Sitting in the lobby of his epoxy shop on North Graham Street on a recent afternoon, within the first five minutes of us meeting in person for the first time, Kevin Bardge broke down the story of his journey over the last year and a half more succinctly than I ever could.
“When COVID came, this business freaking failed, like dramatically,” he said, referencing the shop where his company manufactures furniture, flooring, countertops and other epoxy goods. “So I just started cooking outside, just basically for shits and giggles to see if I could make some extra money, and it just went berserk.”
And therein lies the story of The Premiere Chef, Charlotte’s hottest new street food vendor. Following the success of the last six months, he aims to open a restaurant sometime in 2022.
Of course, there’s more to the story of Kevin Bardge, a man who became burnt out from his culinary career as a private chef only to return to cooking as an experimental side hustle and fall back in love with the craft.
Despite a recent temporary shutdown from city inspectors due to complaints that he believes came from jealous competitors, the highly popular Bardge will continue to champion a North Graham Street corridor that’s already seeing a rise in outside development and will be sure to see more in the years to come.
Learning his trade
Bardge grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, around an entire family of cooks, be it professional or just in the home. Throughout his childhood he learned to connect the love of cooking with the love of family.
“Watching people happy off of eating your food is what it is,” he said, explaining how cooking became his passion. “Knowing that these people love you because of your food is what it is.”
Bardge earned a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Jacksonville, taking advantage of the school’s relatively cheap study-abroad program to learn from experts in countries such as France, Switzerland, Peru and Morocco.
It was there that he developed his own style, which he calls “infusion cooking,” taking traditional dishes of the American South and “infusing” the flavors used by foreign chefs.
He uses his renowned ribs as an example. To create a rub, he starts with a base of brown sugar, paprika and peppers, but no salt. He never uses salt on any of his meats, “but then I incorporate seasonings from Morocco and Sudan to give it a totally different flair, to make up for the fact that I don’t use salt.”
Whatever he’s doing is working. Thanks to the fast-spreading word-of-mouth up and down North Graham Street, recently helped along further by viral social media posts from local food blogger Cory Wilkins, Bardge can expect a long line of folks waiting for his turkey legs, ribs, crab legs and other specialties every afternoon when he opens the grill to start serving.
The Premiere Chef almost never came to be, however, as Bardge left the culinary field in 2013, having become burnt out by the stresses of running his own catering business.
Bardge moved to Charlotte with his then-wife in 2010, having immediately fallen in love with the city during a previous visit. He opened up It’s All Good Catering & Events and began building his name as a chef in the Queen City.
It was there that he earned the nickname of “The Premiere Chef” while catering events such as Alive After 5 for Aloft Hotel and weddings and other events at The Ballantyne Hotel. He was known as the top chef at those locations, expected to serve whenever a big client came through, which was often.
He was also working as a private chef for corporate banking executives and other big shots around Charlotte on the side. Eventually, the work caught up to him.
Bardge sounded exhausted just looking back on the grind.
“I was doing gigs like every day. Every day. Big gigs, every day,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t have any time for self.’ You’re talking about catering to 100-some people every damn day, and then at night I did private chef work for the big lawyers and big wigs, so I would go to their house early in the morning and do all their meals. It was a lot.”
The job had taken too much out of him, so Bardge left it behind and pursued other opportunities.
He found success with his most recent business venture, Creative Epoxy Designs, and found no reason to get back in the kitchen on a professional level – until the pandemic hit.
A parking lot tent revival
When the COVID-19 virus began spreading through America in March 2020, closing businesses and canceling events all around him, Bardge wasn’t too concerned for Creative Epoxy Designs. After all, he had jobs booked out until September and he and his small team could continue their work in the shop without putting each other at risk, meeting their orders until things began to open back up.
As we all now know, the pandemic lasted long past September 2020, and whatever Bardge had booked when the pandemic hit was all he had booked when September came.
“It just disappeared,” he said.
While he contemplated his next move, Bardge decided to bring his grill out to the parking lot of the shop on North Graham Street, situated between Norris and Colorado avenues. He set up under a tent and began serving food.
Bardge goes out every Tuesday-Friday at noon, and 1 p.m. on Saturday to serve his specialties: pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken, turkey legs, crab legs, salmon and traditional Southern sides, among other items.
Upon his return, he was shocked that his name still had clout in the cooking world.
