’m excited to get there, but I enjoy the journey, too.”

Photograph by Paul Mehaffey