Getting to Know Farmers’ Chef James Edwards
Edwards is one of the more interesting characters I’ve met since moving to Raleigh a couple of years ago. I knew a few things about him through our run-ins at Raleigh City Farm, but until recently, I had no sense of the true breadth of his talents. Let me tell you: they are broad. He has been an aspiring opera singer, a chef, a restaurant entrepreneur, a carpenter, a farmer. This is a guy who has built sets for TV shows and also grown shiitake mushrooms on inoculated oak logs in the woods. (He also has a ridiculously cute dog named Pedro.)
Originally from Seagrove, NC (population: 228), Edwards grew up in a musical household, the son of a southern gospel singer. He eventually found his way to Charlotte, where he studied vocal performance in college. Music was what brought him to Charlotte, but once he was there, he discovered a passion—and talent—for another art form: cooking. While working a job at a local pizzeria, Edwards realized he wanted to be a chef. At 20 years old, attending vocal performance classes by day, he also started attending night classes at Le Cordon Bleu.
Edwards completed his schooling in Charlotte and subsequently moved to Brooklyn, NY. He landed a couple of restaurant jobs as a chef in Manhattan, but the pace and cut-throat nature of the business in the big city grated on him. Luckily, he had—yet another—marketable skill in his back pocket. At 15, he’d worked construction and maintenance at a local Christian camp, and had been developing his skills in carpentry ever since. Now, having grown tired of cooking in NYC restaurants, he started building the restaurants themselves. He worked on interior construction projects at a number of notable spots, including Union Square Café and Blue Smoke.
From there, he went on to join Stiegelbauer Associates, a design and construction shop that has done scenery and TV sets for SNL, Guiding Light, and As the World Turns. He also built cycloramas—large concave walls that serve as backdrops for stages and photo shoots.
Edwards hadn’t abandoned his passion for cooking, though, and in 2006 he returned to NC to open Off the Square, a farm-to-table gourmet French American restaurant in the old textile mill town of Albemarle. I probably don’t need to tell you that he remodeled the interior himself.
Off the Square, which has now been widely credited with helping tiny Albemarle reinvent itself, quickly gained the attention of the greater culinary community. In 2011, the restaurant won Best Dish NC from The Carolina Epicurean, awarded to chefs sourcing local NC products and ingredients and using them in innovative ways.
Edwards sold Off the Square in 2006. While still living in Albemarle, though, he traveled frequently to Raleigh, where he was helping his childhood friend, Chris Rumbley, with the construction of a new urban farm. This would become Raleigh City Farm, and it would soon land Edwards in Raleigh more permanently. He moved to the capital city in 2014 and has become an integral part of the RCF operation. He’s built water cisterns, a stage, and a shed, among other features on the farm site. He’s delivered produce to restaurants, eventually becoming an important liaison between the farmers growing the ingredients and the chefs who buy them.
“As a chef, I know what chefs want, and I know what they expect to get,” says Edwards. This role has now earned him the title of RCF’s Farmers’ Chef, which not only captures the connection he provides between farmers and chefs, but the fact that he is a chef in his own right. When Raleigh City Farm launched its CSA this past winter, Edwards offered to develop recipes using CSA ingredients, which the farm now shares with the community via social media.
And because cooking, music, and carpentry aren’t enough skill sets for one human to master, Edwards has now added farming to his list of activities. After striking up a friendship with farm entrepreneur Daniel Dayton of Old Milburnie Farm (more on Dayton and OMF in my next post), Edwards offered to help Dayton out with farm operations. The job would allow Edwards to gain a deeper understanding of farm production—including, yes, growing mushrooms—more than just the basic farming practices he’d learned growing up around NC farms. These days, Edwards—and his little dog Pedro—split their time between Old Milburnie and RCF, and everyone wins.
On April 17-19, James Edwards will be taking part in Raleigh City Farm’s bEARTHday and BrewHaHa weekend. He’ll be leading a Neuse River Canoe and Cleanup, as well as cooking a pretty spectacular Farm Dinner at Old Milburnie Farm. I suggest you go, and if you do, say hi to James, okay? You’ll know him by his hair.