Rene Pujol had been a three-star classical restaurant in New York’s Theater District for decades before closing in 2008, the victim of a theater strike the year before. It was a quintessential Broadway eatery: homey, unpretentious decor; dependable French food; a business model that ebbed and flowed with the quality of that season’s shows.
In its bustling kitchen, Adam Reed ’06 (MBA) discovered his calling. A precocious 19-year-old accounting student on summer break from Iona College, Reed essentially worked an unpaid internship, arranged through his family. His duties ran the gamut. “Everything, anything. Anything, everything,” he says. “I prepped vegetables, peeled carrots and potatoes and onions. Old-school, you know? And then when I was done with that I worked with the chefs on different stations, just helping out, trying to learn. I’d come in early some days and work with the pastry person. Another day I’d go work with the person making bread. Other days I’d work with the garde manger person or the butcher person.
“It was an apprenticeship, essentially. It became my school.”
Reed never went back to Iona. The fall and early winter are the busiest times for restaurants in the Theater District, and Rene Pujol needed help. Reed was offered a full-time job in the kitchen. He knew nothing about carving meat, but he became the restaurant’s butcher.
Reed was like a sponge, soaking up every lesson he could in one of the toughest businesses in New York.
“That was tremendous,” he says. “The chef took me under his wing and showed me how to break down every sort of animal. We had whole lambs, whole leg of veal, chickens, rabbit – everything you could imagine. Fish, all kinds of varieties of fish.
“That has done me well. There’s a lot of people who come through nowadays, cooks, who don’t know how to butcher anything. A lot of them go to school and they get to observe some stuff being butchered, but they don’t get enough practice putting their hands on enough stuff to really get the feel. It’s kind of a lost art.”
Working at Rene Pujol was an apt start for Reed, who hails from a long line of chefs. Like the Pujol family, Reed’s maternal grandparents immigrated to New York from the Pyrenees mountains of France, near the Spanish border. Reed, who grew up in the south Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, learned his way around his grandmother’s kitchen, and he is old-school New York through and through. But almost a quarter of a century ago, after working for some of the most venerable New York eateries, Reed and his wife, Victoria, decamped to Charlotte, baby girl in tow, in search of a new culinary challenge.
They found it in the quaint Charlotte suburb of Matthews. For nearly two decades the couple has owned and operated Santé, a Theater District-style, French-inspired restaurant in Matthews’ downtown area. Santé’s exposed brick and closely arranged tables in a narrow restaurant bring to mind bistros in the 11th arrondissement. The restaurant transports you to a different place, even before Chef Adam’s artfully arranged plates arrive.
For many people in Mecklenburg and Union counties, Santé is a go-to destination for date nights and special occasions. It’s got a loyal customer base that appreciates Reed’s seasonal menu stocked with local ingredients (many of the fruits and vegetables are bought at the farmer’s market just across Trade Street from the restaurant). But according to Reed, had he not decided to get his MBA at Wingate, Santé might no longer exist.
Born to cook
Reed might have gotten his professional start at Rene Pujol, but he’d been cooking at home for years. Reed’s maternal grandparents were excellent cooks – his grandfather was a well-known chef in Manhattan, after all – but they wanted their daughter to concentrate on her studies, not engage in menial household tasks. “So, my mom didn’t really learn to cook very well,” Reed says. “She liked to bake some stuff. But her talents in the kitchen weren’t great.”
Reed, on the other hand, learned his way around the kitchen by helping his grandmother cook family meals. By the time he was in his early teens, he had grown weary of what he was being served at home. “There were a lot of times where I just wanted to eat better food,” he says. “We’d get to around the holidays and it was like, I wanted to cook. I wanted to be in the kitchen making the food.”
His parents worked a lot, and putting food on the table naturally fell to Reed. Coq au vin, beef bourguignon, cassoulet – he’d fix traditional French fare for nightly meals. And he never considered it a chore.
“I wanted to do it,” he says. “I loved being in the kitchen. I loved putting on an apron. I loved doing the work.”
Perhaps it’s in his blood. In addition to his grandfather, Reed’s great-uncle, great-grandfather and uncle were all chefs. His family was hoping he’d travel a different path. The restaurant business is extremely demanding: The work is hard, the hours are long, and the margins are small. Sick days just can’t happen. “They were like, ‘You’re really smart, Adam. Go to college. Get a great job where you’re not having to bust your ass all the time,’” he says.
Reed took note of their suggestion. He wound up studying accounting at Iona but really couldn’t see himself sitting at a desk all day. After taking a break from his studies to work at Rene Pujol, Reed enrolled at Manhattan College, where he ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in business management.
But he never left the kitchen. While in school, Reed continued to work in restaurants, in addition to loading and unloading boxes for UPS late at night. The experience sharpened the time-management skills he’d need one day to run Santé.
“Class would end, right?” he says. “Everybody gets up and leaves to go hang out or eat lunch or go to the next class. I wouldn’t even leave my desk. I would pull out the book and start working on the homework that was just given to us or for the next class or for the paper I’ve gotta write.”
During his college days and after graduation, Reed worked at other established restaurants, including Tatou and the Russian Tea Room. But living in a one-bedroom apartment with a young family and fighting it out in an extremely competitive market were taking their toll. The Reeds wanted out.
After considering buying a restaurant in upstate New York, Reed answered an ad for a cook in the Charlotte area and decided to take a chance. He figured it was a good way to get his foot in the door in a growing market.
“You know, I’m going to use this as a steppingstone to get down here to Charlotte,” he said of the job at The Hidden Garden in Matthews. “I’m going to look around and see the landscape, see the good restaurants and eventually move there. I’ll spend a year here.”
