When Matthew Kelly cooked four dinner services at a pricy preview of the new Raleigh restaurant Death & Taxes during a two-night stand in late April, he didn't light a single burner on the stove.
Instead, he pulled each course off or out of the place's hulking centerpiece, a 6-foot-wide, 6-foot-tall, 2,200-pound J&R grill. It was designed and built in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas, and overnighted to the restaurant's Hargett Street doorstep one March afternoon by FedEx. The customized marvel of structural steel and thick firebrick includes two massive wheels that raise and lower each side of the grill. It represents a half-decade of brainstorming and exploring by chef Ashley Christensen.
"As a restaurant owner, everything's expensive. You can feel very vulnerable when you have to buy something you've never purchased before," says Christensen, leaning against the unlit grill on a weekday afternoon. When the four-level space opens in early June, her coterie of downtown Raleigh bars, restaurants and coffee shops will grow to seven. "But J&R didn't want to sell me anything. They just wanted to tell me about what they made. And I've never been happier with anything we've purchased."
The idea for Death & Taxes and the grill that will drive it emerged from a 2011 trip to Uruguay with a prestigious collective of Southern chefs and restaurateurs. "You didn't even boil water," Christensen remembers, "unless it was over a fire."
While the concept seemed simple—find a way to use mostly fire to feed a restaurant that seats 60—the execution proved more daunting. At one point, they almost installed a hearth in the space and built a grill inside of it. But they would have had to pay to have it approved by Underwriters Laboratories. In New York, though, Christensen cooked on a J&R grill in a restaurant once helmed by Floyd Cardoz and shared dinner with a winemaker at Mas (la grillade) in the Greenwich Village. A kitchen tour sold her on J&R.
"In a basement in New York, they had four of these things, side-by-side," she says. "It's a very fancy, high-end restaurant, and I just remember thinking that they look like battleships."
Combined with the event spaces above Death & Taxes and the bar and wine cellar below, the property represents Christensen's most audacious venture yet. But she admits that she's not yet an expert on its inferno. There are modifications to make, like the custom tools her Uncle Marty is welding. There are firewoods to test, as she's not sure they'll stay with cured oak. And there are temperatures to consider, as the fire has to be worked throughout the day.
That's a primary reason she invited a fleet of some of the South's most decorated young chefs—Kelly, Sean Brock, Jason Stanhope and more—to fire up the grill in a month-long series called "The Firestarters." She wanted to see how they'd respond to the new toy.
"We've had six different folks in here, and everybody had a different approach," she says. "But the grill has just been incredible."
Photos by Jillian Clark
This article appeared in print with the headline "Steeling the show."