Christa Csoka sits at the end of an industrial chic, community-style bar table at The Artisan’s Palate dressed in a Blondie t-shirt, sipping her iced coffee as customers, artists and staff repeatedly call for her attention, not unlike a matriarch of a large, blended family. Patiently, happily, she listens to each question, each life update, each rave about her new dishes as though the person speaking is the only one in the room.
Csoka opened The Artisan’s Palate, a hybrid art gallery and restaurant situated at the southern end of East 36th Street, in July 2019.
The road to restaurant ownership was a winding one, from West Point to Chicago, eventually landing her in Charlotte after her parents and siblings made the move from New York in the early 2000s, back when her dream of NoDa restaurant ownership began.
A windowed garage door opens into a dining room complete with refinished concrete floors filled by a variety of seating — wooden four-top tables, bar tops, metal chairs — and a back wall lined with galvanized piping that supports shelves of unique wines hand-selected by Csoka, bits of graffiti-style art popping up along support beams throughout.
Csoka had scouted a handful of locations around the city before landing on the one-time laundromat that would become The Artisan’s Palate. She’d planned to be the sole owner of her slowly forming concept, though she’d take her brother with her for moral support. She would talk to contractors, discussing what could be done with the space.
The response was the same every time — the male contractors would speak only to Csoka’s brother, ignoring her, the business owner, in the process.
The same thing had happened years prior when Csoka was running her father Louis Csoka’s business, Apex Performance. When moving from Ballantyne to Uptown prior to their closure in 2015, Csoka had worked behind the scenes to design their spot, determine the needs and find architects to help.
Again, the response was the same. Csoka would take her dad to get his input on the place, show him what she’d been working on, and, “Every question ended up being directed at him, even though I was the one they’d been speaking to,” she recalls.
Csoka refused to work this way. She’d already experienced her fair share of sexism — sometimes violently — in the restaurant world when staging, working as a chef and in culinary school.
While attending the renowned French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City, she worked with what she calls “some of the best mentors” like Jacques Pepin, who’d famously worked with Julia Child, as well as other French chefs, many of whom diminishingly referred to her as “sweetheart.”
She always had a desire to work under a woman chef, though the low representation made this nearly impossible. She found herself engrossed in what she deems the “boys’ club” of the restaurant industry. While in school, she studied under few female master chefs, and whenever she did, a trend emerged.
“They were calmer, more respectful, certainly not sexist, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be.’”
After FCI, Csoka spent her fair share of time in toxic male-centric kitchens. Some shattered plates against walls. Another called her an idiot then threw a pan filled with simmering duck fat that would leave the scar still present on her left arm. She quit the next day, leaving the industry for over a decade.
This is what led her to her father’s business, where she honed in on the skills she thought she lacked. Though the dreams of restaurant ownership had swirled in her mind for decades, she didn’t see herself having the person-centered aptitude required for running anything beyond a kitchen.
Through working with her father, a former West Point professor of behavioral science and leadership, Csoka helped countless veterans, athletes and children with the mental-health skills required for adapting to new circumstances and cultivating resilience.
Csoka says it was rewarding and meaningful work but not her passion.
The inspiration for The Artisan’s Palate
As a child, Csoka spent her childhood assisting her mother in entertaining generals, new cadets and athletes at West Point, the military academy in New York, as her father worked. On an almost weekly basis, the Csoka household would be filled as her mother cooked for any number of people in addition to her own family of six.
“It was just like a hotel in some ways,” Csoka says. “These people would come and stay the night and my mom would cook them all dinner and then breakfast in the mornings. As kids we were just like, ‘Okay, we have to do this.’”
Her mother would cook pans of lasagna and casseroles that called for cream of mushroom soup — comfort food Csoka still requests of her mother — while breakfast included platters of eggs, French toast, bacon, anything to fill the bellies of the hungry passers-through.
Csoka’s parents’ love of hosting was apparent. They provided a bit of ease in the otherwise staunch military environment of West Point. Making cocktails of the times — Cuba Libres after their resurgence to popularity in the 1960s, Pina Coladas of the late 1970s, wine coolers in the early ’80s — the Csokas had a reputation for fun, good food and dancing that kept their home full. The passion of inclusivity and hosting thus came naturally to Csoka.
Csoka’s first professional experience in the hospitality industry was at the West Point Club, where at age 16 she became a server for banquets and weddings.
She served cadets, generals and beyond, like the time she served then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, “complete with white gloves.”
