Relish Curates Simple, Bold Cuisine For Charlotte

Relish Carolina
Relish Carolina

Raised in an Italian home, Sunday dinner entailed an endless flow of homemade wine and delectable foods: antipasto, homemade ravioli, braised meats, nuts and fruits, and grain pie.  But it was not only the food that drew one to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house but the social interaction surrounding the meal.  Never sure if my Aunts and Uncles were angry or just deaf, dinner was a competition of loud voices, some high and whinny, others deep and forceful; however, there were also the silent supplications from Nana Rose who prayed daily for her dysfunctional family.  Dinner was a menagerie: sharing the week’s events, the hopes and dreams of grandchildren growing too fast, and the plans for vacations yet to be had.  

Not dissimilar to the traditional family dinners of childhood, Relish Carolina aims to revitalize the “lost practice of dinner time.”  Reunited brothers, Conor Merrigan and Joe Haubenhofer hail from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and call their roots “Minnesota Nice,” a combination of “culturally rich”, and “artistically creative” heritage.  Having migrated to Charlotte, NC, a few years ago, Merrigan and Haubenhofer grew to admire the South’s hospitality.  Embracing it, and “wrapping [their] arms around it,” the brothers came up with the idea to merge Southern hospitality with Midwestern up-bringing, the end result: Relish Carolina.

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Merrigan and Haubenhofer are very creative with a good sense of humor and an understanding of the importance behind family time.  Having asked what brought them to Charlotte, they say, “Blue skies and moon pies.”  Is there a better answer than that?. But, “Southern living runs deeper than sweet tea, front porches, fried chicken, seersucker suits, and Moon pies,” explain the brothers.  Relish Carolina is the culmination of the two, a roaming dinner and activity club that restores the tradition of supper time by “pairing simple, bold cuisine with unique atmosphere, creative libations, and uncommon activities.” Reconnecting community and providing a unique atmosphere are important goals of Relish Carolina.  

Dinners are staged in a “unique space.”  From galleries to garages, grocery stores to parking lots, rooftops to secluded decks, and even muscadine vineyards, the space is always “on and off the beaten path.”  The entertainment is just as unique. At any given event you could see turtle races (a Minnesota tradition), lobsters in baby pools, the host brothers dressed up like eccentric oceanliner captains, and other shenanigans that really beseech the guests to have a good time.  Along with the roaming spaces and amusing activities, comes rotating fare.  Relish Carolina utilizes Southern chefs and sous-chefs, seasoned menus “inspired by the venue and surroundings,” and thrives on inventing new dishes.  

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A collaborative process, the brothers work closely with Chad Cizinsky.  Considered their third leg, Cizinsky is nicknamed, “Tim the Tool Man Tailor.  He’s in charge of “logistics, lighting and building things.”   Bryan Brown is “Mr. Hospitality” in charge of service and making sure “each guest experience is memorable.” John Cornely is head chef, the “culinary experimentalist” and “food visionary; however, Relish Carolina also collaborates with other chefs, such as Chef Rob mason of Heist Brewery and Bill Schultz of Bonterra.  Jason Mathis finishes the team as Master Mixologist.  Each event is a challenge as Mathis must come up with the “spirits and ingredients” that not only fit the theme but are locally derived.

The meal itself is family style with tables large enough to seat as many as 150 guests.  It’s all about the “pass, share, and eat with your hands,” attitude. Those who don’t mind “double dipping alongside a stranger” will enjoy themselves.  There are four fundamental elements in most Relish Carolina dinners: use of local Purveyors, music and creative lighting to set the ambiance, “great spirits (both liquid and people kind),” and BYOP or “Bring your own plate.”  “We believe,” says Merrigen and Haubenhofer that each person has a story to tell; therefore, each plate does too.  The plate is “special, and we think it deserves a valet.”   

Its first come, first seated, so when the guests arrive, they choose where they want to sit by marking their place with a plate.   A check ticket is given, and once dinner is completed, a freshly washed plate is returned. Because the plate is a conversation piece, you are requested to tell its story during dinner.  “We want our guests to bond, eat, laugh, and wax poetic,” explain the brothers.  

Relish Carolina is a grand passion for Merrigan and Haubenhofer.  They want their guests to relax in a unique space, to dress casually and to wear practical shoes.  Held rain or shine, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served from 6:30-7:30 with dinner seating starting at 7:45.  Dining by lantern or candlelight, the next 2 ½ to 3 hours is both pure bliss as you experience a three to four course meal.  The average price is $80 for a few courses but can run as high as $250 which consists of an elaborate meal with “bold” spirits, beer, and wine pairing.  Relish Carolina’s next event will be held at the Underwood Farms on August 25th, 2013.  The theme is “Sunday Summer Supper.” For more info visit www.relishcarolina.org or email Relish Carolina at relishcarolina@gmail.com.

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