This is part of a chef interview series. View all interviews here.
On a Monday afternoon, I stopped by one of my favorite restaurants in Charlotte, The Fig Tree Restaurant to sit down with Chef Greg Zanitsch. We talked about how awesome the ethnic food scene is in Charlotte, how consistency is key and laughed about how everyone goes crazy for spring ramps.
I might have also walked away finally discovering what goes into that addictive gorgonzola sauce that’s served with their escargot. You bet I’m going to be making that at home. Me + loaf of bread + that sauce = my next Saturday night.
What are your thoughts on social media playing such a huge role in the restaurant scene? Has it made a good or a bad impact?
I think it keeps you very honest. It’s new to me, I think I’m a little on the older side, so I don’t use it as much. Obviously we’ve had to go out and hire people to do our social media.
I think it gives the guest honest feedback. Especially during Christmas – when you’re ranked really high or you’re getting a lot of positive reviews – you start selling a lot more gift cards to people out of town that give them to friends or family here in Charlotte. All of a sudden you’re mailing gift cards to New York, California, and Washington State. So I think that’s a positive.
The only negative I see is people that haven’t really eaten at the restaurant can bash it, so I like the platforms that require you to have eaten here. Overall, I think it’s got a lot of positives and people are positive and not too malicious.
What is the first thing you do after a long day at the restaurant?
Take a shower, cook dinner for myself and open a bottle of wine. Usually those three in any order. All three happen depending on how long the day is.
For you, what is the most challenging part of running a restaurant?
I’ve been doing it for a long time, so it becomes habit. Keeping ourselves fresh. It’s easy to become very stagnant and not change things that need changed. Or walk passed cracks on the wall and not see them and not know that they need painting.
You have to look at everything with fresh eyes all of the time and try to make sure that everything from the entrance, to the parking lot, to the hostess saying goodbye at the end of the night all goes well. You want it to be sincere and honest. So looking at things with fresh eyes and keeping yourself out of ruts is the most challenging. In the south, I think change of season helps you from doing that as well.
Where do you see the Charlotte food scene going in the near future?
The Charlotte food scene is growing and I think for the better. It’s certainly better than it was 10 years ago and better than it was even five years ago. I think there are a lot of people doing really cool things.
I think that we’re [The Fig Tree] the only ones who still do white tablecloths and the full service. I think people are doing neat things but doing it more casually.
Americans used to be very utilitarian, in that they ate food as the source of fuel to get through the day. I think that’s gone and people eat food and have become foodies and like food and trying different foods. But I don’t think they like the long hours spent doing the cooking or the long hours of sitting at a meal. So I think those more casual places are opening up have catered to that. They’re making neat food and you can come in and be out in an hour. We’re still in the sit down for 2 1/2 hours if you’re a couple, or 4 1/2 hours if you’re a four top. So we’re different there. There are not many of us left anymore.
I think all in all, the food scene here is great. I think the ethnic food scene here is great. There are some hole-in-the-wall places that if you’re driving down the street, try those places.
Besides Charlotte [of course!], what’s your favorite city to eat your way through?
For proximity, Charleston. Obviously New York and San Francisco would be on my list. We try to pick a city each year and go explore the food scene.
What is your prediction for the next “Big Ingredient” in the food world?
Maybe horseradish. With the craft beer movement being so popular, I think something like that. I mean you saw pretzels get popular, but I think some game meat or something more like a Central European kind of food. That would be my guess but who knows.
Do you have any advice you would give an aspiring chef that you wish someone would have given you when you first began your culinary journey?
You want to look back at your resume, but it’s kind of a catch 22. You want to see as many things as possible and go into as many different restaurants as possible to work. But you don’t want to be someone who’s only there for six months. Because after a chef sees that two or three times, you’re going to be out of luck.
I would probably say an 18-month commitment in a restaurant, after that, move often. Always try to stage in other restaurants. One of my chefs always told me, when you give your notice make them your best two weeks. You never know when you’re going to come back around and need another job.
Always work for a place that looks profitable, that’s going to be there. But building a resume is important, and seeing as much as you can see, but being loyal is important too. Leave on good terms.
What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants?
I have a lot. I like things to be done the same way each time. I like consistency. I don’t like people that take shortcuts. It doesn’t matter if you’re busy, be consistent, do it the same way. I see when people start to take shortcuts. Consistency is always the key.
Is there an ingredient or dish that you feel is completely overrated?
Tiramisu, I think, is overdone. Crème brulee is, but a good crème brulee is great – so it’s not necessarily overrated, it’s just on every menu.
I think in the spring, all of a sudden it’s like, ramps! Everyone has to have ramps on everything. They’re okay, but do we really need to cover a menu with ramps?
Fiddlehead ferns, I feel the same way. You get through the winter months and you’re looking for anything that’s fresh and green and local. That just gets overdone.
How do you juggle the work versus life balance?
Very poorly. I feel like I’m always at work when I’m at home, and at home when I’m at work. We try to take trips with the kids, even if it’s just a day trip to Columbia for the zoo. I have three young ones, 7, soon to be 5, and a 2 year old.
If you get away from here, you can unwind pretty easy. When school starts it’s a little harder. You just have to do what you do. My wife and I work together at the restaurant, so we don’t talk about work at home. But I usually take work home, like writing menus and doing that kind of stuff.
What do you think about this “Celebrity Chef” phenomenon?
Well it’s not what I went to school for and it’s fine for people that want that. It’s not what I want.
We like to have a good restaurant that people enjoy coming to, be able to pay our employees well and afford a nice lifestyle for our family. If that occasionally means going on TV and doing a segment on the news, then I’m cool with it. But if it was just going out there, just to do it, I’d rather not do it. If I can avoid, I’ll avoid it.
Even little social media things, I’m more comfortable talking to you one-on-one like this, but put a camera over there and it’s like, not interested.
What is your favorite dish currently on The Fig Tree Restaurant’s menu?
Currently, I think the stuffed calamari. It’s stuffed with chorizo, comes with a spicy tomato basil sauce, peppadews and fried calamari on top. It’s been popular. I’m pretty simple. I like the cheese plate. It’s not the most exciting but when I go out to eat I like to have a cheese plate, so I put time and effort into selecting those cheeses. Our veal chop has been one of our most popular and that’s a nice dish from start to finish.
What is your favorite restaurant in Charlotte [other than The Fig Tree Restaurant]?
I have like several. If I had to say favorite, it would probably be Terra. I like to support Thierry, the owner; it’s always nice to see him. He comes in and supports us a lot. We’ve had a couple anniversary dinners there and he always does a consistently nice job.
But then with the kids, we like Cedarland. We used to eat at Greek Isles all of the time until they had to close. My kids are eagerly waiting them reopening some place. We like those dive, local places. Probably where we eat more than the nicer places.
Connect with Chef Greg and The Fig Tree Restaurant:
Photos courtesy of The Fig Tree Restaurant.