In the early stages of the Own Your Own competition—an opportunity for 500 chefs to win $1 million and open a restaurant in Burgaw, North Carolina—grand prize winner Karoline Schwartz recalls being asked why she decided to enter.
Her answer wasn’t the obvious. It was never about the money. It was about being part of a growing community like Burgaw, a municipality with fewer than 5,000 residents, according to the latest U.S. Census. She’s completely enamored with what small towns can provide, having lived in one herself for the past four years in Tabernash, Colorado, which has fewer than 500 people.
“When I first moved out to this small town in Colorado, I didn’t know I needed it until I got there and vowed never to live in a city again,” Schwartz says. “I think Burgaw has a similar charm to it. It’s very historical. It’s very quaint and clean and calm. I think what I love the most about it is the people. I was by myself on this journey whereas a lot of other people had family members with them or spouses with them. For the majority of the competition, I was by myself. So I spent a lot of time taking myself out to eat and visiting the coffee shop and I feel like I got to know a lot of really interesting people in the town. But what I love—and maybe this is just Southern hospitality—but everybody I spoke to was genuinely interested in building a relationship with me. And that’s always been my most important thing in life and in hospitality and in general is relationships. And it felt very genuine.”
When Schwartz was announced as the winner, part of it felt like a dream and another part felt as if her brain was all over the place. Some of that was due to the thrill of victory, but also because her boyfriend surprised her with a proposal before the final vote.
“Right after I had dropped my last dish, it was like the last moment, and I had just explained the dish and he came out from the kitchen,” she says. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he was like, ‘The production team just needs me here for some photos with you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh OK.’ And then all of a sudden he grabbed me and he was like, ‘OK, focus on me for a second,’ because I was very distracted obviously. And he got down on one knee and proposed and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re doing this now?!'”
The Own Your Own event—created by Richard Johnson, founder of hotjobs.com and a self-made millionaire—was a months-long trial that sought competitors from across the nation. Schwartz earned the keys to a restaurant space in downtown Burgaw and $1 million to renovate the building. The layout is 2,250 square feet and features a large patio and exposed brick.
The top 24 finalists traveled to Burgaw to participate in a Town Square Cook-Off. Two hundred-plus residents, selected by a lottery system, served as judges and ranked competitors based on people skills, presentation, taste, and concept. That whittled it down to 12 people, who were then asked about business plans. Six moved on to a series of tests in three local restaurants—Pine Valley Market, Cape Fear Seafood Company, and Stoked Restaurant—and were tasked with planning menus, cooking, and interacting with guests. Out of those challenges, Schwartz and Vinny Mangual, co-owner and operator of Empire BBQ in New York City, were selected as the final two.
As part of the grand finale, each prepared a three-course meal for 70 diners. Schwartz served her Nana’s mushroom soup garnished with sour cream, fresh dill, and paprika oil for the first course, jerk spiced acorn squash with a coconut cauliflower puree, crispy leeks, and watercress for the second course, and tomato braised short ribs and bacon with goat cheese grits and carrot chips for her third course.
“I didn’t try anything new,” Schwartz says. “I went with some of the recipes I have used before that I cook from the heart. These were things that I know were successful and I’ve used them before and I know that they’re delicious. They’re my recipes based on my personal inspiration.”
Schwartz began as a pastry chef, but moved into management and operational roles for about 10 years. When COVID hit, she was hired in Colorado to be an executive chef and general manager of food and beverage at a historic lodge in Grand Lake, Colorado, near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. She previously held leadership positions in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Admittedly, she’s not classically trained in the kitchen, but her cooking talent runs deep. Schwartz’s skills are rooted in everything her mother and grandmother taught her growing up, with the main sticking points being: have fun with it, use as much local ingredients as possible, and “cook delicious things with different types of cuisine flair.”
The upcoming restaurant, scheduled to open sometime in early 2025, will be called the Live Oak, but the name is subject to change. Schwartz is currently in the early planning phase. She will be assisted by Jimi Yui, an esteemed restaurant designer whom she worked for after graduate school. He’s completed designs for multiple Michelin-starred chefs, including Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon. Yui called it an early wedding present.
“I think relationships are essential to success,” says Schwartz, commenting on her former mentor’s help. “And it’s really important that we all keep strong relationships and respectful relationships with each other because you never know. My father used to tell me that you never know who you’re going to meet on the way down or up and it’s important to have people in your corner and be in other people’s corners and support each other and that’s what makes a strong community.”
Schwartz may have won the competition, but Johnson says the event put him in front of several capable chefs deserving of a restaurant. Being an opportunistic person, his next quest is creating avenues for other Own Your Own participants to become entrepreneurs, in addition to replicating the competition in other small towns. The big idea is to create a marketplace connecting investors and chefs who want to open businesses in these rural communities.
As for Schwartz, she’ll be figuring out how to balance a wedding and a restaurant opening.
“I am not one for a big wedding to-do, so I will probably have something very small and easy,” she says. “There was a long time where I didn’t want a wedding at all, but I think my mother would rather have it happen. So we’ll probably do something really small and easy to plan. And working in the hospitality industry, I’ve seen a lot of weddings happen and the planning stages of them. So I feel like it’ll be pretty easy and fun whatever we do.”