ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Breaking bread to fortify relationships is a custom that dates back to biblical days.
If two people share a meal, their bond grows stronger.
Many of the traditions in civilized society are built around the communal experience of food sharing. And it’s the premise that Carson Kitchen, a restaurant that opened earlier this year in City Center, is built upon.
“I realized at a much younger age, washing dishes in a small mom-and-pop restaurant in Woodstock, Georgia, that there's no greater way to connect with another human being than by sharing food and drink,” said Cory Harwell, chef and owner of the eatery. “If you look at everything we do in our lives, everything we celebrate, everything we commemorate, even everything we mourn, we do so with food and beverage.”
Carson Kitchen opened at 4 South Main Street on Feb. 13 — just four weeks before coronavirus forced restaurants across the state to stop seating diners. The pandemic took its toll, but it didn’t stop momentum for the casual dining spot. Harwell said Carson Kitchen was recently named a best new restaurant by Atlanta Magazine for 2020.
Carson Kitchen is a concept that Harwell developed with his late friend Kerry Simon, a Chicago-bred chef. The two collaborated to open the first Carson Kitchen in downtown Las Vegas in 2014.
The restaurant is designed for an at-home dinner party. Guests can sit at tables built like a kitchen counter, and interact with cooks as they watch their food being prepared. There’s also a swear jar on the counter similar to one you’d find on your granny’s stovetop.
“What we wanted to develop was a restaurant that could show people what it would be like if you were going over to a chef's house or loft for a dinner party,” Harwell said. “So, we wanted this very kind of home feeling to it.”
Simon passed away in 2015, but his legacy endures. The tagline “Keep Calm and Kerry On” is painted on walls and brandished on merchandise throughout the restaurant.
Harwell has expanded the brand over the past 12 months in his former business partner’s wake. A third location opened in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 11. The Alpharetta dining hall sits in a brick building constructed as a replica of the 1858 Milton County Courthouse.
Harwell is a lifelong food worker who loves to travel and try new international dishes. He moved to Vegas 23 years ago and spent nearly 10 years working as the vice president of food and beverage operations at the MGM Resorts before he and Simon ventured off to launch Carson Kitchen.
His Georgia roots make for a heavy Southern influence on the menu. But Harwell’s natural food curiosity plays more of a factor. He tries to shake up traditional pub dishes by infusing them with fine-dining ingredients like oxtails, pate and rabbit normally reserved for upscale restaurants.
Harwell reimagined shepherd’s pie with a dish dubbed “shepherd’s 3.14.” Instead of ground lamb, he uses crepinette meatballs; and instead of mashed potatoes, he stuffs the casserole with gnocchi.
Other recipes included deviled eggs topped with caviar and foie gras blended into a sauce and poured over meatballs or risotto.
A winter menu unveiled Nov. 24 included 13 new items, one a venison Salisbury steak.
“So we're almost tricking people into trying new things,” Harwell said. “Any number of things that most people are intimidated by, either from a price perspective or from an overall flavor profile. So I thought how can I get people to try and learn to appreciate these finer dining ingredients? And first thing was I’ve got to be able to do it at a more reasonable price point. And second thing was I need to make it approachable…I need to put it in a vehicle where you're not afraid of the ingredient because the vehicle as a whole is appealing to you.”
Despite its growing footprint across the country, Harwell doesn’t want Carson Kitchen viewed as a chain because each of the locations have their own character unique to the communities they’re in. For metro-Atlanta, the location itself is part of the restaurant’s charm.
“I loved what was going on here in the Alpharetta area,” Harwell said. “The question most people ask is, ‘Well, you're from Woodstock. Why didn't you bring it back to Woodstock?’ And I just think that geographically speaking, Alpharetta is positioned where it can pull guests from all four directions.”
He said Alpharetta has a greater magnetic pull than most areas of North Atlanta.
“I love my hometown, I love Woodstock and I love what they're doing there,” Harwell said. “And there may be another restaurant coming for there down the road. But for now, Alpharetta made sense for Carson Kitchen.”