Noble Pursuits

Restaurateur Jim Noble has plans for feeding Charlotte -- physically and spiritually

The first time I meet Jim Noble for dinner at his posh restaurant, Noble's, he tells me that he won't be eating much because he's fasting as a way of "seeking God for stuff." It's the Daniel Fast, a twenty-one-day period during which he doesn't eat until 4 p.m. and then eats small portions of only certain foods. He's been doing it annually for more than ten years, in addition to fasting once a week the rest of the year. It's not common to meet a chef who systematically chooses not to eat. But that's Jim Noble.
He's a fifty-three-year-old industrial engineering grad who spends his days creating sophisticated dishes to serve Charlotte's elite and even the occasional celebrity, including Oprah Winfrey and Julia Child. He's an ordained minister who ran bars and nightclubs in his twenties. His restaurants serve dishes like foie gras and tuna carpaccio, but he gets most excited when he's talking about Lexington chopped barbecue. He's the chef who first introduced Charlotte to the idea of eating local, and this year he's launching a restaurant concept unlike anything the city has seen before. Thirty seconds into meeting him, you'll think he's just your average guy. Thirty minutes into meeting him, you'll know he's definitely not.

"When Olivia was born, everything changed," says Karen Noble, Jim's wife of twenty years.

Karen has the same soft, smooth tones in her voice as her husband, a trait that works well on their syndicated weekly radio show, The Voice of Healing Faith, on which they alternate between teaching, prayer, and reading scripture. Olivia, fifteen, is the Nobles' middle child. When she was two weeks old she was diagnosed with encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain. Doctors told the Nobles that she would never walk or talk. There is a before Olivia and an after Olivia break in their lives when their entire focus shifted.

"When she was born I realized that if I had all the money in the world, I couldn't have bought what I needed for her," says Jim. "I needed a miracle for her."

And so the Nobles began to seek that miracle. They turned toward their faith as a source of healing. Jim says that he "can't remember not being a believer," but he acknowledges that his direction changed after Olivia. Now, fifteen years later, he is an ordained nondenominational minister who has traveled internationally to speak about God and what he calls "God's healing power." He is taking classes in Hebrew and recites verses from both the New and Old Testament by memory easily. His ministries in Charlotte alone include the radio show; the King's Table, which partners with other Charlotte ministries and restaurants to provide food for the hungry; and, soon, the King's Kitchen, a nonprofit restaurant designed to create jobs and to minister to those in need.

That's all the after Olivia.

Noble grew up in High Point, the son of a furniture salesman, a job he always thought he wanted until he actually tried it. He graduated from NC State. Bring up ACC basketball and he becomes animated, remembering a Duke-versus-UNC game from his sophomore year of college that ranks as one of his favorites of all time. He has season tickets at Wake Forest, where his oldest daughter, Margaux, is a student; having Duke's Coach Mike Krzyzewski as a guest at his restaurant is one of his favorite memories.

After college he worked for a nightclub in Raleigh before moving to Clemson, South Carolina, to open his own bar, Bullwinkle's, where he worked for six years. Then, in 1982, he took a trip to Napa, California, that changed his perspective on what he wanted to do professionally. He fell in love with pairing food and wine, something that was only starting to become popular in the culinary community. Within a year he had opened his first restaurant, Noble's, in High Point.

The restaurant seated between fifty and sixty people, only served five to six entrées, and had a menu entirely in French. Noble was a twenty-eight-year-old who had learned to cook French cuisine by watching cooking shows and reading books by Julia Child. But it worked.

It was there that Jim and Karen met, when she applied to work in the restaurant. She got the job. Today Jim's sister and her husband own that restaurant, while he owns and runs Noble's Grille in Winston-Salem and Noble's restaurant and Rooster's in Charlotte. 

"My food is simple and clean," he says. "With the right products and the right execution, it's spot on." He loves food. When he takes a bite of the fresh green peas on his plate, he briefly closes his eyes, relishing their crispness and slightly sweet taste. He talks about his passion for organic vegetables and local growers as he digs into the restaurant's famous basil fried corn. When a waiter shaves fresh truffles over a plate of tagliatelle pasta, he waves his hands over it, bringing the mushrooms' rich scent closer to him and breathing deeply. All of this production should seem contrived, but for some reason it doesn't. He actually seems to enjoy food that much. However, after he has twirled the pasta around his fork, he holds it in front of him for almost ten minutes before taking a bite, as he speaks enthusiastically about the topic that has become his passion above food for the last fifteen years: God. It's difficult to keep Noble on the subject of just about anything else. Every topic eventually leads back to his interest in God, Christ's atonement, the Old Testament, or healing from God.

"You know, everyone is yearning to be loved," he says, finally taking a bite of the rich, creamy noodles. "A relationship with God isn't a religious thing. It is us seeking Him and His truth."

Noble talks earnestly about his faith, moving seamlessly between Bible verses and preaching in the manner of someone who is an experienced speaker on the subject. Even sitting in a chair eating noodles, his warm, brown eyes light up and his hands move rapidly in front of him as he talks about God. He looks like he should be behind a pulpit.

As he speaks, he refers to himself as Jimmy. He says it in a quiet Southern drawl that doesn't quite fit with the man who just waxed poetic about fresh truffles from the Umbria region of Italy. His face, which is suddenly very serious as he discusses his faith, is almost pretty, with thick, dark lashes against his rosy, round cheeks. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle at the corners, and it's evident from the deep lines there that he does this often.

