'Chef V' cooks soulfully elegant food
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY - Vernon Alexander is like the Music Man of food.
"If you can think it, I can put it on a plate," he says.
The think method.
And like Harold Hill, the man known as "Chef V" talks as fast as he cooks. He chats nonstop about his love of cooking as he works over the stove in the kitchen at Ethos, where he's the new executive chef.
He's preparing two things at once - one a blackened salmon with a pickled green tomato butter sauce, topped with country chow-chow.
Elsewhere he's preparing a chicken Ballantine - deboned chicken filled with shrimp, crayfish and cornbread on top of a she-crab sauce.
Chef V likes to say he cooks "soulfully elegant" food, and he has those words in script tattooed next to a skillet on his left forearm.
On his right forearm he has a tattoo showing a chef's hat over crossed knives.
"It's my signature," he says of the words and symbols permanently etched into his skin.
Many Salisburians already know Alexander from his 10 years as chef at Livingstone College, his Soulfully Elegant catering business or his cooking at La Cava, where he worked for Gianni Moscardini.
Alexander graciously gives the nod as top chef in Salisbury to Moscardini and says he loves him like a father.
"It ain't too bad being a close second," says Alexander, 54.
Twist of elegance
For about a month, Alexander has been head chef at Ethos on North Main Street, where he gives traditional Southern food his own twists of elegance. It's a restaurant that fits perfectly with Alexander's approach to food, from appetizers such as cold sweet potato soup to homemade desserts such as his Krispy Kreme bread pudding or bourbon pecan pie.
A Charlotte native, Alexander received formal training as a chef in the culinary program at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C. He says he finished two years there in 1983 and went on to be a cook and chef at various hotels, country clubs and restaurants in the Charlotte area.
He served, for example, as banquet chef at the Westin Hotel before coming to Salisbury and working for FDY Food Service. Alexander says he was hired to "turn around" the food program at Livingstone College.
Coming to Salisbury
Alexander acknowledges that after Charlotte, he feared he was coming to "a cow town" in Salisbury, but he eventually discovered how wrong he was. Now it's home.
At Livingstone, where he worked with three different presidents over 10 years, Alexander initially lived with a young son (he has five children) in an apartment on Standish Street.
Six years ago, the mailman on that end of Salisbury arranged for Alexander to meet a friend of his, Patricia Luckey of Woodleaf.
Alexander says 45 days after the blind date, he and Patricia had a church wedding and haven't been apart since. He kids her about being a country girl.
"I call her the black Ellie Mae," Alexander adds. "She has her own tool box - a tool box, please."
Patricia has worked almost 35 years at the PPG Industries plant in Lexington, but she still finds time to make a red velvet cake that is the most requested dessert at Ethos.
"My wife is the constant in my life," Alexander says.
Getting his start
As a kid, Alexander remembers standing on a stool at the stove, cooking livermush and eggs for his younger brother and sister while his parents were at work.
His love for food preparation came from his country-cooking grandfather and mother, who was "the neighborhood Julia Child," Alexander says. She was making casseroles and soufflés in a way "most kids in the hood didn't have," he adds.
Alexander attended a black Catholic school, Our Lady of Consolation, from pre-school through the ninth grade, before going on to Charlotte Catholic. All of his jobs have always been in cooking, except a stint as a paper boy when he was 14.
Before culinary school, which he attended on a grant, Alexander worked at a family-owned Italian restaurant, learning from the husband-wife proprietors.
When he enrolled at Johnson & Wales, Alexander says, "I was ahead of the curve.
"I knew what to do. After that, I did some travels, learning my trade as I went along."
'A real genius'
He first worked at Nick's Knothole near Pineville.
A restaurant reviewer for The Pineville Pioneer wrote in a 1984 story that "Chef Alexander is a real genius in his approach to food preparation."
Chef V still carries copies of that review 28 years later.
Cooking at places such as The Guest Quarters and Adam's Mark hotels, Alexander says he met all manner of European chefs.
"I thought they were fabulous," he says.
He would work his regular shift as breakfast and lunch cook, then stay on his own time through dinner, so he could learn the head chef's secrets behind sauces.
Today, Alexander considers his own specialties as seafood and sauces.
"I don't know anyone who can make sauces like me," adds Alexander, the first black executive chef at the Park Hotel.
He's hoping to teach a course for apprentice chefs from Livingstone in soups, stock and sauces.
His mother, who always told him to be true to himself, still lives in Charlotte. They continue to swap recipes, and she'll frequently send him articles about prominent black chefs.
Alexander doesn't lack for confidence. He sent a video in as an application to be "The Next Food Network Star." But he wasn't selected.
He watches many of the other cooking shows on television, such as "Chopped and "Top Chef," and knows he could compete.
Alexander encourages his assistant cooks at Ethos to take advantage of what he knows.
"If you want to learn," he tells them, "come in early. I'm going to give you something free that I've paid blood, sweat and tears for."
As he finishes plating his two entrees, Alexander steps back to admire his work.
"Is that not pretty?" he asks. "I kill myself sometimes."
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.