That year has turned into more than 20. Within a couple of years, the Hidden Garden’s owners, who had opened the restaurant as a retirement project, were offering to sell it to him. After initially being rebuffed they eventually wore the Reeds down, and in 2001 Adam and Victoria bought the place.
Back to school
The Reeds had owned Santé for three years when Adam started getting antsy – “I’m a smart person who likes to keep their mind active,” he says. He needed a secondary creative outlet and, having heard that Johnson & Wales University was opening a campus in Charlotte, Reed thought perhaps he could be a culinary teacher during the day. So he called up their headquarters.
“The person on the phone told me I needed an MBA,” he says. He enrolled in the Wingate University MBA program, which at the time was holding classes across the street from Santé.
Two problems: One, Reed found out about halfway through the MBA program that he didn’t actually need a master’s degree to teach at Johnson & Wales (though he did need a culinary-related bachelor’s degree, which he did not have); and, two, classes were held at night, “when I was supposed to be here (at Santé), cooking,” he says.
Then there was the fact that he wasn’t your typical MBA student. “They don’t normally come into my class with chef degrees,” says Barry Cuffe, who teaches classes in quantitative analysis for Wingate’s MBA program.
“He was skeptical,” Reed says of Cuffe. “That would probably be the best way to put it. He didn’t say it in so many words, but I definitely sensed it.”
Reed has a head for figures – hence his initial foray into accounting – and he ultimately did well in Cuffe’s classes and the MBA program as a whole. “I give quizzes every week,” Cuffe says, “so after about three weeks, it was like, ‘This guy’s going to be fine.’”
But it wasn’t easy. Remember, Reed is both owner and chef at Santé, and if he’s in class at night, he’s not minding the store. After finishing up the lunch service (Santé was open for lunch back in those days), Reed would prep for the dinner rush before dashing out the door five minutes before his 6 p.m. class.
“I’d do class for about an hour and 45 minutes,” he says. “We’d take a break. I would run back to the restaurant to come check on stuff, because now 7 o’clock is like the rush, right? I would jump on the line, help knock out plates for the rush. Work, work, work, work, work, work, work. Hang out there, put some stuff up. There’d still be a few tickets to go. I’d be like, ‘OK, break’s over. I’ve gotta go back.’ I’d run back to class. I’d come in, sit down. Everybody else has been having a break, a drink, checking their phones. The other students could smell the food on me.”
At one point his lead cook left the restaurant. Reed was too deep into the program to back out, so Cuffe worked with him: Reed could miss class when he needed to but had to take all the tests, do all the homework and, after working late at the restaurant, be in Cuffe’s office in Wingate at 8 a.m. to go over what he’d missed in class. “That was very good of him,” Reed says.
Reed enjoyed the mental stimulation of Cuffe’s classes, but other courses were more practical for a restaurateur. During one class he had a frightening realization: His business was on the road to ruin.
Although he had an undergraduate business degree, Reed says he and Victoria hadn’t yet had to worry much about keeping a tight rein on things. But the economy had recently taken a hit, and there wasn’t nearly as much leeway.
It’s understandable that the Reeds weren’t laser-focused on maximizing their profits. Chef Adam’s primary motivation is serving customers an unforgettable meal. “There are so many chefs who are great chefs who open up a restaurant and fail, because they don’t know how to run a business,” he says. “I didn’t know how to run a business. My wife didn’t know how to run a business. They (the previous owners) didn’t give us any advice whatsoever on what to do.”
His a-ha moment during the MBA program set him straight.
“That was the moment that changed the way I ran my business,” he says. “I remember going home and telling my wife, ‘Unless we do something, we’re going to lose the business. We’re screwing up not watching our numbers.’ That became my thing: watching numbers. That changed my process. For me, failure was not an option.”
Santé has clearly been successful. The Reeds have paid off the mortgage on the building that houses the restaurant, and, despite a fairly high-end menu (entrees generally run from $20 to $30), they get consistent traffic in an area that normally caters to beer drinkers rather than foodies. Revenues continue to rise each year, and 2018 was their best year profitwise. During the recession that started in 2008, when restaurants were closing left and right, Santé was able to weather the storm.
“He’s kind of for me what our MBA program should be about,” Cuffe says. “Obviously we don’t know cooking like he does, but hopefully we gave him some tools to help make him successful. He did what he needed to do to capture or grab what he could get out of it to be helpful to him.”
Reed continues to search for ways to keep his mind sharp, aside from dreaming up new dishes to delight his customers’ palates. He wound up teaching for a dozen years at the Art Institute’s culinary school, before it closed last year, and he’s a founding member of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, a nonprofit focused on promoting the local food economy.
Lately Reed has been entering cooking competitions. A few years ago he reached the final round of Fire in the City, a statewide “mystery basket” competition, and this year he participated in the Chef Showdown, another statewide competition, run by the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.
He made it to the finals of that one, too. Each competitor selected a different protein, and because he didn’t see the e-mail until a couple of hours after it had been sent, Reed picked late in the draft. He didn’t get his preference, bison, and other popular items were dropping left and right.
“Pork is gone, chicken’s gone, this is gone, that’s gone,” he says. “Duck’s not gone, but duck won last year. I starting working with duck, but I was thinking about lamb. And lamb is representative of my French heritage.” So he switched. To accompany his lamb, he made a bread using mushroom stock and flour mixed with ground shiitake mushrooms. He cut a potato to resemble a mushroom and roasted it. The result was eminently Instagrammable.
It’s the type of dish he serves up five nights a week, to rave reviews.
“One of the best meals I’ve ever had was there,” Cuffe says. “It was ostrich. It was almost like a filet mignon. It was excellent.”
A long line of French chefs would be proud.