“People that knew me from before found out that I was back cooking and they just spread the word,” he said. “I was known around the city, so when they found out I was back cooking they just put the word out, like ‘Oh, this guy is amazing, we don’t know why he stopped,’ and it just blew up.”
It only took a month – a winter month at that – for Bardge to show up at the shop and see 100 folks lined up waiting for him to open at lunchtime. He said he knew then that he was going to go back into cooking full-time.
“When I saw the first line come all the way around [the parking lot] and then down [Colorado Avenue], I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m doing.’”
By June, The Premiere Chef had built a consistent following. That’s when someone tipped off Cory Wilkins, who runs the popular Daily Special CLT food blog and social media channels, as well as the Black Guys Cook YouTube channel.
Wilkins took some video of Bardge’s fall-off-the-bone turkey legs, then sat on the footage for about a month before posting it. When he put his 28-second video up on Instagram, it got about 20,000 views. He shot a message to Bardge warning him he might get a bit of a rush over the weekend, but didn’t think much of it until he posted the video on TikTok.
“It did normal for a couple hours,” Wilkins recalled, “and then I don’t know if they hit a switch or what, but that post — I had to turn off my notifications because it was literally just a constant sound.”
The video was shared around the world and ended up with 1.4 million views, nearly tripling the highest total Wilkins had previously seen for one of his videos (How to Boil Eggs in an Air Fryer).
In the coming days, the crowds at Bardge’s North Graham Street location grew, and some folks didn’t like that. On July 28, two CMPD officers showed up and told him he would have to shut down.
Putting down roots
Police said they were responding to complaints from neighbors about the crowds in his parking lot. Though he had passed permit inspections twice before, the officers cited an obscure permit violation and said he would have to close until he filled out the proper paperwork.
Bardge insisted the complaints came from restaurant owners who didn’t like to see him succeed.
“There were 14 complaints,” he said. “I didn’t read all of them, I read a couple. They’re mad. They’re mad because, you gotta think, how many food businesses around here and not one of them have lines like mine? So you know someone’s upset.”
When I met with Bardge for a second time on Aug. 1, he was still getting things situated with his permits, but would eventually get set back up in his normal spot.
In the meantime, however, he was still ready to serve the community. That morning, he partnered with the Charlotte Leadership Academy (CLA), a small K-12 school across Graham Street from Bardge’s shop, to hold the first of a new monthly Sunday Community Dinner Series.
He wasn’t allowed to sell food at that time, but he had the right to give it away, just as he had done with the remainder of his food on the day he was shut down. On Aug. 1, he and volunteers with CLA handed out 157 free plates of roasted chicken, baked beans and potato salad to anyone who showed up.
CLA owner Doan Clark said she’s wanted to partner with Bardge since he began setting up shop across the street in February. She and other CLA staff members get lunch from Bardge as often as possible to show support but also because “he’s the absolute best chef anywhere.”
The Sunday Community Dinner Series is another chance for them to show solidarity in the Graham Street corridor.
“A lot of times we don’t bind together enough to make things happen, so we have people out here that could benefit from what he’s doing as well as what we’re doing,” Clark said. “So binding together is everything.”
As for the neighbors who apparently aren’t so supportive, Clark said their actions will only inspire people like her to show up more.
“Everything he does is great, so the fact that other people are jealous of the fact that he’s doing so many great things and feeding so many people, it made us want to join forces with him even more,” she said. “The opposition made it no better time for us to join forces to promote what he’s doing as well as what we’re doing, bringing it together, community and family, and he’s become part of our family.”
Bardge doesn’t plan on remaining in the parking lot for long. He’s already brought on real estate company Marcus & Millichap to find him a location where he can open a restaurant.
With the popularity of Camp North End and its burgeoning food stalls and restaurants, as well as the recent opening of the popular Curry Gate nearby, Bardge knows North Graham Street is primed for more development to come.
As someone who’s already a part of the community, he wants to be included in that growth.
“I want to stay in this area. I have to say this is my home because these are the people that supported me before anybody supported me. I want to bring something to them,” Bardge said. “We have stuff around here, but it’s not based on the urban living in the area. I want to bring something for the people so they can appreciate it and say, ‘Well, we watched him grow, we know him, we’ve seen him from the beginning. We want him to stay.’
“I want to give them that so they can be proud of me and then I can show my appreciation by bringing something that generates a lot of growth in the area, that generates revenue for people, brings jobs to the community, to help restart things.”
He is, after all, an expert of the restart.