Eventually Csoka moved to New York City where she went on to work at various roles in the industry. She worked as a bartender, a caterer, and a coffee shop manager.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, she began cooking for her friends. She’d prepare elaborate meals and take them to the homes of friends, rolling them through the subway in suitcases, the art of cooking still nothing more than a hobby she was excited to share.
Watching from her apartment window, shocked, as the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, she determined herself to pursue cooking full-time.
“Life is too short to not do what you love,” she says. Upon moving to Charlotte in 2003, she spent time in NoDa, back when it was filled with art galleries, little plastic cups of wine greeting viewers at the door during gallery crawls, art lovers and novices alike sharing space in the shops committed to supporting local artists.
She’d seen the early-1900s home that would years later become NoDa Company Store. It was upon seeing the For Lease sign that she thought, “I could open a restaurant,” but her internalized supposed lack of managerial skills held her back.
Later, her years of working at Apex allowed her to once again entertain the idea of restaurant ownership more seriously — the concepts of communication, kindness and a solutions-minded mentality merging with her culinary background of well-crafted food and beverage. After Apex closed Csoka seized the opportunity to return to the neighborhood to which she’d felt a draw over 15 years prior
Upon moving to Charlotte in 2003, she spent plenty of time in NoDa, back when it was filled with enough galleries to host weekly crawls. She took it all in, not knowing the seeds that were being planted at the time. Her later idea for a hybrid gallery and restaurant came from a desire to provide a comfortable space where guests can enjoy well-crafted food and cocktails while supporting a talented local art community.
While at West Point, Csoka’s sister took a job at a craft shop that did automobile repairs and framed medals and guns (“It’s a military base— it’s normal”) and she slowly implemented watercolor and stained-glass classes.
“People would come in on Saturdays and drink horrible government-issued coffee, bringing in a hodgepodge of food and talk about art and music. I will never forget that feeling,” Csoka says. “I thought ‘What if you had great coffee and food and art?’ That’s what I want for my life.”
Those memories, along with recollections of NoDa art crawls and her final FCI project, which she did on the relationship between French Impressionism and cuisine, made the tying of food to art and art to community feel natural.
Watching firsthand her sister’s life as an artist unfold and the challenges therein with selling work and finding space, the determined inclusion of art — primarily in a so-called art district now largely devoid of galleries — secured Csoka’s final vision.
Putting women first in the restaurant industry
After experiencing the dismissive nature of contractors and architects, The Artisan Palate’s eventual home was the only space in which Csoka felt heard and respected by contractors.
Don Belch with DRB General Contracting, the same company who worked with neighboring 9Round Fitness and Salon 1226, was the only one to look her in the eye, ignoring her brother in the background.
“Until I found him, I kept dealing with the same bullshit,” Csoka says, “The whole ‘I don’t want to talk to you, you’re a woman’ vibe.”
Belch’s respect helped Csoka feel comfortable signing a lease and investing in the 2,500-square-foot space, and soon thereafter the concept began to come to life.
“I keep it blunt. I’m a New Yorker,” the 51-year-old Csoka says. “I come from a generation of women who do not support one another. I see this new generation doing it differently and I want to be a part of that.”
She’s set out to support women, no matter their position.
“My role in life is to empower younger women and let them know they can do whatever the hell they want. I love to support women artists and love that they are comrades in arms supporting each other,” she says. “In some instances women do still compete but this generation is more ‘We’ve got your back and we are in this together.'”
Csoka says now, as opposed to her days at FCI, she sees a lot of talented women in the industry, which makes the fight for jobs and notoriety less intense, though she still wants to see better representation of women in the industry.
“I watched Whitney Thomas, a talented chef at The Grand Bohemian, be passed over for a job and she left Charlotte. That’s a damn shame. What do we do? Go back to the boys’ network?” Csoka says. “I see it all the time and I just don’t get it.”
Csoka laments the recently announced closure of Earl’s Grocery, one of the few truly women-owned restaurants in town. She points out that there is a limited number of Charlotte restaurants owned by women and insists that the few getting media attention and enjoying booked-out reservations, are those that women own with their husbands, the wives often being an afterthought.
Csoka doesn’t have this “advantage” and, rightfully so, “cannot believe we still live in this type of world.” And so she has determined to make her business as female- and femme-identifying-forward as possible, to the point of taking it beyond restaurant hours.
