When I first met Chef Donnie Simmons, he was executive chef at the now closed Mandrake in Uptown. As we sat on the patio sharing a sampling of his signature dishes, I witnessed a chef that was proud — boastful even. His talk was full of ambition – Michelin Stars, James Beard Awards.
After being named Best Chef in Charlotte for two years in a row by Creative Loafing (2015 and 2016) and an appearance on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” a few years earlier for his restaurant overhaul at Pit Road Bar & Grill, he had a lot to brag about.
Bite after bite, I was impressed by how well executed and creative each dish was. But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think the dishes were all a little over the top. While his cooking roots were in each dish, they were buried beneath layers of flair.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the scene almost replayed itself. This time, we sat on the patio of Zada Jane’s Corner Café, where Chef Simmons is the new executive chef. While our conversation still included talk of a James Beard Award, I found a chef that was quieter, more reserved, more humble. And his food was more honest and more deserving of the award he so covets.
“It was a big change,” said Simmons. “I was going from a place like the Mandrake that was more fine dining to a place that served breakfast with a slow nighttime business. I had to get comfortable with the fact that I was helping to build something.”
That’s exactly what Marcia Hurst, owner of Zada Jane’s Corner Café was looking for.
“I thought he (Simmons) was probably a little over-qualified, but I wanted someone to come in and do whatever they wanted to help bring in a dinner business,” she said.
Simmons started by introducing an entirely new dinner menu that strayed more than a little from Zada Jane’s traditional vegetarian-forward fare and introduced more proteins to the menu (all locally sourced, of course). The old menu was still available for breakfast and lunch. While the changes were well received, customers asked for the old menu back.
Reluctantly, Hurst and Simmons brought back the old menu with the addition of six dinner specials that will rotate weekly. One of those dishes will always be a vegetarian dish. Simmons describes the specials as “supper full. Like Sunday dinner at my grandma’s house.”
“Last week, almost every table ordered from that menu,” said Hurst. “Including many customers that requested we bring back the old menu.”
Simmons added, “We were actually running out of items.”
Some other changes that customers can expect to draw in a dinner crowd include better usage of the outdoor space (a fire pit that will seat 12) and half-priced bottles of wine every day.
Of course, breakfast couldn’t remain completely unchanged when a chef as talented as Simmons leads the kitchen. The menu for the most part remained intact, but Simmons made some tweaks to items he felt needed a little work, like the grits. While the grits are still vegetarian friendly, they are no longer vegan friendly with the addition of cream and a vegetable stock.
Like the dinner menu, breakfast will also see some supplements like a daily omelet and entrée special.
Zada Jane’s Corner Cafe: 1601 Central Ave.
Photos: Hunter Henrickson