Aging to Perfection
At Raleigh’s popular Whiskey Kitchen,
executive chef Clayton Anderson is building a community staple.
By Alex Dixon
Chef Clayton Anderson is standing in the rickhouse at his restaurant, Whiskey Kitchen, surrounded by barrels aging various things for both the kitchen and bar. He lists off the contents of barrels with cocktails—Godfather, Pink Panther, Midnight Manhattan. One has hot sauce, and another has something called “barrel candy,” what’s left when a barrel-aging cocktail evaporates and the ingredients leave behind a candy-like residue. “It’ll leave smoke in your mouth for days,” Anderson says.
It’s no surprise that Whiskey Kitchen utilizes smoke in nearly every dish and drink it can. It boasts a menu of more than 200 whiskeys, but fans of the restaurant know executive chef Anderson and his team approach food and drink pairings with nuance and depth—creating a showcase for regional ingredients and being as resourceful as possible, from chopping up used oak barrels and using the pieces for smoking duck breast to sourcing local mulberries for a vinaigrette.
In just three short years, Whiskey Kitchen has grown in popularity alongside a booming Raleigh restaurant scene. Food sales are up double-digits since it first opened, and while the restaurant has built up a steady stream of regulars, it continues to attract new guests. In fact, Anderson says the ratio of new and returning customers is about 50/50.
Anderson and his team are a driving force in building up the community and the region as it develops a national identity, all the while giving back as often as they can. The restaurant is constantly drumming up business outside of its long service hours, from special events to its Supper Club series, which are sporadic, ticketed themed dinners open to about 100 people. These supper club events have ranged from a Japanese whiskey and cuisine–focused dinner to a ’70s old school steakhouse dinner complete with prawns thermidor.
“One of our mottos around here is onward and upward. We are not ones to rest on our laurels,” he says, adding that there are no plans to open other restaurants. “I do want to make sure we are better before we get bigger. We enjoy the uniqueness of the one space, but we are growing.”
Anderson started his culinary career when he was 14 years old. His father dropped him off at a strip mall and told Anderson to call him when he found a job. He found one—shucking oysters and washing dishes at a family-owned Florida restaurant. Anderson stayed with the job through high school before going into the Army, though he began to miss being in the kitchen and knew he wanted to return. “I remembered how much fun I had cooking and how much enjoyment people got from my cooking, and realized that I wanted to make people happy, rather than what I was doing in the service,” he says. “So I went right back into kitchens and honestly haven’t looked back since.”
As he’s worked his way up through the ranks in kitchens across the country in a nearly three-decade career, Anderson wants to guide budding chefs both inside and outside of Whiskey Kitchen to try to give them a clearer and quicker path than he had to the top. Anderson works with the NC Restaurant & Lodging Association’s ProStart Program, which gives high school students kitchen experience in order to develop interest in the industry. “I get a lot out of guiding those younger than me,” Anderson says. “I honestly didn’t think it would be something I enjoyed as part of my career. But, I really enjoy helping people with their creativity and working with other chefs on dishes.”
And for those hoping to break into the industry or work their way up, Anderson has a piece of advice: Experience as much as possible. “The more life experience that you have, the more depth you can put into a dish,” he says. “There’s just more to draw from. The best dishes that we have are ones that people feel a certain way about. Live deliberately; live passionately; and write everything down.”
Whiskey Kitchen’s Three Sister Salad
“We all know mirepois is celery, onions, and carrots, and many know of the Cajun trinity of peppers, onions, and carrots—but few are aware that the Cherokee have their own version. Our state’s native inhabitants used beans, squash, and corn as the basis for many of their dishes. This salad pays homage to our state’s mountain ranges, its peoples, and its summer bounty.”
— Chef Clayton Anderson
1 lb Israeli couscous, cooked and cooled
8 oz lima beans (or any summer squash)
4 oz roasted butternut squash, small diced
4 oz cooked corn kernels (we use sweet corn)
6 oz raw carrots, small diced
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 head butte or bibb lettuce
Combine all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Dress with Mulberry Vinaigrette and garnish with fresh mulberries.
Mulberry Vinaigrette Ingredients:
9 oz fresh mulberries
.7 oz garlic
1.4 oz shallots
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
¾ cup champagne vinegar
¾ cup corn syrup
¼ cup molasses
1½ cups blended oil
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
.3 oz parlsey
¼ tsp chili powder
Combine all ingredients together in a blender, except the oil. Purée the mixture and slowly add the oil while continuing to blend. Pass through a fine mesh strainer to remove seeds.
Locally sourced ingredients raise the bar for Whiskey Kitchen cocktails.
1.5 oz Dark Rhythm Gin, from Oak and Grist Distilling Company in Black Mountain
¾ oz Kill Devil Rum, from Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo
¾ oz pineapple juice
½ oz lime juice
½ oz malt syrup
Add a dash of cherry, cinnamon, and clove bitters, from Crude Bitters in Raleigh. Finish with a barbacoa rim and grilled pineapple garnish.