Expected to debut some time this summer, Taion McElveen will direct the menu at Eschelon Experiences’ latest concept, Bare Bones, in the former Zinda space on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, North Carolina. The 30-year chef, who has spent five years with the restaurant group in various roles, admits having a chance to oversee a unit from inception to execution so early in his culinary career came as a bit of a surprise. That’s been a recurrent feeling lately for McElveen, who has lived in North Carolina’s capital state since he was 7.
In mid-May, McElveen received a call from Eschelon’s president, Gaurav “G” Patel. In around a week, Patel was planning to board a plane and head to Wall Street to represent the brand during US Food’s celebration of its debut as a publicly traded company, an event that included a re-creation of a restaurant kitchen under the New York Stock Exchange façade. And he wanted McElveen’s right there with him.
“I don’t fly, but [I told him] I’ll absolutely I’ll go,” McElveen says.
On May 26, McElveen served up Southern flair to hordes of brokers on the 1.1 kilometer landmark stretch in the heart of New York City, a place he had never stepped foot in before. Realizing, “we were representing Raleigh,” McElveen prepped Braised Al Pastor Style Pork Belly with a side of jicama chow chow and smoky stone-ground grits, topped with guajillo chile sauce for 1,000 people.
The pork belly was rubbed with ancho chiles, achiote paste, and cumin, while the grits were prepared with ham stock, heavy cream, and liquid smoke.
“They had security and everything for us. They had the little guys in suits standing on the street. I felt kind of like a rock star,” he says. “That’s something that I never thought I would have a chance to witness.”
With help from US Foods’ Food Fanatics chefs, including one from Raleigh, McElveen tried to limit the dish to three or four steps, or something “we could do on a production line.” At the same time, it needed to represent his Southern background and provide a glimpse into Bare Bones’ future. In fact, the components of this dish, although not necessarily joined on one plate, will be available at the upcoming concept, which will specialize in ribs and burgers made from McElveen’s own grind.
“People were surprised. They were like, ‘Grits?’ But once they actually ate it, they enjoyed it,” he says of the response. “We actually met a couple of people who were from Raleigh and hadn’t been there in 12 or 13 years that were like, ‘Where ya’ll at?’ … It was pretty cool to actually meet people who now live up in New York and were formerly from Raleigh, and they enjoyed every bit of it.”
Five chefs from around the country attended the event. They were: Cristy Nolton, culinary director, Yeah Burger, Atlanta; Donna Lee, owner, Brown Bag Seafood in Chicago; Brian Ellis, executive chef, The Smith, New York City; and Kenneth Danko, chef/owner, Devilicious, Temecula, California.
They all had a chance to meet and network at a dinner the first night. After the event, McElveen did find time to explore the big city for a bit. Being in Lower Manhattan already, they headed to the Freedom Tower and then scoped out a few smokehouses for inspiration.
McElveen says he hopes to open Bare Bones in the next two months, and expects the restaurant to offer a setting completely unique to the area. “Very vibrant, old school, rustic, we’re going to have anywhere from 15 to 16 TVs throughout the space,” he says. “So you can come catch a game, have a beer, eat some ribs, eat a burger. We’re trying to capture that lively, vibrant scene on Fayetteville Street.”
The Wall Street event presented a great marketing opportunity as well. McElveen and Patel’s pictures were displayed throughout the Stock Exchange and Patel gave a speech and answered some questions earlier in the morning. Each station explained where the chef was located and what restaurant or company they hailed from.
The most memorable moment? “I would just say having the opportunity to cook on Wall Street,” McElveen notes. “That’s not something anyone can say they’ve done before.”
By Danny Klein