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Cory Harwell: “Dine with a stranger”

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy, You Aren’t Pizza You’ll never please everyone. It’s impossible. The only thing you can do is concentrate on making decisions you believe in your heart are right for you, your people, and your business. These decisions should be morally driven and foundationally sound. You should always strive to do “what’s right” […]

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You Can’t Make Everyone Happy, You Aren’t Pizza

You’ll never please everyone. It’s impossible. The only thing you can do is concentrate on making decisions you believe in your heart are right for you, your people, and your business. These decisions should be morally driven and foundationally sound. You should always strive to do “what’s right” for the situation and the moment, not necessarily what’s right for any one individual, including myself.


As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Restaurateur Cory Harwell who has quickly become a front-runner within the ever-evolving epicurean industry. Starting in the dish room of a mom and pop restaurant in Woodstock, Georgia, Harwell uses his 20-plus years of experience to pay homage to his origins by celebrating comfortable and recognizable food while using familiar vehicles to introduce guests to new and exciting ingredients.

In 2014, Harwell and Kerry Simon opened Carson Kitchen in Downtown Las Vegas. A true labor of love, the duo created an intimate experience that made guests feel like they were in Simon’s loft for dinner and now allows guests who dine there to carry on Simon’s legacy. The restaurant quickly became a game changer for Las Vegas, earning “best of” recognition on Thrillist, Eater, USA Today and Culture Trip. In February 2020, a second Carson Kitchen outpost opened outside Atlanta, Georgia, and a third location opened in Salt Lake City, Utah this summer.

The epitome of the self-taught chef who just loves great ingredients, bold flavors and phenomenal food, Harwell learned from his mother and grandmother that food must have an opinion. His simple philosophy of food is two-fold — re-introduce your guests to foods and flavors they already know in a reimagined or modernized way, or introduce your guests to new ingredients or flavors that they would normally be reticent to try by using them in familiar vehicles. Named Desert Companion’s “Restauranter of the Year” 2016, Harwell was invited and cooked at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Everything we celebrate or commemorate in our lives, be it birthdays, weddings, new jobs, or even funerals, we do so with food and beverage. I learned early on that there was no better way for me to be able to connect with another human being than with food & drink. It was that connection that made me want to do this forever.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I’ve always felt that food should be approachable and should make you feel good. I guess I lean towards comfort food as a result. Comfort food doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or unhealthy, it just needs to be comforting, warm, inviting, and embracing. There are quite a few comfort food items on the Carson Kitchen menu so that my guests feel like they are at home when dining with us.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

This isn’t about becoming a chef or restaurateur, but my funniest food memory was from my childhood. It was Thanksgiving Day and my mom and grandmother had spent all day preparing an incredible feast. I was probably 8 or 9 years old at the time. We lived in a split-level home and the kitchen was on this middle level. When it came time to eat, I went to the kitchen and made my plate. I piled it high with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and rolls, the whole nine yards. I had this massive plate of food and went to go downstairs to the lower level. I was only wearing socks and when I hit the top step my feet slid straight out, and I went tumbling down the stairs and all my food flying everywhere. It was all over the walls, the floor, and me. It was a mess. Everyone was laughing, I was embarrassed, and my mom came over and helped me clean it up, wipe the walls down, and off I went, back to the kitchen to make another plate. I dried my tears, grabbed a new plate and piled it high once more. I headed across the kitchen and to the same flight of stairs and hit that top step and my feet flew forward, I went flying along with all of my food, AGAIN. It was then that I realized the importance of proper footwear in the kitchen.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I have made and lost large sums of money in this business. I’ve had incredible successes and monstrous failures, and I will again with both. I don’t do this for any of that. I do this because it is the one true way that I can connect with other human beings. It’s the one way I have found in my life that I can give a piece of myself to someone else. That, alone, is more important than anything else.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Food should be opinionated. If you’re not willing to fail by creating a dish that they might absolutely hate, you will never be able to create a dish that people will absolutely love.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

The perfect meal for me involves much more than just food. It involves the perfect people, so my wife and our friends. It involves the perfect music, so some Frank Sinatra and old American standards. Beverages are key, so a few bottles of wine beginning with some Pere Ventura Cava that we discovered in Barcelona, followed by some amazing whites and reds from our favorite vineyards all over the world. And most importantly, it involves the perfect food, an amazing cheese course, a stunning caviar course, the freshest vegetables, some delicate and gorgeous seafood, and an unctuous piece of beef or pork. Dessert would bring more beverages, something fresh, fruity, and light and something deep, rich and decadent. Finish it all with a wonderful amaro and a chorus of laughter. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

Creativity comes from everywhere. You never know when you see something, taste something, hear something, or smell something that takes you in a direction with a dish. I find inspiration in so many things like art, music, architecture, and film. So many things can influence flavor, presentation, etc. If you’re mindful of what’s happening around you, inspiration will come to you naturally.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

We are creating a mid-market steakhouse to debut in Las Vegas in late 2021. I think it is important to bring a perception of value back to the steak dining experience.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Get a life, not a job! Have passions and projects outside of your work. Find some balance in your life so that when you’re at work, you are excited to be there and can give it your all. But, when you’re away from work, you have other interests and things that you care about.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

I wish someone would have told me:

It’s Lonely at The Top

There’s nobody to vent to and if you think you’re the boss and don’t work for anyone, you are sorely mistaken. You work for everyone. Your employees are your boss, your customers are your boss, and your vendors are your boss. Everyone has a piece of you. Make sure you have mentors or colleagues that you can talk with, so you don’t have to internalize everything.

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy, You Aren’t Pizza

You’ll never please everyone. It’s impossible. The only thing you can do is concentrate on making decisions you believe in your heart are right for you, your people, and your business. These decisions should be morally driven and foundationally sound. You should always strive to do “what’s right” for the situation and the moment, not necessarily what’s right for any one individual, including myself.

See the World, Find an Old-Fashioned Girl

This is a song lyric and was the name of a cocktail at Carson Kitchen Las Vegas. Such great advice! Travel. Experience different cultures and traditions. Expose yourself to new things. Be a student of life. My wife taught me that “travel changes you.”

And, do this with someone you love. Learn to share. Learn to love someone else’s appreciation for something. Watch in wonder as your person finds their joy and falls in love with their life. Hold hands and explore.

Drink Your Coffee Black

Appreciate the ingredient for what it is. Not everything needs a sauce or a topping. Some things are meant to be enjoyed exactly as they were created.

Even the Olympics Have Lifeguards

The greatest swimmers and divers in the world have a lifeguard sitting poolside. Why? Even the absolute best of the best still need assistance from time to time. You never know when something might go wrong. Ask for help! Nobody likes a f&@king know-it-all.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

I make the world’s greatest macaroni & cheese. No doubts or arguments about it. Bet on it! So, if you happen to find yourself at one of Carson Kitchen’s three locations (Alpharetta, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City), make sure to order the baked mac & cheese. You’ll thank me later.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Dine with a stranger. Seriously, do it. I dare you. Sit down and buy a stranger a meal. Talk with them. You’ll be a better person for it.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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