2007 Restaurateur of the Year
John "J.D." Duncan Owner of fine-dining mainstay Bonterra, barbecue-and-beer emporium Mac’s Speed Shop, and Las Ramblas, a Spanish tapas restaurant and wine bar which made this year’s Best New list, Duncan is our choice for the ninth annual ROY.
Interview by Richard Thurmond
On why he's in Charlotte
"We went to see a banker in Charleston. He had just been transferred from Charlotte. He looked us dead in the eye and he said Charleston is a great place for restaurants but it's awfully competitive here and there aren't a lot of outsiders that come in and make it in Charleston. And he said there are a lot of bad restaurants in Charlotte that are doing a lot of good business.
I happened to know John [Alston] and Greg [McIntosh] at Alston's [now McIntosh's], so I went to Charlotte and hung out there. I would go in and sit at the bar and ask where are the best restaurants in Charlotte, and [the bartender] named off, and you'll remember these names from back then, this was '97, the Lamplighter, La Bibliothèque, Marais, The Silver Cricket, Beef and Bottle, Villa Antonio. Those were considered the upscale restaurants in Charlotte. So we went to them and hung out at 'em a little bit, and were like, man, this is old-school stuff. I said let's go to Charlotte."
On sweat equity at Bonterra
"It took us about two years to renovate it and rezone it. All the brick was in really bad shape. It had a lot of mold on it, mildew. We set up scaffolding, and between my dad and my brother and I, we cleaned every single brick on this building. Scrubbed the joints, replaced the mortar, then put on this acrylic wax that'll preserve the brick for pretty much ever. The windows had probably a hundred years of paint that had never been scraped off. The paint was a good half-inch think. You couldn't even see the detail on the molding. We pulled every bit of paint off, all the way down to the wood, and recaulked everything and filled in all the wormholes and termite holes. So we're going to be here for a while; we're not going anywhere. And it's not for sale."
On the wine program at Bonterra
"The decision was do we start at forty wines by the glass and keep going up, or do we start at 200 and keep bringing it down? And for whatever reason, I just decided I would start at 200 and if I needed to, bring it down. Eight years later, we're still doing it.
All the whites are 42 degrees and the reds are at 62. So we serve our whites a little bit warmer than most people—we don't keep them in the same cooler as the beer and the waters. And then the red wines are cooler, and the flavor comes out a lot more. When the whites are warmer and the reds are cooler you get a more perfect sense of what the wines really should be tasting at."
On being your own boss
"When you own your own restaurant you can kind of do what you want to. When you work for some corporation and you go to your boss and say, ‘Hey, I want to do 200 wines by the glass and I want to buy $20,000 worth of coolers,' he probably tells you no. But when you don't have to ask, you get an opportunity to try it."
On being your own boss, part two
"There's a lot of people who open restaurants and think that just because they're busy for the first month they're open because they're the new place in town, they can go buy a new Porsche and a new house, but it doesn't work that way. There are a lot of weeks where I hope we have a good Friday and Saturday and I can pay the credit card deposit to the bank on Tuesday so I can make payroll on Wednesday. Mondays and Tuesdays are not always the best days of the week."
On what happened at Ratcliffe (which he sold to the current owners after two tough years)
"I let those guys talk me into it. They gave me a song and dance that sounded good. Unfortunately Wachovia didn't share with me that the street was going to go down to one lane and there wouldn't be any on-street parking anymore, and there's going to be bombshells going off every afternoon at three o'clock and the building would be shaking and that the air conditioning was never designed efficiently, and that would be my responsibility. I must have spent $50,000 on air conditioning in two years. That was a tough time. It wasn't fun. I'll never let anyone talk me into something like that again."
On why he opened Las Ramblas
"We didn't just open up a Spanish tapas place because Spanish is kind of a hot cuisine. We actually went to Spain on many occasions and spent time there and really studied it and tried to present something that is very authentic."
On the idea for Mac's
"One of my partners approached me, and he wanted to do a biker bar, like you'd see in Daytona Beach or Myrtle Beach, with burnout pits and wet t-shirt contests and stuff like that. And I said, man, that'll never make it in Charlotte. That's beach stuff. So I said if I get involved, we can do the Harley thing, but we need to do some great food. Let's do some barbecue. That turned into a pretty good thing."
