May 10, 2017 Edibles » Cover Story

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Chef Donnie Simmons Looks to Create a Culinary Scene From Scratch in Monroe 

Southeast bound and down


In the restaurant industry, a good social media presence can be the difference between life and death. As chef Donnie Simmons learned recently, however, social media can be the difference between actual life and death in certain situations.

Simmons says he was sitting alone in his new pizza-and-biscuit shop on Main Street in Monroe a couple weeks before it opened, working on the menu at about 7 a.m. when a man he had never seen before walked in. In an emotional spiel, the man told him he was a fellow recovering addict, and that he followed Simmons on Facebook. The man had been near relapsing, but saw a recent post in which Simmons touted another month of sobriety, as he does every month, and rethought things.

"The man started crying and he shook my hand and he said, 'Man, please post every month, because it saved my life,'" Simmons says. "Then he turned around and walked out and never told me his name or nothing. I thought, damn, I'm really touching people. I'm touching people in every aspect, there it is."

The sort of love Simmons experienced from that stranger one day in April is indicative of why the former Charlotte chef is bringing his talents back to Monroe after two years as executive chef at Zada Jane's Corner Café — where both years he won Best Chef in Creative Loafing's Best of Charlotte — to implement one of the more bold restaurant initiatives one can attempt: build a culinary scene from scratch.

After Crust & Jam, which opens on Friday, May 12, Simmons plans to open three more restaurants along Main Street in the Union County seat, home to about 35,000 people just southeast of Charlotte on U.S. 74. He'll follow up on Crust & Jam with the opening of Franklin & Main, a fine dining restaurant with a menu inspired by Depression-era foods; Monroe's first tapas and wine bar; then finish with the opening of a Southern-style buffet in a large, abandoned yellow house on the corner of Main Street and Morrow Avenue.

Simmons' second restaurant, Franklin & Main, will be named after the intersection at which it sits in downtown Monroe.
  • Simmons' second restaurant, Franklin & Main, will be named after the intersection at which it sits in downtown Monroe.

Monroe has held a special place in Simmons' heart since he worked at a farm-to-fork restaurant — a trending culinary term that he hates — and had to leave when the owner shut down shop to focus more on the farm aspect. When the opportunity arose to join on with a pair of investors looking to start a restaurant group in Monroe, he knew it was his chance to return to where he felt most at home.

"I went back to Charlotte and I did my thing, but I said, 'You know what, dude? Monroe just has the love for me.' They just have the love," he says.

He talked his way from an executive chef offer to becoming an equal third partner with the Ralph Lawrence Group, and now he's in charge of opening up four restaurants in about a year's time.

"My focus now is about giving back to the community, because I don't know if it's a community that's ever been really tapped into or touched from a food aspect. Everybody that I've talked to personally says, 'We've been waiting on something. We've been waiting on it.' When I said I'm back in Monroe, everybody said, 'Why did it take so long?" he says.

"So when I came here my mission statement was to look at the farmers, let's look at the community, and I want to give back 100 percent. I think that's what we've stuck to. I'm telling you, I'm giving. I tell you 100 percent, I'm giving."

In the weeks leading up to the official Crust and Jam opening, he's been taking that mission statement literally. Simmons and the staff there have been handing out pizzas and biscuit sandwiches to whomever happens to walk through the door as they stroll through downtown Monroe.

When Creative Loafing stopped by the new location and prepared to tour the spots where his next ventures will open later this year, nobody in the shop was disappointed, as folks raved about the pizza. Simmons has also been building up his social media presence with contests and free offers on the Crust and Jam Facebook page, where Monroe residents have shared their excitement about the low-key pizza and biscuit joint.

As Simmons walks down a Main Street that will soon be dotted with his own businesses, the Mint Hill native looks more Midwood than Monroe. He's heavily tattoed and his ever-present dark shades and low-sitting hat block his face. His gauged earlobes flap in the breeze.

And yet, older shop owners and young folks alike stop him in the street to discuss the pizza they tried earlier in the day or the tomato jam he's been handing out to social media winners. It's clear he's already ingratiated himself with the folks strolling through town on a lazy Friday afternoon.

