Years of Participation
“From then on, when I prepared simple foods at home, I wanted to improve them, to elevate them,” Barnes explains. “If I was having ramen, I would top it with chopped onions, dry spices we had in the cabinet, and slices of hot dogs or lunch meat.”
In 2004, Barnes moved to Charlotte to pursue an associates degree in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University. While in school, he worked as a dishwasher at Sonoma Kitchen in Uptown, which was later purchased and renamed ARPA. Often walking in to dishes piled up to the ceiling, he learned how to succeed in a fast-paced kitchen — grooming him for his future role as a food truck owner. He gained knowledge from watching chefs in the kitchen and later moved to the cold line, pantry station and ultimately sous-chef as he worked his way up over the years. In 2008, he took on the role of sous-chef at the Mediterranean-inspired Illios Noche before moving back to Northern Virginia to be the head chef at contemporary American eatery Foxfire Grill. He was called back to Charlotte, where he held leadership roles in the kitchen at Shads Landing retirement community and Ballantyne Country Club before pursuing What the Fries full time as a catering business and then as a food truck with business partner Greg Williams.
“After a decade in the restaurant industry, I stopped caring about the ‘traditional’ way of doing things. With What the Fries, I was able to put my spin on dishes while elevating them. I call it freestyle cooking,” Barnes says. “I love for people to read a dish on paper and think it’s not going to work but then be impressed after tasting it.”
Barnes was a founding member of Soul Food Sessions, a nonprofit pop-up dining series that raises money for scholarships to help minority culinary students. He is also an inaugural professional member of the Piedmont Culinary Guild and passionate about supporting Autism Charlotte.
Barnes says his wife, Alicia, who serves as event and marketing manager for What the Fries, is his inspiration and the support that keeps him going along with his three children, Lily, Levi and Lane. “It’s important to me to be humble, responsible, respectful and to have integrity, and ultimately, to raise my children with those values,” Barnes says.
The next step in Barnes’ professional journey is continuing to build the momentum for the brick-and-mortar restaurant for What the Fries and eventually opening a fine dining restaurant that celebrates the food from his upbringing in life and career.