Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Restaurant Hospitality’s “15 to Watch in 2015”; Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” southeast nominee in 2015; Starchefs’ Rising Star in 2014; Bravo’s “Top Chef” contestant in 2016; working with renowned chefs from New York to San Francisco.
All these are entries on Annie Pettry’s resumé, but if you call the Decca owner a “celebrity chef,” she smiles shyly.
“It’s really weird (to be called that),” she says. “And I don’t believe it’s true sometimes.”
For Pettry, her life is less about grandeur and more about living the life. She participates in charity events, travels to festivals and conferences — three in March and two more this month — in between spending days and evenings running her NuLu restaurant.
“I take it with a grain of salt,” she says. “It’s exciting that it’s exposure for the restaurant and my staff, and the talent of Lou. It’s humbling and you definitely feel honored, but I’m not totally 100 percent comfortable with it.”
The nervous laughter that punctuates her words is not that of a “celebrity,” but rather a person who has her dream job.
Pettry has been cooking and appreciating food as long as she can remember. She spent time cooking with both of her parents, and she fished and foraged, often making meals from what nature provided.
“I remember we had a trout pond,” she says. “We would throw a little bit of feed in and then throw the net in to catch as many as we could. We knew it was cheating, but it was still fun. Then we would throw them all back.”
But when it was about food and not sport, they would fish and then consume their catch. A teepee-shaped, homemade smoker would contain a smoldering fire that would smoke the fish to preserve it.
“I think my childhood definitely started a connection with food really early,” she says. “Knowing where food comes from, that it grows in the wild or it’s farmed, seeing the animal be killed and eating it, and kind of knowing the whole circle of life. I think that has borne a respect for food and the environment and the people involved.”
The French accents she adds to her Southern-inspired fare gets a boost from her belief in sustainable food for Decca. She gets ingredients from farms around the region and can’t imagine any other method. Nothing at Decca is going to be poured from a bag into a deep fryer.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons farm-to-table is important,” she says. “The most basic reason is the food tastes better. Know your farmers, sustainable practices, you get the product at the best time. That equals fresher and tastier product. You also know you’re doing something good for the planet. Furthermore, you’re strengthening the community around you. It’s really important for these farmers to survive to have people buying from them.
“I feel like that should be the default,” she adds. “A restaurant by its nature should be a farm-to-table restaurant.”
Even Decca’s wine list is culled from small wineries with sustainable practices.
So, if her core values stem from her childhood in North Carolina, her training and expertise come from studying at the International Culinary Center in New York. She considered going into culinary education right after high school but enrolled in core college courses instead. That didn’t last long.
“I kind of already knew how to cook, but it was almost an excuse to live in New York City,” she says. But she isn’t kidding, and it wasn’t just about her youth. By the time she began taking the restaurant industry seriously, she’d already done it all. Quite literally.
Asked what all she did prior to being a chef, she lists jobs like pizza delivery, valet parking, pastry chef, kitchen worker, busser, server and bartender. Every job she ever had, beginning at age 14, involved food and restaurants.
The process at Decca, no wonder, is well-informed. Pettry says she and her staff use all parts of the plant and animals they purchase, and the daily shift includes a 4:45 p.m. “family meal” to go over the evening’s specials and any changes.
“It’s a nice way to build a solid restaurant family,” she says.
Speaking of family, on those rare days when Pettry has free time, she’ll spend time with her husband Nate (also a chef) and their dogs, Maximus Boogie and Ziggy Monroe (Max and Ziggy for short).
And a date night with Nate, she says, would likely be margaritas at El Mundo on a Monday.
“He would get the fish tacos and I would get the enchiladas, one bison and one cheese,” she says. “I’m pretty certain that’s how it would go down — I have a family history with enchiladas.”
Not exactly the nightlife of a celebrity chef, but that’s sort of par for the course; Pettry is more interested in discussing the antique Mexican dishes her aunt gave her than her next TV appearance. And even the dishes take a backseat to the fondness she has for the way people react to her food in real time.
“I think one of the biggest inspirations is you can make something with your hands, make it taste good and, within minutes, someone can eat it and you can see their reaction,” she says. “You see people take a bite and they do the little happy dance in their seat. That’s my favorite.”