"Me being down here initially, I think it was a shock for them," Simmons says. "Now that I've come back, I'm easily recognizable. I don't look like the stereotypical Union County person, if there's such a thing. Now when I walk up and down the street, people are like, 'Oh, hey!' With the tattoos, I would think it might be different, but I share my story about being sober and I share my story about people that work in my kitchen being recovering addicts. I open my kitchen up to give people second chances, so I think people have accepted me more. They know what I'm about."

click to enlarge Donnie Simmons at his first venture, Crust and Jam, which opens on Friday, May 12, at 12 p.m.
  • Donnie Simmons at his first venture, Crust and Jam, which opens on Friday, May 12, at 12 p.m.

Simmons is referring to his "Clean Kitchen" policy, one that he implemented at Zada Jane's and will keep going at all four of his new restaurants. As a recovering addict who dropped his heroin addiction more than seven years ago, he has a zero-tolerance policy for drug use or drinking in the kitchens he runs. He wants to make sure folks like himself who may be struggling with addiction always feel comfortable there.

"It was always around. It was everywhere in that industry. Some people want to agree or disagree, but it's the industry," he says, talking of the rampant drug use he witnessed while coming up in the culinary industry. "I talk to a lot of people doing what I do and they say, 'You know what, I got out of it because of the overwhelming drug abuse, seeing that shit all day.'"

He says he eventually got clean because he was tired, although a long pause before he tells the story makes it clear that there was more going on at that time seven years ago when he began to turn his life around.

"There was an experience, and the experience was I better not ever do it again," Simmons said with a smile. "I woke up one day tired. I was physically tired. It's work to get high. Heroin, opiates, drinking. I think it started with being in the restaurant business. One of the main things was, 'Hey, we get a shift drink.' You get that and it never stopped. It went from shift drinks to, 'Where are we going afterwards?' and after that, just downhill, because I wasn't one who could control it. A lot of people can, and I don't knock it, but a lot of people can't."

Around 2015, deaths from heroin overdoses in Mecklenburg County were skyrocketing, including multiple deaths and overdoses among folks were known to frequent the Plaza Midwood area, where Simmons had taken over the Zada Jane's kitchen. That and learning the story of a friend who couldn't find work after being caught selling marijuana inspired Simmons to try to help, and he decided to implement the Clean Kitchen, hiring ex convicts and recovering addicts who he felt deserved a second chance.

"It can mean a clean kitchen physically, or it can mean a clean kitchen where I don't want people to come in and do drugs," Simmons explains. "Growing up in this industry, everybody comes in fucked up. They come in, they're drinking on the job, they're drinking while they're working, they're smoking, they're doing whatever. I said, 'You know what, I want to create an environment for people to come in and enjoy the craft and enjoy it without having all the bullshit around.'"

When we stopped by on that recent Friday afternoon, a camera crew was set up outside of Crust and Jam as they shot a short documentary about one of Simmons' employees. It wasn't one of his second chances, however, it was more like a first chance.

Jake Plue is a 36-year-old man with an intellectual disability who says his job as dishwasher, food packer and helper with anything that needs doing around the shop is the first job he's ever had where he's allowed to work alone and treated like an adult by his boss.

He spoke with CL after wrapping his day of filming with the crew, which is shooting a documentary highlighting three North Carolinians who will benefit from the recently passed NC Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which allows people with disabilities to save and invest money without jeopardizing Medicaid and other programs and supports.

He said he appreciates working with Simmons because he doesn't handle him with kid gloves, like all of his former bosses.

"I like it if somebody comes up to me if you have a problem with me, tell me to my face, I might get mad a little bit, but I like to know," Plue says. "A lot of times people get upset with me and go back and tell my brother and my sister-in-law. I don't understand that, you've got to tell me. Tell me first the problem you have. I don't like people going behind my back."

Plue said he's been anxiously watching the buzz build on Facebook for the official Crust and Jam opening while trying to do his part on his own page to let people know that they should stop by, although he's not concerned about turnout on Friday.

