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Chef takes note of the world around him

In a distinctive 100-year-old church turned restaurant, Executive Chef Blake Hartwick of Bonterra has spent the last five years transforming his love for food into classic cuisine.Brought up in a family that owned a catering business, Hartwick's interest in food began at an early age. Inspired by his father's passion, Hartwick continued on the same path.

"He always wanted me to get one of these posh little jobs, like working for the state or something with good benefits, because he went down the same road and wanted me to have something more stable," Hartwick explains. "He is so proud of me and he supports me, but I remember when I was getting ready to step out into the word and he said, "You know I will support anything you do, but...'"

Growing up partly in the South and in New York, Hartwick chose to attend culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Charleston. Struggling to pay his own way, Hartwick left culinary school behind, but not his passion to cook.

"I am one to believe that if you have imagination and somebody trusts you and you have good taste, than you can do whatever you want."

And that's exactly what he did.

After having visited Charlotte a few times, Hartwick decided to move to the growing city. He had stints with Bistro 100 and Carpe Diem but began to truly learn the ropes working at Sonoma, where he was the Sous Chef for over a year. He then heard about Bonterra while it was still under renovation.

Since his time at Bonterra, Hartwick has tried to incorporate his culinary philosophy into every dish. "Three things," he reveals. "Balance, texture and presentation. I like things really nice and tight on the plate. Consistency is also very important."

Aside from learning from other chefs over the years, Hartwick frequently reads and inquires about new food trends. "Chefs are hungry for new things all the time, and if you see through the trials and tribulations over decades in restaurants, there is always a -- quote unquote -- stylish thing to do."

For Hartwick, the newest recognizable trend in Charlotte and other culinary capitals is Spanish cuisine. "It's all about very small tastes of food. For example, in Barcelona nobody eats until like 11 at night. They have tapas at like four, a few beers, then everybody goes home and takes a nap or whatever and eats dinner at around 11."

Last summer, Hartwick spent eight days in Europe with Bonterra owner John Duncan. They spent part of their time in Spain, where Hartwick soaked in cuisine that represented more than a meal -- it exemplified the culture.

"We got to a restaurant at about 11 at night and were there until two. They just bring all small tastes of food in about 20 courses. When I go out to eat, I just like to sit down at the bar and order as many things as I can appetizer-wise. I hardly go to a restaurant and order an entree and a salad."

With the new restaurant Radcliffe on the Green opening in just a few weeks, Hartwick will be juggling his time as executive chef between there and Bonterra. He's also still learning how to balance the demanding schedule of a chef with life outside the kitchen. His main escape is his sport motorcycle, which he plans to race in the upcoming year.

"I never think about work when I'm riding," he confesses. "When I'm out in the country and riding around, that's probably one of the most relaxing things I can do without going on vacation. But when I'm cooking at the restaurant, I'm in my own little world."

Bonterra is located at 1829 Cleveland Avenue. Open for dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:30pm until 10pm and Friday and Saturday 5:30pm until 11pm. Phone: 704-333-9463.

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