At The Stanley, Chef Paul Verica finally has some room to play

The Stanley
The Stanley

Chef Paul Verica’s goals for the next step in his career, shutting down Waxhaw’s Heritage Food & Drink and opening something new, were simple: “Get a bigger space. Get a bigger kitchen.” Those were just the first steps, though: He’d be forgiven for not realizing that meant bigger everything else.

His new venture, The Stanley, is in a bigger city, sports a bigger beverage program, utilizes more staff, and has amassed one heck of a reservation list. The cute old building at that odd intersection of 7th, Pecan, and Caswell is more spacious than Heritage yet far cozier, its art-deco-esque furnishings meshing with an exposed-brick historicity in a way that smartly mirrors the kind of dishes Paul serves: always artful, “often weird,” but constructed of things that are decidedly of Charlotte. Paul Verica’s food has always been exciting, the kind of thoughtful, creative stuff that we foodies allege (loudly and to anyone who’ll listen) will eventually put Charlotte on the proverbial map—and the chef was indeed a James Beard semifinalist in 2017. But there’s something different going on at The Stanley. It’s in every dish, though it’s only really apparent when you look closely, the way the chef does before he sends it out to you: All the bigness has allowed Paul to focus on the small things.

The Stanley
The Stanley

“My old kitchen was so tiny!” Paul laughs. “I think back sometimes to what we accomplished out there [in Waxhaw] and the food we produced. It was very cool. There were three of us, and we managed to do some really awesome things… but it was always rush, rush, rush, get ready, try and make it through service. Now, I’m doing so much of what I never had time to do, what I want to do—making new things.”

The Stanley is giving Paul more time to run the business his way, and that freedom is due in large part to an expanded staff assisting the chef on multiple fronts. Behind the bar, for instance, is mixology wizard Larry Suggs, whipping up strange cocktails that would have even his mentor Bob Peters raising some eyebrows. His drinks are taking full advantage of Paul Verica’s stellar relationship with Charlotte area farmers, using local produce in surprising ways. A particular standout is the College at Kingston, which combines Queen Charlotte rum, dry sherry, and angostura bitters with a buttered beet syrup: With its deep pink color and bright green dill garnish, it literally stands out (and looks a heck of a lot like a beet in beverage form). Front-of-house is kept in tip-top by General Manager Stephen Johnson, who’s been with Paul since Heritage. Meanwhile, Charlotte mainstay Ben Philpott is in the back daily, ensuring that the kitchen is prepared for everything the evening might throw at them. Paul says he mostly keeps his longtime friend around because “the man can make magic with meat”—we’ve got Ben to thank for all the charcuterie art, from the pâtés to his now-notorious chicken liver mousse.

The Stanley
The Stanley

Paul’s sous chef, of course, is his right-hand man, his primary holdover from Heritage, and a big part of the reason this kitchen actually works: his son Alex. He’s now an official partner in the business, but he’s no less inexplicably humble than his famously down-to-earth dad: Not unlike many of the most renowned chefs in the world, Alex Verica started as a dishwasher. Nowadays, Alex is “pretty much running the show in back.”

“I’m amazed at how far he’s come in four-and-a-half years,” Paul says, a kind of fatherly pride snuffing out all modesty at the mention of his son. “I can’t believe it, not only as his chef and his mentor but as his father.”

The truth, Alex suggests, is that they’ve always made a natural team. Since they’re family, the two kitchen-bound Vericas know how to read each other.

“I can tell what kind of mood he’s in,” Alex says. “I can tell which days I need to leave him alone, and which days I can ask him anything.

We have fun, though—I always try to have fun back there, because work is just better that way.

The Stanley
The Stanley

With Alex taking on more of a leading role and a backing team made up of some of the best in the business, Paul Verica feels a lot more like a chef—namely, doing what he wants to do. We can expect the same quality stuff from him, he promises, but he’s also more daring than ever.

“My food is my food,” he says bluntly.

You’ll always see similarities between this menu and other things I’ve done, but having more space and more people and—my God—more time to be creative changes everything.

The Stanley’s menu pushes a small plate concept to allow for more “funky” experimentation in the kitchen, and things are getting funky and weird for sure. See (and taste) the “peas and carrots” for proof. When Paul Verica looks at a vegetable, he doesn’t just see a vegetable. Each dish starts with a question that seems to be the cornerstone of his kitchen: “How many different ways can we prepare this?” He also has a knack for using every part of the vegetable in wild ways—nothing gets wasted, and his menu is all the more dynamic for it.

The Stanley
The Stanley

“I keep saying, ‘There are no rules,’” Paul says again, admitting that his kitchen may be getting tired of hearing that track on repeat. “It’s a piece of paper. It can be whatever we want it to be. If we want to change the menu every day, we’re gonna do it. Why not? We’re in here busting our asses for 12 hours a day—we can at least make it fun.”

When I talked with Paul, he’d just spent a whole day creating and tweaking two new dishes for the evening’s menu. Seven menus had already come and gone, and The Stanley had been open for eight days.

The chef is absolutely dizzy with excitement about all the extra space and time at The Stanley, and that leads me to believe we should be too: Listening to him talk about Heritage, you’d think his old restaurant was a trial run, the testing of a Paul Verica hypothesis. If his award-winning efforts in Waxhaw were a rough draft, Charlotte is in for one hell of a final product.

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