At the age of 28, Chef Sam Hart of new concept Counter- is not only stepping into the role of head chef for the very first time — he’s doing so at an absurdly ambitious restaurant, the concept for which he dreamed up nearly three years ago. It has few if any precedents anywhere in the world, let alone here in North Carolina. Counter-, as its name suggests, aims to redefine the term “fine dining.”
Hart has made something of a career of risk-taking and defying the odds with puckish aplomb. His culinary journey began a mere five years ago when, at the age of 23 and after watching his sister graduate with her culinary degree, he abruptly quit his lucrative gig selling radio spots for iHeartMedia.
He began working at local restaurant Heirloom, enrolled in the culinary arts program at CPCC, and became the only graduate from his class — and one of very few in school history — to earn an apprenticeship position with a Michelin 3-star restaurant — in his case landing at the Mecca of new American molecular gastronomy, Alinea, in Chicago. But the imminent venture from the native-born, iconoclastic chef ups the ante considerably and has him facing perhaps his longest odds yet.
Hart has had his share of doubters — and there are few things he relishes more than proving them wrong. “I remember when I was in middle school, I got suspended for two days and the principal told me that I was going to wind up flipping burgers at Wendy’s. So when we started hosting our pop-up [restaurants in Charlotte] last year, I sent her an invitation and told her I’d make her a burger for one of the courses.” He lets out a soft sigh of mock disappointment. “She never responded.”
Delivering the Ultimate Sensory Experience
Rather than white tablecloths or even tables at all, Counter- instead features a single u-shaped counter. There is no waitstaff — no buffer between the chefs and the guests — and no menu. Counter- offers two seatings per night: 10 courses for $110 per person. But what truly sets the restaurant apart is Hart’s idea to have music take center stage. A single, omnidirectional pendant speaker hangs above the counter to both offer an aural accompaniment for each course and choreograph the movements of the chefs, who carefully time the presentation of each course to sync up to the soundtrack.
Each seating lasts precisely as long as the playlist. Think of it as a culinary spin on the classic mixtape. Hart recalls the inspiration struck while he was staging at Alinea. It was there that he witnessed and helped execute a dessert course set to Childish Gambino’s “Me and Your Momma.” He had always intended to incorporate music into his restaurant concept, but the Gambino-backed dessert was the light-bulb moment. “I thought that’s exactly what I want to do but it needs to be done with every single course. That’s how we need to make the connection between sound and taste.”
Because he’s convinced of music’s importance in delivering the ultimate sensory experience, Hart obsesses over the music selection as much as he does over each ingredient. Each menu starts with the goal of telling a story. The one for this autumn, “Terroir,” goes deep on pre-colonial North Carolina, mining the art, culture and flavors of our state’s indigenous people with the goal of excavating a history that has been largely overlooked.
To convey the story through the music, Hart works in stages, whittling thousands of songs down to 150 and then locking in the final playlist based on the composition and flow of each course. Hart claims “Terroir,” has been in development for the better part of two years. Similar to the cuisine at Counter-, which whimsically mixes styles and traditions, Hart’s approach to building playlists is refreshingly irreverent and unbound by genre. He focuses on finding songs that explicitly or implicitly speak to the menu theme and strike an emotional chord, which he believes every musical genre is capable of doing, “even country.”
Crafting the Story Behind Each Bite
Hart’s playlist from one of his pop-ups (a proof of concept for the brick-and-mortar Counter-) veered from Kanye West to Boone alt-pop outfit Rainbow Kitten Surprise to classical composer Vivaldi, underscoring his omnivorous musical palate. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the obvious question: How much overlap is there really between the fine dining crowd and music fanatics? Are people who are in the market for a lavish meal looking for this kind of fully immersive experience? Hart thinks so based on his interactions during the pop ups.
Initially, he was concerned that some might find it all to be a bit too much, but “we learned that people like for us to get in their bubble, to see the plating, and they like to know the story behind the food and why we’re choosing certain music.”
He believes people who are adventurous eaters are naturally curious and open to many types of new experiences, not just to the plate of food in front of them. Nick Kokonas, co-founder of Alinea with chef Grant Achatz, generally concurs: “Music is intimately tied to emotion and so combining music, sound, and food can significantly alter the dining experience.”
Though he is quick to add a note of caution. “It’s only when it’s done poorly that it becomes obtrusive and takes away from the experience. I’ve certainly seen both.”
While Hart is committed to his concept, he is clear that his commitment stems from his belief that music will complement the food and enhance the overall experience. For as much as Hart rebels against the stuffy confines of traditional fine dining, he also makes no secret of his desire for recognition from the conventional gatekeepers. He wants Counter- to be a true destination restaurant, a spot to put Charlotte on the culinary map and draw foodies from all over. “Charlotte is the largest market in the country to never win a James Beard [award], and it’s never had one restaurant on the top 100 [Opinionated About Dining] report,” explains Hart. “I’m setting out to prove that Charlotte does want this and desires a restaurant to push the boundaries.”
When Dreams Become a Reality
It’s not lost on Hart that he’s picked an especially inopportune moment to put the city he calls home to the test. With the fallout from COVID-19 ravaging the restaurant industry and the fine-dining sector in particular, many restaurateurs have delayed their openings or scrapped plans entirely. Hart, however, remains undaunted.
Like many other restaurants, he’s planning to take a number of extra precautions, including reducing capacity for the foreseeable future, performing temperature checks on staff and guests, and ensuring that all staff don appropriate personal protective equipment. He’s also installed what he refers to as a “state of the art filtration system.”
With less than a month to go, Hart admits that the restaurant he first dreamed up years ago is starting to feel very real. “Anyone opening a restaurant or any business for that matter who says they’re not anxious or nervous is lying,” he says with characteristic bluntness. “[But] similar to a boxer walking out to the ring, it’s time to show our hard work and leave it all out there.” The stakes are impossibly high, and without a doubt, that’s just the way Hart likes them.
Counter- is located at 2200 Thrift Rd. and opens to the public on Wednesday, September 9th.