The sound system in the kitchen at Barrington’s restaurant in Charlotte, NC, plays “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” as I observe owner and executive chef Bruce Moffett wield a hefty knife and trim excess fat and other unwanted parts from racks of lamb.
Chiseled pieces of richly pink meat, now “more glamorous,” he says, are destined for the evening’s dinner service, while scraps will be roasted later as a base for sauces. Chef Bruce Moffett, who graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and was a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast nominee in 2009, will pair the lamb with North Carolina sweet potatoes, green beans, spiced pecans, and lamb demi-glace.
The song lyric is apropos, for I’ve enjoyed wonderful meals at Barrington’s since moving to Charlotte six years ago. When I first met people in those early days of forming connections and community in my new city, the conversation usually turned to food, drink, and dining out. Rapport established, I asked the question I always pose to bond and gather information wherever I am in the world: “What’s your favorite restaurant here?”
Barrington’s, they commonly replied, indicative of its status topping “Best Of” lists around Charlotte since opening in 2000.
Named after and inspired by Bruce’s birthplace of Barrington, RI, the intimate bistro-style Barrington’s serves upscale, American cuisine, a happy marriage of Southern seasons and his Northeastern influence. Along the walls, subtle nautical accents – images of boats, buoys, and seascapes – pay homage to his hometown’s proximity to the water.
Nowadays, responses to my query frequently come in a set of three – Barrington’s, Good Food on Montford, and Stagioni – for they include subsequent expansions in his Moffett Restaurant Group domain.
Good Food on Montford, just up the street from my home, presents a seasonally driven, small plate menu within a minimalist décor of exposed bricks and wood ceiling beams. As Chef Moffett says, the food is good, both literally and figuratively. Bruce situated his Italian-influenced Stagioni inside a historic Tuscan Revival-design house, in keeping with his philosophy that the best of life unfolds around the dinner table with family and friends. Both have joined my go-to list as well.
I recently met Bruce while volunteering at the 3rd annual Heart of the Home Kitchen Tour fundraiser for the Symphony Guild of Charlotte. His was one of eight residential kitchens open for self-guided tours.
I helped greet visitors in Bruce’s own kitchen and point out tell-tale features that say “A professional chef lives here.” Orderly rows of knives attached to the wall with magnets for easy access. Gas-fueled French cooktop with its removable plate revealing a wok ring for open-flame cooking. Custom-made butcher block weighing close to 200 pounds. Built-in Sub-Zero stainless steel and glass refrigerator and wine unit measuring nearly seven feet in width. Rustic, wooden floor-to-ceiling shelving housing an eclectic collection of cookbooks, family heirlooms, and wine.
Savory aromas wafted through an open door from the patio as Bruce grilled marinated pork tenderloins on a Big Green Egg for the crowd to sample. He topped the tender, sliced medallions with salsa verde concocted from herbs he’d plucked that morning from Barrington’s kitchen garden, accompanied by a hearty rice mixture.
During my break and over a plate of his culinary handiwork, I struck up a conversation. He generously agreed to an interview at his flagship.
Now at Barrington’s, Bruce shows me herbs planted in boxes beneath a wooden pergola beside the restaurant’s entrance. Highlighted by a Carolina-blue sky, rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, and sage are still plentiful and fragrant as the end of fall nears. Basil has had its day.
Inside, after glimpsing fresh provisions stored in the walk-in and before Bruce resumes his butchering tasks, we chat at the bar about his stellar career.
Afterwards, I leave with a bonus – the recipe (see below) for the restaurant’s signature sweet corn soup, a dish Bruce calls simple and to the point. Another memorable time at Barrington’s.
The Roads Traveled: How did you become a restaurateur?
Chef Bruce Moffett: My mother and grandmother cooked elegantly and simply using good techniques and ingredients from farmers’ markets. I was a political science major in college, and worked for Senator John Chafee assisting his press secretary. I learned that type of writing wasn’t my strong suit. A buddy moved to Charlotte and said we should open a business together. We bought a pizza place, and it was a bit of a disaster, so we sold it. We made mistakes that cost us money, so I decided to go to culinary school and back track. I had pieces of the puzzle, but didn’t know how to put them together. School gave me fundamentals, like how to organize and price a menu, and how to run a profitable business. After working in kitchens in Boston and Atlanta, I moved back to Charlotte to be near family, and opened Barrington’s.
What inspires you about food, wine, and hospitality?
I like the theater of it, but there’s a misconception about cooking and how creative it is. There’s definitely that element, but mostly it’s production work, and being organized and accurate. When you start cooking it sneaks into your life. You automatically begin every day with how can I develop good habits and do everything in the most efficient way, and then the more creative and intricate you can be. I’ve been blessed to work with people who put their heart and soul into the restaurants. I provide them with the structure to work, and that helps them reach their creative and professional potential. I encourage them to use their voices, within certain constraints.
What’s your overriding philosophy?
You want to sit in a dining room, be excited to have dinner there, and be excited by the dinner. Barrington’s isn’t hugely recipe-centric. It’s more about technique. We’ll bring up ideas together of what should be on the menu for the season. I have the final say, but I trust my staff to use their knowledge of culinary technique and how we operate to produce a dish that’s exciting. A dish is usually a work in progress, and it’s about how to make it better and balance flavors better.
What’s your take on Charlotte as a food destination?
It’s in its infant stage, and getting better. Our culinary schools have helped. National food writers are more interested. We’re not on the same level as Charleston or Asheville, but we don’t have their tourist industry. I’ve chosen to go into neighborhoods with my restaurants. Uptown is too unpredictable.
How does travel factor into your work?
I travel, do food shows, and get exposed to what others are doing. I’ll come home inspired by a dish at a super fancy restaurant and figure out how to do something similar within the confines of what we do. I went to Italy last year, and loved the simple, eggy tagliolini with shaved truffles.
What’s your after-work meal?
Leftover pork, couscous, and spinach in the microwave is really good.
In a fire, what cookbook or kitchen tool would you save?
My stainless steel pots and the Joy of Cooking because it’s basic and you can find what you want in it.
Where do you find inspiration?
Generally, from what I’m in the mood to eat that day. If I’m at the farmers’ market and the butternut squash is beautiful, I might also think about duck, and the dish evolves from there. If your stomach growls over it, you’re on the right track.
Chef Bruce Moffett’s Sweet Corn Soup (Serves 8)
- 8 ears of yellow corn
- 1 onion (peeled and sliced)
- 1 potato (peeled and sliced)
- 1 cup white wine
- 10 oz. heavy cream
- 2 qts. of water
- Salt, white pepper, sugar to taste
Slice corn off cobs. Save cobs for stock. Steam onions and potatoes in the white wine until tender. Add water and corn cobs and simmer for 15 minutes. Pull the cobs out and add kernels. Bring to a boil and cook kernels until tender. Turn off heat and add cream. Blend until all the kernels are broken down. Strain through a medium strainer and adjust the seasoning. Top it with poached Maine lobster, shaved radishes, and white truffles.