His faith is the driving force behind the King's Kitchen, a nonprofit restaurant he plans to open in Charlotte later this year. He plans for the restaurant, which will be open to the public like any other restaurant, to serve between six and eight meats, about a dozen vegetables, but no alcohol. The restaurant will employ people who have come from prison or rehab, and he doesn't want that temptation available. In addition to employment, they will receive training on how to run a restaurant and spiritual support in the form of Bible study and prayer.

"This is a ministry," says Noble, who plans for the profits to go to established charities for feeding the hungry, in Charlotte and internationally. "God says feed the poor. That's what we intend to do."

While he hasn't yet chosen the location for the restaurant, Noble already has extensive support from Charlotte, including the Panthers and Bojangles, which have helped with launching the business through fundraisers and events. Skipper Beck, the Charlotte car dealer infamous for being charged earlier this year with soliciting prostitution, is another one of those supporters. When Noble mentions his name, he stops.

"Actually, I have something I want to say about that," he says, pausing as if to consider how best to say it. "Skipper is an awesome guy who is going through some hard stuff. He gave his life to the Lord. And if people don't have second chances in life then I'm in trouble, too."

Beck and Noble, who met shortly after Noble opened his restaurant here, get together for a Bible study with several other men each week. Beck has helped support Noble's charitable causes around Charlotte, including the King's Kitchen. "I think he's one of the greatest people I've ever met," says Beck. "He has a vision for food and a vision for the Lord. And the combination works well for him."

After acknowledging Beck's recent indiscretions, Noble is quick to point out that he hasn't always been the person he is today. "When I was in college, we'd smoke pot and get high and laugh at the healing preachers on TV," he says. For a guy who prays for healing weekly on his own radio show, he says he's come a long way.

After Margaux and Olivia, the Nobles wanted another child. Karen had two miscarriages after Olivia's birth, but in 1997 she gave birth to their youngest child, James III. Karen and their children frequently drop in for dinner at Rooster's, where the milkshakes are named for Olivia because of her fondness for them.

"To be honest, they say they like the food at Noble's best," says Karen. "They haven't exactly grown up eating McDonald's. Olivia can tell the difference between sushi-grade and regular tuna."

Olivia still faces many health problems. In December she had an operation for scoliosis that has meant a lot of extra attention from both of her parents. She uses a wheelchair and only last year was able to begin communicating through the use of a computer. The Nobles consider this healing because the doctors told them that she would never talk. "She can talk to us with the computer," says Jim. "We still have a ways to go, though."

The schedule of a chef and owner of three restaurants isn't naturally conducive to spending much time with family. However, Noble attempts to squeeze it all in. He goes to his son's baseball games and fixes breakfast for James and Olivia. After we meet for lunch one day at Rooster's he hurries to Winston-Salem so that he'll have time to help Margaux install a curtain rod in her dorm room before working the dinner shift at Noble's Grille. A synopsis of his day leaves you feeling exhausted just hearing it.
He does enjoy some relaxing activities. His love for hunting and fishing matches his Southern accent and the GMC Yukon he drives. He hunts quail occasionally with Charlotte insurance and investment magnate Cameron Harris, whom he calls "one of the truest men you'll ever meet," on the Kennedy Ranch in south Texas. "I'll tell my kids and grandkids about hunting with Cammie."

During our interviews, Noble insists on sitting in a place where he can watch the activities in the kitchen. The hostess tells me that this is "his table." When I visit Noble's restaurant one night I watch him hurry between the kitchen and the dining room, only pausing to shake hands with and warmly greet a familiar customer before hurrying out, no doubt off to one of the other restaurants.

Noble was focused on concepts like "organic" and "eating local" before they became national trends. His pork comes from Grateful Growers Farm in Denver, N.C., and many of his vegetables come from New Town Farms in Waxhaw. His lamb comes from a farm in Virginia, and his wheat, corn, and rice from South Carolina. "Part of what attracted me to working with him is his interest in the new Southern cuisine," says Drew Ward, the executive chef at Noble's Grill in Winston-Salem. "Plus, he's big on local produce and ingredients."

But don't mistake local ingredients for cheap ones. "He never says, ‘That's too expensive, let's get something else,' " says Ramon Taimanglo, executive chef at Rooster's, where the walls are lined with imported wines and olive oils. "He loves food and he loves to check out the new stuff when it comes in."

While he may not be scrimping on the ingredient choices, Noble is facing problems with the economy just like everyone else. Noble's restaurant, where the price of first courses can reach into the high twenties, appears to be only about half full on the weeknights I visit. Recently, they began running a prix fixe menu with a discounted price in an effort to draw in more customers. Italian truffles didn't make that menu.

Imported ingredients and French wine aside, though, it's the Southern flavor with the local flair that has made Noble's and Rooster's popular among Charlotte diners and a favorite spot for visiting foodies. Noble intends to continue bringing new concepts and better food to the city. At the King's Kitchen, for example, he intends to serve medium-price-point food.

"I think of it as a nongreasy greasy spoon," says Noble. "I'm thinking it will have the best pan-fried chicken in the Southeast."
His next culinary dream is to open a barbecue restaurant. "I think wine and barbecue are great," he says. "I just really love barbecue." He envisions a restaurant where he would cook pork barbecue, beef brisket, and chicken, and he becomes animated talking about his love of the meat. It fits, really, considering how passionate he is about the Southern flair in his food.

"I love the way the meat is just when you pull it off the spit," he says. Then he pauses. "I think there is something about that in the Old Testament, in Leviticus."

And now he is back to his true favorite subject.

Sarah Crosland is associate editor of this magazine. Email: sarah.crosland@charlottemagazine.com

Categories: People