After her former intern Jada Bennett lost a job offer due to the pandemic, Csoka brought her on as general manager, for a time housing Bennett in her Wilmore Airbnb.
The two work well together, Csoka being more vocal, Bennett being more reserved.
“We’re like yin and yang,” Jada says.
Csoka follows with, “She’s the daughter I never had.”
The staff at The Artisan’s Palate operates like a big family, each one wanting to see the other succeed. They’ve endured the strife of the pandemic, pivoting to adjust to the abrupt changes that happened less than a year after opening.
They’d just hit a stride and had to start over. A patio was built out front, tables were moved into the gallery space to provide more space for social distancing. Music was performed through an open garage door. Csoka says the restaurant’s survival shows the power of women.
What’s on the menu
The Artisan’s Palate kitchen is filled with skilled chefs from various backgrounds, both professionally and ethnically, allowing for a merging fusion of cultures on an exciting menu through which unique sights, scents and flavors abound.
Mariana’s Empanadas, named for one of the chefs, are a fusion of Colombian, French and Italian influences with traditionally prepared duck confit, with citrus elements encased in handmade corn tortilla-type shells. It is served with a spoonful of Colombian aji salsa, which combines tomato, green onion, vinegar (as opposed to the traditional lime) and jalapeno, with the addition of olive oil for a slight twist on the traditional recipe.
Sitting on a bed of crunchy watercress, the empanadas are drizzled with an Italian-influenced agrodolce (meaning sweet and sour) that is accomplished with the right blend of apricots and champagne vinegar. The chefs have created a vegan version with a filling of corn and potatoes in an almost polenta-like consistency, the flavors differing wildly from the duck but delicious and adventurous nonetheless.
Various boards are on the menu, including the Olive Tapenade Board, which comes complete with step-by-step instructions informing diners of the perfect assembly of ingredients.
Garlic chunks are to be rubbed on the warm baguette, after which lemon and garlic enriched olive oil is to be drizzled over top. Round scoops of goat cheese are to be spread, followed by tapenade made of green olives and pimentos and sprinkled with crunchy Maldon salt.
The Firehouse Meatballs are based on Csoka’s maternal grandfather’s Italian recipe and a bit of her own French training. Pork, beef and veal blend, swimming in a sea of pomodoro sauce topped with slightly browned mozzarella cheese, served with buttered bread for dipping.
Octopus with quick-fried cauliflower and a mild Colombian chorizo makes an appearance on the menu as well as a shrimp & grits bowl with local grits and slow-braised short ribs.
The cocktail list is specially curated, including a house favorite added to the menu after the bartenders’ insistence: Csoka walking by asking for the aptly named “My Drink,” made with Hayman’s Old Tom gin, balanced with diet tonic and orange peel, a thinly sliced cucumber encircling the glass.
The Painted Garden was the 2019 People’s Choice winner at Charlotte’s Homegrown Tomato Festival. Combining a house-made tomato and mint shrub, the slightly-astringent though well-balanced beverage tastes like a Southern summer complete with Plymouth gin, which plays well with candied ginger and prosecco and a rim of dehydrated tomatoes, sugar and Makrut lime.
July 2019 ushered in a soft opening, focusing on coffee and pastries. The idea was to ease into a night scene in September, giving staff time to become accustomed to the newly formed business. After March 2020 hit, they managed to host safe events during the pandemic, booking artists until the year 2023, and developing a unique menu that beautifully compliments the wine and cocktail program.
“People are busy taking pictures for, what’s it called, Instagram?” Csoka says.
Charlotte’s food scene is filled with bohemian-style interiors, perfect for the current social media aesthetic that drives so much of local restaurants’ traffic, a stark contrast to the industrial vibe inside The Artisan’s Palate.
Though the back patio is filled with beautiful photo ops, those seeking to be seen overlook the gallery-restaurant for a more highly popularized locale, often those of the husband-wife ownership persuasion.
NoDa’s food and beverage footprint is extending in every direction with the implementation of the Light Rail, though the southern end of East 36th Street is residential, making it a hard sell for people to set off on foot for the half-mile trek to NoDa Plaza. Csoka hopes the right turn onto The Plaza will eventually house more of the same types of businesses, taking a new stretch as far as Hattie’s and Tip Top Daily Market.
Take the walk, find a parking spot, support art, support women and find yourself in an atmosphere of elevated service, intentional cuisine and glowing hospitality, just like Csoka’s mother taught her.