This is part of a chef interview series. View all interviews here.
On what turned out to be a fantastic Monday afternoon, I sat down with Chef Robert Reinken, Chef de Cuisine at Evoke Restaurant. Evoke is located inside the lobby of Le Meridien hotel. It’s fancy and delicious and will trick you into thinking you are in an episode of Mad Men with it’s décor.
We talked about SoCal, pasta, and our opinions on chocolate covered strawberries.
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’s like anything else. There’s good and bad. It kind of depends on whoever it’s in the hands of. It could be in the wrong hands…it could certainly be bad. If it’s in the right hands, it could be good. It’s certainly good for restaurants for the promoting side of things. Being able to expose people to what restaurants are doing and get themselves out there, which is good. Certainly the reviews could be good, as far as guests doing their own reviews. It’s very subjective…as long as people keep that in mind. Some people get a little crazy with it, but it’s kind of to be expected.
What is the first thing you do after a long day at the restaurant?
I guess the idea is to not do much of anything at all. I try to get home in time before my kids go to sleep. Hopefully catch them. That’s really the biggest thing. Just to relax and unwind a little bit. Kids help you unwind too. They’re so fun and carefree. They’re not stressed and talking about their problems. It’s nice.
For you, what is the most challenging part of running a restaurant?
There are certainly many things. It’s probably working with staff. It’s one thing to come up with a menu and come up with these dishes, and you make them and they’re great. But the reality is you’re more than likely not going to be the one cooking most of them going out to the table. So to get an entire team of all different people, touching it at different times to do it exactly the way you would do it is a challenge. Just to get an entire staff all on the same page, everything exactly the same, being able to keep up with that is probably the toughest.
Where do you see the Charlotte food scene going in the near future?
It’s in a growing stage right now. I’m not one to predict where it’s going. I spent five years here previously and left for another five or six years and just came back. So the difference in the last six years in Charlotte is pretty incredible. I see that they’re gaining a lot of pride in local and their farms and agriculture here. The places you tend to hear the most about seem to be the farm to table thing.
It’s interesting because different cities in any part of the country you go to are all in a different stage of the trends. I was in Southern California and came here to see what’s going on and it’s completely different. They’re starting to think up north in New York that ramen is dying, and we just got a ramen house here in Charlotte. In Southern California there was nothing but Asian food and Mexican food, that’s comfort food there. I’m sure Charlotte will keep embracing that, which is good.
We certainly have the land and availability to grow a lot of things. It’s good for the community and it’s good for the state. I think it will also move out and expand. Like we were talking about with ramen, pieces from other places will creep their way in here. All the little segments will grow as well. When people start reading about it they see what they’re missing out on. There’s definitely more to food than what you can get 50 miles from here.
Besides Charlotte [of course!], what’s your favorite city to eat your way through?
I really want to eat my way through New York, which certainly would be a top choice. I haven’t been to New Orleans, so I’d like to do that. Favorite places I’ve been to already would be London and Los Angeles.
What is your prediction for the next “Big Ingredient” in the food world?
It’s hard to predict. A lot of those Asian things are big. Like fermented foods and some of the things that David Chang’s doing fermenting foods, which could become pantry staples at some point. A lot of Asian countries rely on fermented foods for salt and for umami and flavor. I don’t know how big it would be here.
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?
I would definitely encourage, and I do this too, young cooks and aspiring chefs to get out there and travel. Even better to get out there, travel and work. Go to different places and work. Go to different countries and work. That’s something, if I could go back, I would certainly do a lot more of. Because once you get older and have a family, you want to plant yourself and it’s not really possible anymore. So definitely do as much of that as possible when you’re young. I would have loved to go to England or somewhere and cook when I was younger. The more you see, the more you learn. In the long run it’s better to learn more and you’re better for it.
What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants?
I don’t know if I have just one thing. Anything can stir you the wrong way if you see it. Anything. Cleanliness is a big one. But that spans a lot of different things. People not really showing care really bothers me. Care for everything. To the product you use, no care for technique. A lot of people sacrifice technique for speed to make life a little easier on them. But they’re skipping important things. It kind of drives me nuts. It should drive every chef nuts. People who open up and leave everything on the line wrapped. That should be the first thing you do when you come in, just unwrap everything. I don’t have any crazy things, like needing the handle of the frying pan to be facing north.
Is there an ingredient or dish that you feel in completely overrated?
Since I work in a hotel, I still get requests and room service amenities for chocolate covered strawberries. I don’t know where they get it. I guess it’s the first thing that pops into their head. I certainly wish they would go away. It drives me crazy when I get those requests. I don’t do them here at the restaurant, but every once in a while I’ll get a request to send them to someone’s room for a birthday. I mean, come on…
How do you juggle the work versus life balance?
The best I can. It’s a constant struggle. It’s something you have to work on and pay attention to. I do have family and I don’t like leaving them home by themselves anymore than I have to. There’s not a certain time you have to be here at work. Nobody says you have to spend 80 hours at work. You just have to be here long enough to get the job done. If you’re organized enough to plan everything out ahead of time and you communicate well enough to let everyone know what they’re doing and you train the people right underneath you well to do things in your absence. You can kind of set yourself up so you don’t have to spend all of your waking hours here. That’s what I try to do. But there are always those weeks…
What do you think about this “Celebrity Chef” phenomenon?
In a way it is good because it puts some sort of spotlight on our industry. I hope it brings out the good sides, like how hard the people in the industry work, all of them, not just the chefs. It’s always nice to get some sort of recognition for what you’re doing. Some of it, I think glorifies it as well. It misleads a lot of young people and kids into thinking what their life is going to be like after culinary school too. Like I’m going to go to culinary school and win the next Food Network Star. So there are ways it might be damaging the industry a bit. Not everybody, but it does kind of give a false impression of the ‘glory’ side of it, which is a very, very, very small percentage of the industry. I wish there was a statistic because I’m sure that it’s less than half of the percent.
What is your favorite dish currently on the Evoke menu?
I would have to say the spaccatelli. I’m a sucker for pasta, I love it. The braised lamb, fava beans, savory pesto and some ricotta salata. We make all of the pastas here, so it’s good and fresh. There’s nothing better, meat that’s been braised really well, salty cheese. Not even close to being the most complicated or crazy looking on the menu. It’s just great.
What is your favorite restaurant in Charlotte (other than where you work)?
You know that’s another thing, I have yet to find out. I’ve only been back about eight months and moved back when this was still under construction. I think I literally came here and put my bags away and slept and got up and came to work the next day. And I feel like I’ve been here ever since. Opening the place from scratch was a big project, a lot of work. So I was going non-stop for the first six months. Now we’re getting into a routine.
Hopefully I’ll be able to get back out in Charlotte and eating more. I want to try the ramen place because I got used to eating it so much in Southern California that I haven’t had a bowl since I left there. So I’ve got that need to fill. I want to check out Stagioni because they’re similar to us. They don’t do steaks but they have homemade pasta so I definitely want to check that out. I think the only place I’ve really been to so far has been Passion 8.
Connect with Chef Robert and Evoke