Local Chef Reflects on the Pandemic and Giving Back

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Cafe Root Cellar’s Sera Cuni shares how she is working to fight hunger in Chatham and what’s next

Sera serving dish

By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Food has been chef Sera Cuni’s bread and butter from an early age. Raised in a family of self-taught Italian and Czech cooks, she soaked up all she could while elbow-to-elbow with her grandfather in the kitchen and watching Julia Child on PBS with her father. “Everything we ever did always revolved around a kitchen,” Sera says of her childhood.

Sera always aspired to be a chef, but a college career-ending soccer injury in 1996 officially set her on the path to culinary school. Since opening Cafe Root Cellar in Pittsboro in 2018 with her wife, Susan White, (and operating sister eatery, The Root Cellar Cafe & Catering, in Chapel Hill since 2013), she has cemented herself in the community’s network of restaurant owners, farmers and chefs. Whether she’s out gathering ingredients at the Pittsboro Farmers Market, picking up loaves of bread from Carolina Cravings Co. or just lending a helping hand, Sera feels these relationships are one of the most rewarding aspects of owning a restaurant in Chatham. She also highlights friendships with the folks at Heartsong Farm, Postal Fish Company and The Sycamore at Chatham Mills.

Just two years into operating her Chatham eatery, the pandemic forced Sera and her team to totally reimagine the menu. They closed their doors and added excitement to the takeout-only experience with “popup menus” that featured a different international cuisine each week. When it came time to welcome dine-in guests again, Sera decided to continue the popular weekly menu model to offer more variety, seasonality and creative freedom with the dishes she serves.

“COVID-19 made me realize I don’t need to do everything,” she says. “Like, we don’t have to do pizza. It made us realize, ‘Let’s condense. Let’s do what we do, let’s do it well and really take pride in that.’”

Sera plating a dish

“Everybody loves food. Food is nourishing and comforting, and it just brings people together naturally. Food brings [people] together but it’s the conversations you have during a meal that are the important part.

Sera wears many hats, but a passion for community shines through in all that she does. She’s vice president of the North Carolina chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic society for women in the food, beverage and hospitality industry. She sits on the Pittsboro Welcome Center’s board and regularly works with organizations like CORA, TABLE and SaySo to provide meals to those in need. Sera is even planning to open community fridges in the area this summer. And when she’s not focused on food, she’s training in the gym for her next strongman competition.

“I love what I do,” she says. “I love to see people’s faces when they eat something we’ve made that’s great. I love when people are like, ‘Oh, you did that? That was so nice of you. Thank you so much.’ It just makes me feel good.”

Her current passion project is The Quiltmaker Cafe. The pay-what-you-can restaurant concept was started by the Knowlton family in 2021. At press time, Sera and the other board members hoped to secure a location in Pittsboro in 2023.

“In Chatham, 1 in 8 is hungry,” Sera says. “We’re all one step from this, right? It could be me next week in the line at CORA. … I don’t need lots of things, but I need to work on this little community that I have.”

The two-time “Guy’s Grocery Games” vet will make another Food Network appearance this summer!

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Brooke Spach

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