"I've already seen it on Facebook," he says of the rave reviews following the Crust and Jam giveaways. "The line is going to wrap around this building, I'm telling you."

Simmons was once where Plue is now, as he worked his way up through the restaurant industry the hard way, from dishwasher to executive chef and now partner. He said the experience has helped him work with those in the kitchen below him.

Anyone with money can go get a degree from Johnston & Wales University and say they're ready to open a restaurant, but Simmons says he knows what it means to do the grunt work.

"I went from dishwasher to prep cook to fry cook to the grill to sautéing, and worked myself all the way up. I didn't want to be the bitch, so I had to work my way up," Simmons says.

"I think that it showed me every aspect of it. Instead of just pointing at somebody and going, 'Hey man, do this, do that,' I know their pain. I had to wash dishes. I had to cook French fries for 8 hours. I had to burn 50 pounds of bacon. I've got scars all over me. They're tattoos now, but hell, under those are scars. I had to burn myself every fucking day to understand that, and my experience is from doing it."

But before he got burned, he had to learn the basics, and that started at a young age with his grandmother, Betty Ruth Simmons. Betty had a strict rule in her Mint Hill kitchen: you either help or you get out of the way, so Donnie helped.

Now, all these years later, his newest venture will be an ode to Betty, now 85. Many of the recipes at Crust and Jam aren't just inspired by his grandmother, they're her recipes; her biscuits and her jam on those biscuits. The Brown Betty Butter isn't her only jam there, she shared with Donnie her way of making fig jam, Chow Chow, even pickled corn.

Simmons prepares biscuits with his grandmother's old recipe. Photo by Hunter Henrickson.
  • Simmons prepares biscuits with his grandmother's old recipe. Photo by Hunter Henrickson.

In his next restaurant, Franklin & Main, the recipes are inspired by Southern cooking of the 1920s and 1930s. That includes authentic recipes like fried green tomatoes breaded with ground corn flakes, ox tail served in tin foil — the way Southerners used to cook it in the ground — and hot milk cake.

"I really want people to understand where food comes from. One thing that I've learned is that so many chefs — including myself — have taken so much food and overcomplicated it just to be different," Simmons says. "On that [Franklin & Main] menu, you can relate to everything on it. There's nothing that you don't know in terms of food: corn flakes, tomatoes, ox tails, pork chops, liver, everything on there, you understand what it is. And you can say, 'Oh man, my grandmother made this,' or, 'I ate this at my aunt's house, we had this after church,' and you can relate to it and understand it.

"When I personally go places I say I don't know what that is and I've been cooking for 25 years. I don't want that. I want it to be a story and be able to be easily recognized."

It's when Simmons gets to talking about food that he becomes the most energized, his raspy voice quickening when he talks about his old-school cooking styles that have just recently become trendy.

"My grandmother raised me, I started watching her over the years and learning and doing whatever she did," he says. "It was then that I started learning them old school recipes, that was grandma, and that's again, the old school Southern food. People now are going, 'Hey man, we're cooking with cast iron skillets.' I don't know what the fuck anything else is but a cast-iron skillet. Let's keep it 100. You got a new cast iron skillet? My shit is from 1978, literally."

Despite the tattoos, the cockiness of a man who knows he came up in the game the right way and the explicit language of the slickest of city slickers, Simmons feels right at home in this new tired town — a town he hopes to wake up.

For now, Simmons says he focused strictly on successfully launching these four restaurants and bringing jobs to town, but down the road a bit, he hopes to make Monroe a destination city for foodies.

From behind the blacked out glasses, Simmons is always looking at the bigger picture.

"I think the way that we did it is smart, because if we would have come in and done one little restaurant, I don't know that it would have been successful," he says. "But Monroe is a cool little town, just look around. I would love to put it on the map. These small towns nowadays are the ones getting recognized. These towns have to start somewhere, and I think it's time now that Monroe gets that."

From looking at him, he's the last one you'd expect to bring them there, but maybe that's the type of person this Main Street, Monroe has been waiting for all along.

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