Growing up in North Carolina, Charles Mereday’s dream was to become a pro basketball player. “Basketball was always my passion. I grew up cooking, but the kitchen was my backup plan,” he says, laughing. Fortunately for Naples diners, the NBA never called. After stints at the world-famous La Maison Troisgros in France (three Michelin stars) and the Ryland Inn in New Jersey (four stars from The New York Times), Mereday spent a decade in the Virgin Islands before coming to Naples.
His flagship restaurant, Mereday’s Fine Dining, features an upscale prix fixe menu that changes daily. Mereday’s Brasserie in Coconut Point highlights classic country French cooking (think frog legs and bouillabaisse). At his third location, Alto Live Jazz Kitchen, the emphasis is on a roster of musicians who augment the more basic fare. “I really see myself as an entrepreneur rather than a chef,” he says. “I’m trying to build a business that has long-term sustainability and creates opportunities for others.”
Cooking vs. jazz: They’re very similar. The kitchen is also a stage, a soulful place filled with improvisation. The pace is busy, so a lot of coordination is needed to make it work properly.
Major influence: Working under Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn was my awakening. I had been working in high-volume kitchens up to that point, and it was my first experience with finesse-based, precision cooking. He taught me many details and techniques, such as low-temperature cooking, that I still use today.
Most memorable meal: If I could only eat one more time, I’d choose the conch in butter sauce from Harvey’s [Restaurant in Christiansted], St. Croix. It’s a dish I ate once a week for about 10 years, and I still crave it. In addition to the amazing combination of flavors, it comes with a wealth of side dishes: seasoned rice, yucca, plantain and green bananas.
Returning the favor: If I had the chance to cook for only one person it would be Michel Troisgros. He cooked for me on my final day at his restaurant. I still remember that meal: warm foie gras terrine with tapioca pearls, crispy pig ears and the famous Troisgros salmon with sorrel sauce.
Favorite ingredients: I favor vegetables over meat or seafood. There are a greater variety of colors, flavors and textures that are more interesting to work with. At home, [my family and I] follow a vegan diet and avoid all animal protein.
Canard for a Cause|
Charles Mereday’s annual duck feast to benefit the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collier County merged exquisite cuisine with a worthy cause. We go beyond the dish here.