This restaurant manager, also an army vet and now an expectant father, nurses an unexpected dream.

By Ed Bristol
Photos by Davies Photography

Nick Culpepper is frustrated.

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For the most part, the 30-year-old is doing just fine. He’s assistant manager at the popular Big Ed’s North restaurant. After almost a year of hazardous duty in Iraq, he came home without injury. And there’s another big event just around the corner. Nick’s happy about all of that. But he really wants to find the time to sing. His choice of music? Classical or musical theater.

“I’m always singing,” he says. “I sing in my car all day long.” Nick started singing early. He performed in a statewide honors chorus in fourth and fifth grades, sang in three separate groups in middle school, and appeared in musical theater at Athens Drive High School. For three years, he was cast in Raleigh Little Theater’s production of Cinderella and in his third year landed the prized role of Prince Charming.

 photo courtesy of nick culpepper

photo courtesy of nick culpepper

“That was the last show I did before I went in the Army,” he recalls. Deployed to Iraq, he was assigned to a reconnaissance team carrying out missions in the middle of Baghdad. His job was to scout unfamiliar territory for signs of the enemy, risking ambush and sniper fire. He feels blessed to have escaped injury, or worse, during his combat tour.

“I did have friends who were killed,” Nick says quietly. “I feel very fortunate.”

There were lighter moments, like the time he sang for fellow soldiers. He’d just returned from a recon mission, and his section sergeant told him, “You’re going to sing right now. You don’t have an option.” Even though he has no problem performing in front of thousands, it’s tougher for him to sing for people he knows. But an order is an order.

“So I had some of my friends do backup,” he recalls, “and I sang My Girl. The guys were all extremely surprised.”

You’d think after facing down enemy fire, not much would faze this combat veteran. However, he says—only half-jokingly—he’s “absolutely terrified about becoming a father.” But then adds, “I think it’s going to be a really fun experience.”

Despite the rewards, he knows parental duties will likely add to the frustration he feels in putting off his singing pursuits.   

 “It comes down to time. Most practices and rehearsals are at night,” he notes. At Big Ed’s, between coming in at lunch and closing the place in late evening, he covers a lot of bases—helping out in the kitchen when needed, scheduling the hostesses and servers, and making sure customers are happy.

Downtown Raleigh’s original Big Ed’s is owned by his father and a partner. That deepens Nick’s commitment to his job at the North Raleigh off-shoot—and besides, he says, “I love this restaurant.”

But he also loves the idea of joining up with a musical troupe—one in particular. “The North Carolina Master Chorale has been around forever,” he notes. “They sing opera, classical, a little bit of everything.” He’s confident his classically trained voice would fit right in.

One of Nick’s performing indulgences is occasionally holding forth at the Blind Barbour bar, where he recently surprised and wowed patrons with Bring Him Home from Les Misérables. His high tenor framed the poignant prayer to bring a young man home safely from armed conflict: “He’s afraid. Let him rest. Heaven blessed. Bring him home ...”

The lyrics resonate with this combat survivor who came home with body, soul—and a dream—intact. That dream gives way, for now, to helping run the Southern-cooking eatery and other requirements of daily life. But this Army vet still counts on a future navigating the high Cs.

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