Rojshawn Dontae is getting restless.
The 33-year-old moved to Charlotte in 2015 shortly after dropping his rap career to pursue the culinary arts. In that time, he launched his brand, The Nappy Chef, beginning as a caterer and private chef, then renting out kitchens at different spots around town before opening his own brick-and-mortar spot on Albemarle Road in 2018.
As The Nappy Chef, Dontae has cooked for stars like Rakim, Nas and Floyd Mayweather, while becoming a bit of a local celebrity in his own right, regularly appearing on local news shows. He’s published a book and launched an entertainment agency to help rappers on the come up as he once was.
Now in the final year of a five-year plan that he formulated before arriving in the city, it’s plain to see that Dontae is getting bored, and he’s not reluctant to admit it.
“Everything I wanted to do, I’ve done it and more,” he tells me while we sit in a booth in his east Charlotte eatery on a recent afternoon. “If I died today, I’d be happy. I still want to do more in life, but everything that I put in that five-year plan is already completed.”
But Dontae isn’t dying, and the coming years will call for a new plan, the beginnings of which are already beginning to form. He wants to open a Nappy Chef bar and grill, then work to ensure that both his restaurant and bar can operate without him so he can set out to travel the world, trying new foods and cooking for new people.
Growing up in a military family, Dontae moved around a lot, and as a rapper, he spent time living in Georgia, Florida and Virginia. He loves Charlotte, but this is as long as he’s stayed in one place during adulthood, he says. He’s beginning to feel closed in by the walls of his own restaurant, the daily routine burning him out.
“I want to be free. You should never be a slave to your business. I feel like I’m a slave to my business now because I’m no longer passionate,” he says. “Just staying in one place doing the same shit every single day, it burns you out. And this really burned me out because I feel like people don’t know my story or know how hard it was to get to where I’m at. I did it for me, this is my dream. I love to cook for me. So whether y’all come and buy my food or not, this is what I love to do, and I want to get back to that love.”
Dontae’s passion for cooking began when he was 13 years old. Everybody in his family cooked, and though he didn’t take it seriously until later on, it was a skill that he kept in his back pocket and pulled out whenever he was on the road as a rapper and the crew needed to eat.
In 2014, he became burnt out by the rap life and began itching for something new.
“I got out of the rap game because you gotta be a certain character, like a puppet. I don’t want to do nothin’ in life where I can’t be 100% myself,” he says. “That’s why I became a chef, to be 100% myself.”
Dontae planned to attend culinary school in Nashville, but a serendipitous connection sent him on a different path. His roommate worked with world-renowned chef John Makin, who was in the twilight years of his career, running the Bakery & Café at Rose Cottage in Pine Mountain, Georgia. The friend talked up Dontae’s cooking skills to Makin, who brought him in and gave him a job on the line.
Makin, who had traveled the world and cooked for Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson, was able to mentor Dontae in a way that not many others had experienced.
“Back in the day, John was such a high-ranking chef, you couldn’t get close to him; he had like 300 chefs up under him, he was the big dog. But when I met him, he had a small little restaurant in a small little town outside of Atlanta and I got to actually work in the kitchen beside him,” he recalls. “So I was getting knowledge, I was his apprentice, and he taught me everything that he could.”
Dontae worked for about a year under Makin before moving to Charlotte in February 2015. He quickly put his lessons to use, and Makin’s inspiration is still evident in his recipes today.
A 1987 Los Angeles Times profile on Makin that called him “quite possibly” the best chef in the state of Texas reads, “He is a confident chef, unafraid of strong flavors and unlikely combinations of ingredients.” Nothing could fit better as a one-sentence description of Dontae’s cooking 33 years later.
Though Makin passed away in 2016, The Nappy Chef has taken his experimental, down-home-but-fancy fusion and run with it. Some of the fan favorites on his restaurant’s menu are things you won’t find at any other casual lunch spot in town, beginning with the top-seller: the salmon cheesesteak.
His signature dish, the Jerk Mac, along with the Caribbean turkey and Reggae shrimp taco, are all examples of his tendency to throw Caribbean influences at usual lunch items. His wing flavors follow the same path, with the Henny Hot $5 basket being one of the biggest reasons folks come back for lunch.
“What I did was take food that people know and make it my own,” he says. “Just like the chicken wings; everybody makes chicken wings but I wanted to bring in ingredients from different countries and make different styles, where it’s like, ‘Damn, I never tasted this on chicken.’ Same with my shrimp tacos, same with my burgers. I wanted not to be way off the wall, but certain things that you wouldn’t necessarily eat all the time.”
The response has been popular with all segments of the population. In the hour that we spend in the restaurant on a Friday afternoon, a steady stream of black, white and Latinx customers come in and out of the doors of the small restaurant located just a block from the former Eastland Mall site.
Then as we wrap up, Dontae is right out the door, heading to the next thing with a rapper from his newly launched agency, Nappy Chef Presents.
In some ways, it’s indicative of how he’s already moved back from the front lines of running a restaurant. When he first opened, regulars would walk in and walk out if they didn’t see him on the line. He’s worked hard to train all his chefs now to make the food like he makes the food, just one part of his preparation to move on to the next thing.
“I’m one of the younger restaurant owners in Charlotte, and everybody else is like, ‘Aww, you made it,’” he says. “To me, I ain’t made it. I can do more. I want to do more. I don’t want to be satisfied because I have a restaurant.
“Everybody else is like you got a restaurant, you’re successful. Naw, that’s for you, small-minded. How can I reach somebody in California, how can I reach somebody in Italy, how can I reach somebody in Japan?” he continues. “There’s more in the world that I want to do, and I do not want to just be stuck in Charlotte, North Carolina, in this restaurant.”
And who are we to say someone shouldn’t chase their dreams? Just as long as he leaves the restaurant open for the rest of us.