On how he keeps an eye on everything
"I have a system. I live right behind Mac's. So I come here (Bonterra) in the morning at 8, 8:30, read the paper, have a cup of coffee, figure out what I'm going to do for the day, what my obligations are. Usually go to Mac's for lunch, because it's the only one open for lunch, and help out, meet and greet. Then I come back here, do some chores or whatnot. Then I always stop by Las Ramblas for a little bit early in the afternoon, then I come back here. Because of my customers that recognize me, most are here between 7 and 9. So I wander around the dining room, have a glass of wine with whoever might be here that I know, my friends. Then I might go back to Las Ramblas and see who's still hanging out there, and then I'll go to Mac's and see who's hanging out there. I'm home by 10, 10:30."
On a successful owner/chef relationship
"You have to see eye to eye. When Bonterra first opened [in 1999], the plates were small, the portions were small, people were saying, why can't we just get a salad? Why does it have to have truffles and figs and all this stuff in it? They were like, that was a really great meal, and I appreciate it, and now we're going to go get something to eat. Our chef had the attitude, I'm from Manhattan and I profile flavors and my food is all about presentation. So I had a talk with him and said maybe we should look at it a different way. We're in Charlotte, we're not in Manhattan, and Charlotte's not going to come to us, so we've got to come to them. He and I didn't see eye to eye on that, so he left. I asked Blake [Hartwick, the current executive chef of Bonterra and Las Ramblas] to step in until I found someone else. He did exactly what I asked him to do. He sees things the same way I do."
On the importance of good staff
"The people that work for you are probably the most important asset that you've got. You don't want to pay them everything they want, but pay them what they need. We've never made a lot of money here (at Bonterra) profitwise, but we employ a lot of people, and they've all been with me for a long time, so we must be doing something right. We just take care of people and they take care of us."
On his management style
"If you get invited on the patio, you just keep walking. That's the way I do it. I just politely walk up you and say ‘Can I see you on the patio' and typically that means the end. So the joke around here is if you ever ask me to go on the patio, I'm going to get my stuff and go out the other door and get in my car and leave. But I don't ask too much. The expectations coming into Bonterra are to give good service. You don't ever argue with anybody. Give them everything they need. If they have a bad meal, which is going to happen when you serve 20,000 people a year, take care of them."
On celebrity chefs
"Everybody should take advantage of what they can get out of life. If people are knocking on their door to do things like that, then all the more power to them. We're honored that Anthony Bourdain has been to Mac's, Mario Batali has been to Mac's, Emeril Lagasse's been to Bonterra. Tyler Florence has been here. We've had two celebrity chefs from Spain who absolutely loved Las Ramblas. They thought that was the best American restaurant they'd ever been in. So that's all cool."
If someone gave him the cash to open his dream restaurant
"I'd open a fancy little wine bar right on Highway 29 in Napa Valley. I'd do 200 wines by the glass, and I'd have every winemaker and winery owner, pushing their product, hanging out at the bar, saying, "Hey man, have some Saintsbury. Have some Mount Veeder. Rombauer is good today. Here, I'll buy you a glass." It would be crazy how popular it would be! Just snacks and little pizzas and cheese and foie gras and stuff like that. No dinner service. No white tablecloths. Just a fun little place with a bunch of tables on the patio."
On the best meal he's ever eaten
"Per Se in New York, for sure. Thomas Keller's restaurant. A friend and I went up for a wine seminar at another restaurant, and one of wine reps, his brother is the maitre d' there. We got a tour of the kitchen, we got a great table. We had sixteen courses and seventeen wines. It was truly phenomenal. Expensive, about $450, but it was worth every penny. We had this one dish, it was a truffled risotto. When they set it down, they kind of brush the aroma up to your face so you can smell it. There's a guy standing behind him and he's holding what looks to be a cigar box. And the maitre d' opens the box, and there's a truffle in there the size of a softball, which means it's about a four- or five-thousand-dollar truffle. And he grabs it with a napkin and he shaves it over the pasta. And he does one or two and then he looks around, and then he gives us a couple extra. I thought that was just the coolest thing in the world."
This interview was edited and condensed