Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Uptown Yolk
How These Young Black Men Overcame The Odds To Become Two Of Charlotte's Top Chefs
Calvin Wright Jr. and Oscar Johnson are quickly rising to the top of the cooking scene around Charlotte, North Carolina. Wright, a native of New York and Johnson of Hampton, Virginia, currently work together at Loft and Cellar—one of Charlotte’s premier Black-owned establishments.
Calvin has a unique story. He started off in franchise restaurants to pick up experience, then made his way to a few other restaurants. He found out he had a brain tumor and needed brain surgery. He was supposed to ease back into the profession but was forced into a 50-hour work week immediately following his surgery by his boss. Then came a review, which determined raises. Calvin received a $.13 raise, while his white counterpart got a $3 bump. This discouraged him and led him to quit cooking in restaurants all together for 2 years. He focused on private cooking before getting back into restaurants.
Oscar got into cooking through a program offered to young, aspiring chefs around the Hampton Roads area in his junior year of high school. It gave him lots of exposure to other chefs already in the industry and allowed him to see if cooking was something he really wanted to pursue. He went on to attend Johnson and Wales University for more formal training. Although he showed lots of promise, many people told him that he wouldn’t make it and finish the program. However, he proved them wrong.
Fast forward to today. The two men were handpicked by Greg Collier, also a Black chef in Charlotte, to come under his wing and start a movement of cooking some of the best, culturally relevant dishes around.
“I ate at his restaurant in South Carolina with one of my friends and we spent a lot of money,” Johnson tells Travel Noire. “I reached out to him after and told him that I came. He made a joke about us having him and his team busting their behinds in the kitchen. He told me he was opening a restaurant in Charlotte. I wasn’t happy in my situation at the time and I really wanted to work with him. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was willing to take a pay cut because I knew it was a movement we were about to begin.”
While they can cook up almost any genre of food, Johnson and Wright want to focus on more culturally relevant dishes. Thanks to Collier, the chefs are also learning the history behind each of the dishes they cook. They are putting a lot of their focus on dishes coming from various regions rooted in Black culture such as Africa, the Caribbean, and the Deep South.
“Black people have been making dope food for years. We fed America. I want to continue to play on that,” Wright said.
You can catch this rising duo at Loft and Cellar. They are both hosting a series a pop-up events this summer that are sure to be a hit.