CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ask Chef Greg Collier what his favorite dish is to make, and the answer is simple: grits.
Grits, he said, “speaks to the point of Southern cooking.”
“You’ve got to take your time, you’ve got to use a really good product, and you’ve got to care about what you do,” he said. “The better corn you get, the better grits are.”
They need to cook low and slow for two hours, and it’s even better to take the time to make a stock first to cook them in, he said.
“Grits will always be my thing because I think it speaks to who I am as a cook and what I believe Southern cooking is supposed to be,” Collier said.
The James Beard Foundation just nominated Collier as a semifinalist for its “outstanding chef” award, one of the most prestigious in the culinary world.
Greg Collier and his wife and business partner, Subrina Collier, own Leah and Louise in Charlotte’s Camp North End and are getting ready to reopen their popular breakfast spot Uptown Yolk Cafe.
“I think a lot of times because I'm a Black chef, people are like, ‘Ah man it’s Soul Food.’ But it’s not soul food,” he said. “It's kind of us honoring our heritage and thinking about our history. Uptown Yolk is that in brunch Leah and Louise is that even more detailed because we're thinking about African American foodways through the lens of Memphis, Jackson, Mississippi, the Mississippi River Valley.”
He said both restaurants pull from Southern traditions and modern, contemporary cooking. One serves breakfast and brunch, the other brings those ideas to dinner.
This isn’t Greg Collier’s first time being nominated for a James Beard award. Last year, his name was on the nomination list for best chef in the South.
Subrina Collier has also been honored by the James Beard Foundation as its 2020 Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Fellow.
There are a handful of other James Beard award nominations in North Carolina too: Heff's Burger Club, in Winston-Salem, and Asheville’s Neng Jr.'s for best new restaurant; Kingfisher, in Durham, for outstanding bar; and four nominations for best chef in the Southeast.
The Colliers were both born and raised in Memphis. Subrina Collier describes Leah and Louise as their effort to honor the Memphis juke joint.
“It's an intimate place and that's what we want. We want this to be our rendition of a juke joint,” she said, adding she got her start working in the hospitality industry on Memphis’s Beale Street.
The Colliers, who have been married for 13 years, have grown their business together. Uptown Yolk started in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 2012. That first restaurant was destroyed in a fire in 2014, but that gave the Colliers the chance to move to a bigger space. They moved Uptown Yolk to Charlotte in 2018.
Leah and Louise officially opened June 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic riled the restaurant industry and the rest of the economy. Uptown Yolk managed to make it through the first year of the pandemic, but the Colliers decided to close it in 2021 as they focused on their new restaurant.
Uptown Yolk will be back open next month. Greg and Subrina Collier also started the BayHaven Food and Wine Festival, a celebration of Black food and chefs. That festival will be back in Charlotte this year.
While growing their businesses, the Colliers are also growing their family. Baby Seleah Collier is now eight months old and joined her parents at the restaurant for an interview recently.
“Chefs and restaurant owners, we’re always ‘work, work, work,’ but having a baby has kind of helped, me especially, prioritize our time and how important it is to be at home,” Greg Collier said.
“We’re learning work-life balance, we’ve never had to before,” Subrina Collier said. “We’re learning how to prioritize in a different way. Because, of course we know how to prioritize business. Now we have a human to prioritize.”
The James Beard Foundation will announce the finalists in this year’s competition on March 29 and the winners will be named in June.