Food & DrinkFood Features

Jimmy Pearls Plots Next Move While Staying True to Its Roots

A chat with co-founder Daryl Cooper

Oscar Johnson (left) and Daryl Cooper of Jimmy Pearls (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Pearls)

From time immemorial, cooking has served as a way for people to tell stories of their culture, their history, and their roots, baring their honest souls to loved ones, community members or patrons. 

This sentiment acts as the foundation upon which Jimmy Pearls was built, and co-founder Daryl Cooper believes it plays an integral role in the success his establishment has seen as of late.  

On Jan. 24, Jimmy Pearls became the only Charlotte establishment to be nominated for the coveted 2024 James Beard Awards, with Cooper and fellow co-founder Oscar Johnson named as semifinalists in the Best Chef: Southeast category. 

According to Cooper, it’s been about authenticity from day one. 

“Being recognized amongst some of the most dopest chefs in the nation lets me know that staying true to my roots will get me further in life than anything else,” he told Queen City Nerve following the nomination. 

Billed as “a Virginia Soul Spot in Charlotte,” Cooper and Johnson launched Jimmy Pearls to pay homage to the history of Black food in the Commonwealth they both once called home.

A spread of fish camp food and charcuterie items from Jimmy Pearls
A spread from Jimmy Pearls. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Pearls)

Their “culturally dense” menu includes corn fritters, gizzards, Ma Duke’s Fish Plate, Poke Chop Sammich, and Curry Roti. They’ve also built a reputation for their oysters, served a number of ways at pop-ups throughout the city. 

Having opened inside The Market at 7th Street in 2020, Cooper and Johnson transitioned to a food truck during the pandemic, then returned to 7th Street in 2022. The pair’s plan was to vacate their current location at the end of January while they search for a new brick-and-mortar location, but while they continue in that process, Jimmy Pearls continues to operate at The Market under scaled back hours. 

Learn more: 7th Street Public Market Deserves Your Support

James Beard finalists will be announced April 3 with winners named at a ceremony in Chicago on June 10. Until then, Johnson and Cooper will continue to ride the wave.

“This nomination has brought in more business over the past few weeks,” Cooper explained. “Before we were pretty slow. Heck, we were just about to move out of the market until we found out about the nomination. After that, we had no choice but to stay because we needed a place to showcase our food.”

Pig farms and pop-ups

In the meantime, the team has been traveling around the city holding pop-ups and participating in festivals. They’ll be at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival from March 6-10, and have been taking part in pop-ups and beer dinners throughout the Charlotte area at spots like Resident Culture Brewing Co. and Free Range Brewing.  

The pair are proudly meticulous about how they want to pursue their new establishment, so the pop-ups serve as a test market for any questions they might have, said Cooper. 

“The pop-ups serve as a method of research and development, seeing what works and what doesn’t,” he explained. “They allow us to test our concept in different areas, thus allowing us to analyze what works in terms of menu items and what shall we search for when choosing a new location for our brick-and-mortar. It’s also fun to just get out and socialize with people  coming from all walks of life. We’re inspired by their feedback.”

While they have only opened the 7th Street location from Thursday through Sunday in February, sometimes they close for longer periods while they hit the road in search of new experiences and new ways to expand their vision. 

An oyster special from Jimmy Pearls. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Pearls)

An example of this came in early February when the two attended the seasonal hog roast hosted by Marvin Reed with Peculiar Pig Farm in Ridgeville. 

“This event felt like a big family reunion. We were just a community of folks fellowshipping over great food in a relaxed, family-like atmosphere. We shared stories, ideas, and, most importantly, we shared each other’s cultures with one another. It was a beautiful sight to see.”

It will all get worked into the business plan as the two prepare to open their first standalone establishment. 

““[A restaurant] allows us plenty of flexibility in terms of what we want to cook and how we want to present our food,” Cooper said. “It also allows us to dictate our own atmosphere.”

Cooking for the culture

Cooper said he got his start in the kitchen out of necessity. 

“I started cooking at a young age because my mother didn’t keep grab-and-go snacks readily available,” Cooper said. “I eventually turned this simple necessity to cook into my passion and career.” 

He moved around the food industry, taking jobs in all sectors from fast-casual to fine dining in country clubs. 

“With 17 years in the culinary industry, I have developed a rustic yet elevated style of cooking using techniques I learned from family members, culinary school and trial-and-error.”

He’s also had plenty of time to pick up on the stereotypes and misperceptions people carry about Black cooks and Southern Black food. Part of the mission of Jimmy Pearls has been to address those false impressions head-on. 

“Most times, as Black chefs, when we tell people our concept of Southern food, they  automatically put us in a box,” Cooper said. “When they see that we’re doing something totally unfamiliar, but familiar at the same time, they’re disappointed and want to ask questions: ‘Why don’t you have this on the menu if you cook Southern food?’ or ‘Why does this cost this much?’ 

“We want more comments like ‘This dish reminds me of my childhood,’ or, ‘Where did you source your oysters, they’re very briny.’ These types of comments serve as catalysts for more stimulating conversations about what we do and who we are,” he continued. “We want our patrons to have more of a deeper mindset by establishing connections of their own when eating our food.”

For now, the goal is to find the perfect spot where they can have those stimulation conversations. One thing they know for sure: It’s going to be in Charlotte. 

“Charlotte has provided a place for us to be who we want to be as culinarians and artists,” Cooper said. “We’ve established a vast culinary network here and aim to help keep growing that network.”

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