Meet Chef Justin Solomon, Culinary Director at Foxcroft Wine Co. Read more about the trip that changed his life, how we met his wife, his vision for Foxcroft’s future, and more!
What made you want to become a professional chef?
I grew up helping my mom and dad in the kitchen. As a kid, food was always a reward. If we got straight A’s we got to pick where to go to eat. For our birthdays we got to pick what we wanted to eat. So I always saw food as something special. As I grew up, I gravitated toward the kitchen. I remember for Christmas one year, when I was 6 or 7, I wrote my mom a cookbook. She still has it somewhere. In high school, I would cook for my friends. It was natural. I liked food. I liked what it did – bring people together. It allows you to relax and share something with other people.
I had the opportunity when I was a teen, to spend a couple of months in Alsace, France and absolutely fell in love with the food, the wine, the people and the land. My host family had a vineyard, a winery and a hotel. It was amazing! I still think back to some of those meals on a regular basis. It was the first time for me that food and wine came together and represented a unique place in the world. That trip set me on the path to becoming a chef. I got home from that trip and immediately enrolled in culinary school.
I went to Culinary school down in Charleston at Johnson and Wales. After graduation, I was lucky enough to work at the Carolina Inn right in the middle of Chapel Hill. I spent four years there getting the fundamentals. I did everything from banquets to baking and pastry, and line cooking. I literally learned and saw everything there. From there, I moved to Portland, Oregon for a few years to work at a French Brasserie for a very well-respected French chef and learned technique and precision from him. He was pretty demanding. It was good to reinforce those fundamentals that I learned in Chapel Hill. From Portland, I moved to Seattle and worked for an award-winning chef there. He opened my eyes to what was possible – getting outside the box. He didn’t limit ingredients or cuisines to a certain culture or style.
I moved back to NC and bounced around Charlotte for a few years until I landed at Foxcroft. Ten years later, I’m still here!
What keeps you at Foxcroft?
The co-workers, environment, the guests, and the food we get to create. Conrad has allowed a lot of room to play and be creative. I love seeing the company grow and expand and the opportunities that provides all of us.
What do you cook for yourself at home?
My all time favorite meal is pork and sauerkraut with a fresh loaf of pumpernickel. I just got a new grill so we’ve been grilling a lot. My wife likes pasta, so we eat a bunch of that. For a few years, my brother and I were entering BBQ competitions so we do a bit of smoking when we have time.
Tell me more about your wife!
I met Leah at Foxcroft Wine Co. (awww) My biggest success story at Foxcroft is meeting my wife. She got a job at the SouthPark location while I was there. I knew very early on that she was something special. She left to go back to New York for a little while and when she came back our romantic relationship began. We were friends for a long time and I was happy to see her come back.
What is your take on the relationship between wine and food?
They both can stand on their own but when they get together, something really special happens. They can complement each other. It doesn’t always have to be wine complimenting the food, it can be the food complimenting the wine as well. With food, you should eat what you want. Same with wine, you should drink what you want and drink what you like. Those preconceived notions of what goes with what – like red wine doesn’t work with fish – there’s much more room for you to eat and drink how you like. There are no rules.
If someone tells you that foie gras is fancy and you’re supposed to like it – but you don’t like it, what’s the point in eating it? The same with wine. Someone can tell you it’s a 100 point wine and you’re supposed to love it, but if it’s not your flavor, you’re not going to enjoy drinking it. So you have to trust your gut and go with what you like.
Do you think we do a good job empowering our guests to trust their own taste?
Absolutely. Our Front of the House staff has an amazing level of knowledge when it comes to wine. They’ve helped me! They are super helpful in guiding me toward something I might like or something that might pair, or something I’ve never had before which is fun.
The beautiful thing about having so many regulars is that they remember what everyone likes to drinks. There’s a Friday Crew at SouthPark that are always sitting around the bar on Fridays and out staff knows exactly what everyone likes to drink. They know what their tastes are and can suggest new things. They trust us.
What kind of wine do you like to drink?
I love bubbles! Prosecco, cava, champagne… I was on a trip to spain a few years ago for my brother’s birthday and had 48 hours by myself. I survived just by saying “cava!” (laughs). I didn’t speak a lot of spanish but they knew what I meant. Bubbles are fun. They can be both comforting and celebratory. It doesn’t have to be the fanciest Champagne, it can even be a wine like a petillant, which is a subtly fizziness. Those are definitely a go-to for me.
What inspires your dishes when designing a menu?
For Wine Dinners, I try to focus on the region or the location that the wine is from for sourcing ingredients and cultural inspiration. Specials are inspired by well… lots of things. I like reading cookbooks cover to cover, I eat out as much as possible, and I don’t like making the same thing twice. I always try to find something new and different to make. If it’s something I’ve done in the past, I try to find a new way to entriperate it. Reenvision it. A new technique, new ingredient, new flavor, or new combination of those things. I like to be aware of what other chefs are cooking. I try to stay informed on what’s happening but I’m not swayed much by trends. I like traditional, I like tried and true. I also like playing with new techniques.
What’s the difference between Foxcroft locations?
Each store has its own personality. We allow each Chef a little bit of room to play and create and show what influences them or what they enjoy cooking. There is a very Foxcroft feel to all the menus but there’s also a little of each chef’s personality in each of the menus. Chris March at SouthPark has a strong french foundation. You’ll notice a lot more French technique in his food. Chef Brian at Dilworth is very colorful with all his plates, theres alot of movement and creativity from that aspect. Ched Chris Mydosh at Greenville is one of my favorite chefs I’ve every worked with when it comes to local ingredients and simple preparations focusing and shining a light on fresh local vegetables. Chef Will Peterson at Waverly understands fire, the grill josper and all that. They all have very different thoughts on food but they all do a good job at their interpretations of Foxcroft.
Sharing food with people is like offering them a bit of yourself. You put your time and effort and attention into creating this thing and you want to share it with people, you want to see their reactions to it. Our kitchens allow us to see into the dining room. You’ll catch our chefs watching people take that first bite to see their reaction. Their reaction could be stopping and sitting back to savor that bite, jumping right back in for that second bite, or pushing the plate across the table saying “you gotta try this” – we like to see their reactions. That always makes us feel good.
What’s your vision for Foxcroft in the future as we grow?
I’d like to see us expand our pasta program and baked goods. We have a talented bake team. Our dessert menu will expand. I’d like to work with more local farms and local purveyors. Our cheese program is headed in a fun direction too. We now have North Carolina cheese on the menu for the Cheese & Charcuterie board – it’s a delicious goat brie.
What’s unique about Foxcroft compared to other Restaurants?
I’ve never worked in a restaurant with the staff working as such a cohesive unit. Front of the House, Back of the House, management – they all work so well together and it makes our job easier and more fun. That environment shows through to our guests, that’s why we have so many regulars. The environment is something special. You can come in and relax after a kids soccer game or come for a business meeting and either way you’ll be comfortable. We don’t come across as pretentious at all. Foxcroft has an inviting atmosphere for both customers and employees. We all work hard an take pride in what we do. You can really can see the group effort it takes to do what Foxcroft does.
What’s your favorite kitchen gadget?
That Josper charcoal grill at Waverly! It was exciting to get, and we’ve only scratched the surface on what we can do with it. It adds a smoky edge to some of our plates We anticipate one of those in every new Foxcroft going forward. It’s very exciting.
If you were not a professional chef, what would you be?
A starving artist. (well I am an artist, just not starving) I like to paint in my spare time, It’s fun and relaxing, I turn on music, and set aside a couple hours to play. I paint mostly abstract. I’ve always been drawn toward artistic and creative outlets.