Troy Stauffer is wiping wisps of sugar off of his face.
"I never thought [that by] going to culinary school I'd be out here making cotton candy," he says.
He stands over the Flufftastic Floss Machine, supported at elbow level by a butcher's block in the back of his industrial kitchen. We walk through two large dining rooms (with a seating capacity of one hundred and sixty) to get to the celestial blue and bubblegum pink carnival machine, past high-backed leather armchairs and regal holiday decor. Stauffer mentions prepping for the Wake County mayor's office holiday party later that evening as he zooms past the prep tables and a whiteboard with a grocery list of normal things needed in a restaurant kitchen: vanilla beans, truffle oil, short ribs.
Stauffer crossed "cotton candy machine" off that list on Monday. "Three have blown up on us."
Stauffer is the executive chef at City Club Raleigh, a members-only business club at the top of the Wells Fargo building that's quickly flourishing into a place for professionals looking to cut a deal at lunch while letting loose—at least with their lunch choices.
That's why Stauffer invested in at least four cotton candy machines since 2014, when the club opened. The restaurant's most popular appetizer for lunch or dinner is "bacon + cotton candy," as the menu simply puts it. He says he sells up to ten every day at lunch, and twenty for dinner.
"My perception of club food is stuffy, pretentious, formal dining," says Stauffer, who used to run the kitchen at the now-defunct Capital City Club, owned by the same Club Corp that owns City Club Raleigh. "Downtown Raleigh is awesome. So do I just sit back and serve regular club food? Chicken wings and hot dogs? That sucks, and it's just boring."
The bacon cotton candy isn't at all what you'd expect. It's not the kitsch bacon item du jour you find down an online shopping rabbit hole or in a mail-order catalog. Stauffer highlights the in-house bacon—his team smokes about thirty pounds a week—made from pork raised on Heritage Farms in Virginia. He sears five thick-cut slices and splays them out onto a wooden board made by local designer (and club member) Thomas Holt. Beside it he sprinkles a healthy mound of crushed piment d'Espelette, a Basque pepper, forming it into a line next to the bacon. Then comes a giant puff of cotton candy to the side, made from maple-flecked sugar spun into a pure white cloud.
"The Southeast flavor profile is salty, spicy, sour, sweet. You strike a balance or hit on all of that, and it's a success."
How do you eat this thing? Start with a seared piece of bacon, then wrap it in a hefty tear of cotton candy. Dip it into the piment d'Espellete, which is smoky like paprika, finishing sneakily with some heat. Garnish with a bit of microgreens if you feel inclined (I prefer mine without). Stauffer calls it whimsical and unctuous. The sugar melts into the bacon fat just a little, and you're left with a weird umami circus doing back flips on your tongue. Beg a friend to take you as a guest like I did, or sign up for your own card. This decadent treat just might be worth the investment.