Get Comfortable CHEF non stick shoes, your knees and back will thank you later
Stay focused but creative
Be fast, but not sloppy. Be accurate, but clean. Be creative, but know your budget
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Richelle Espinosa-Brewer aka “Chef Shiki”. She was born and raised in Charlotte, NC making her somewhat of a unicorn. After High School she continued her education at UNCC where she pursued a degree in English Education. Like many other students working their way through college she found herself working in bars and restaurants mainly in the front of house. Eventually she found herself in the kitchen at Cosmos cafe Uptown alongside her mentor Chef Steve Mcginley where she quickly rose through the ranks to become his Sous Chef. After Cosmos was sold and reopened she rejoined the restaurant this time as the Executive Chef before taking over Draught for the following two years. Upon leaving Draught she continued to learn new cuisine and techniques at Nikko and Reid’s Fine Foods before she accepted the Executive chef position for the Broken Spoke this is where Chef Shiki really started to make a name for herself in the Carolina’s Culinary scene. After two years with the Broken Spoke she took an opportunity to once again learn a new cuisine and style at Kiki Bistro in Plaza-Midwood. Flash forward a few months into Kiki being open and the world is hit with the Covid-19 Pandemic . Out of chaos and uncertainty a new opportunity arose and she accepted the Executive Chef position at the all new Roy’s Kitchen & Patio in her own neighborhood of NoDa!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
In a way, I have always wanted to cook. Before I became a Chef, I would always entertain guests and cook for them. I’ve enjoyed watching their faces light up as they take a bite of something that they have never had or tasted before. What I think inspires me to be a chef now, is the endless possibilities of coming up with something new and adventurous. I love the fact nothing is really ever perfected. A recipe is never finished, there is always a way to make it more interesting, whether it’s a new way of cutting the veggies, or that extra little seasoning that just seemed to make it right, these are the things I love doing. I’m inspired daily but the ingredients that we can use to create a memory. I love playing with the human senses,, from the colors of the plate and meal, to hearing the crunch of an ingredient, or feeling the silkiness of fresh made pasta, I absolutely love indulging each sense through the finished product.
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 really wouldn’t say that I focus on one type of cuisine, instead I like to think that I am learning all cultures and their cuisines one at a time. I grew up with my father cooking Spanish/Puerto Rican food, while my mother would make homemade southern soul type of food. I absolutely love cooking all types of cuisines, but my specialty would be Southern/Soul Food and anything BBQ related. My Parents divorced when I was really young, but that never stopped them from making sure that I would have a homemade meal when I got home from school. I absolutely learned so much from both of them by watching them cook. My siblings and I would get home from school around 3:30, and my mother would start working on dinner at that moment, to make sure that we would have a hot meal by 6:30. Everything was made from scratch, and I cook the same way.
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?
I honestly don’t have an answer to this, is that weird? I’ve always enjoyed being in the kitchen and my team and I always make it a great time to be at work. We Joke, we Laugh, We sing, We dance, all while staying focused and getting the job done!
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 been in the Restaurant industry since I was 14, where I began as a hostess/ bus table, but I’ve always worked Front of House. A few years ago, after working a long bartending shift, I knew that I was not working my dream job, and at that moment I asked if there was a possibility of me making the jump from Front of House to Back of House. It was honestly the best decision I have ever made. I found my passion, my drive in the culinary world and it was challenging but so rewarding.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
First I look at the establishment and what their goal is for their customers, then I observe the clientele and what they order from the bar. I like to pair my food with wines and whiskey, but also like to have fun with the ingredients, so as to spark interest from the clientele. I ask the customers what some of their favorite restaurants or meals are then I’ll start forming a menu that is related to their interests.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Honestly, I love going to the fish markets on the ocean, and picking out my delights. I bring a cooler and fill it up with fresh oysters, shrimp, and fish. There is something really special about grabbing an oyster and shucking it right there and tasting the deliciousness. I have many “Perfect Meals” but A pan Seared Sea Bass with a buttery Chardonnay, with Roasted oysters in a homemade mignonette or fresh fish/shrimp ceviche as an appetizer, sounds pretty amazing in my book!
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
I have to say, it does get challenging to be creative day to day and not burn yourself out. I love trying to figure out different ways to pair different ingredients that one would normally not pair. If I find myself lacking inspiration, then my husband and I will go a roulette of dates in one night. We would order an appetizer at one place, an entree at another, and dessert at another spot, until I felt reconnected with food again. As a Chef, I have to make sure that I keep my imagination sharp and continuing to write different menus/recipes.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I am currently working on quite a few projects. Starting with being a personal chef and helping busy families create a homemade meal when they are finished with work, or creating a meal prep for them to take to work during the week, so that the stress is taken off of their shoulders. I’m also working on opening my own catering business, and hopefully in a few years I will be able to open up my restaurant that I have been working on now for 4 years. Truly, I cannot wait to open this restaurant, it will be such a delight for customers, and I have so much to offer the community when it comes to creativity and food.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Always, Always, Always, take time for yourself and family. I have a rule in my kitchen, Family and Health first. I’ve seen the destruction of the burnt out chef that turns to drugs/alcohol to get through a shift, and I don’t want my team to ever feel that stress. I’ve also seen where a chef has lost so many precious moments with their families because of the long days/weeks in the kitchen. I don’t want my team to feel like they have neglected their loved ones while pursuing their passion and love of the culinary world. Mental Health is very important, and definitely should be taken more seriously in the culinary world.
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.
1. Holidays are no longer yours. They are for the families and patrons of the restaurant world that are there to celebrate.
2. 8 hours of work is no longer a normal day, 12–14 hour shifts are normal
3. Get Comfortable CHEF non stick shoes, your knees and back will thank you later
4. Stay focused but creative.
5. Be fast, but not sloppy. Be accurate, but clean. Be creative, but know your budget.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
I’ve been working at KiKi on the side while building up my dream jobs, but their food is absolutely incredible! I’m not going to lie, the Trick-Fil-A is a Vegan “chicken” sandwich concept. We use a Potato Bun, Vegan Mayo, Crisp Pickles, and Hen of the Woods mushrooms that are brined, battered, and fried. I took one bite of this sandwich and knew I would never forget this bite!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring.
I would love to inspire a healthy work environment! Where everyone is proactive, constantly looking to better the kitchen and the people that work there. I want to bring structure to the chaos of a dinner shift. I want to bring awareness to mental and physical health issues that consist of working in the culinary world. I’ve always felt that your work team becomes family, you see them more than you see the customers or even your own family. I love being able to support a coworker during a hard time, or celebrate them when they achieve a goal of their own. I want to bring back the positivity and inspiration that can come out of creating meals in a kitchen while working. I want Work to be Fun, but organized, clean, and educational. I want to inspire others to use their imagination, and put dishes together that no one has ever tasted before.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.