Holiday Hosting Tips from Four Pittsboro Chefs

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Four of Chatham’s accomplished chefs share reliable recipes, time-saving techniques and insights for effortlessly hosting memorable gatherings, both at home and out on the town

Photography by John Michael Simpson

Jason Rhoden: Chef and Owner of Kingston 99 Kitchen

Jason Rhoden eats at The Phoenix Bakery.
Jason Rhoden, chef and owner of Kingston 99 Kitchen, tries several baked goods from The Phoenix Bakery in Pittsboro.

Jason Rhoden dances to reggae beats as he delivers an order to a delighted customer at Pittsboro’s freshest culinary venture, Kingston 99 Kitchen. “I just couldn’t help myself,” he says with a wide smile.

“I decided to just take on something new, an adventure,” Jason says. “I’d like to build a kind of culture, a community. The Plant gives that feeling with the rest of the tenants [here], it seems like we are all part of something. That feeling is what keeps the momentum. Growing up as a Jamaican, we’re big on communities. That’s natural for us.”

Jason, who loves meeting new people, worked remotely during the pandemic shutdown in the tech industry and was eager to re-immerse himself as the world opened up again. He began managing Escovitchez, an upscale Jamaican restaurant in Snellville, Georgia. Then in late 2021, Jason experienced a profound loss when his beloved mother, Alice Rhoden, who had presided over her own food haven, passed away in Jamaica. He needed to find positive ways to channel his grief. He followed a new job to North Carolina and began searching for a special place to honor his mother and her cooking. Kingston 99 Kitchen opened in August 2023 with a menu of dishes and desserts that bring back vivid memories of Jason’s mother and their island home.

In September, Jason moved to Chatham Park. Food takes center stage at his family’s holiday gatherings, and this year, he is poised to take the reins for Christmas dinner – just days after his own birthday. “We have to have cake – wine cake,” he says. “We love a big spread.”

Meanwhile, Jason has been entertaining visiting friends and family by taking them to see his restaurant at The Plant. He also takes visitors to BMC Brewing or Metal Brixx Cafe for a drink. Elsewhere in Pittsboro, Jason enjoys going to Elizabeth’s Pizza for pasta and to The Phoenix Bakery to satisfy his sweet tooth cravings.

He is looking forward to the holidays and reuniting with his kids. His son, Jason Rhoden Jr., 22, is studying film and media at the University of Georgia, and his daughter, Ghabrielle Rhoden, 17, is in her last year in high school and will enter college next year. Jason plans to prepare one of his favorite one-pot meals.

“I’m talking about pasta,” Jason says. “We use natural herbs to determine the flavor – ginger, garlic and parsley, along with some peppers. The red, green and yellow peppers give you that ‘rasta pasta’ feel in terms of the colors.” For the main protein, choose chicken, shrimp or both. – Anna-Rhesa Versola

Jason Rhoden orders from The Phoenix Bakery in Pittsboro.
Jason loves to grab sweet treats at The Phoenix Bakery when he’s off the clock.

Recipe: Jerk Shrimp Reggae Pasta

Serves four

10 oz. uncooked pasta
16 oz. shrimp
2 tsp. jerk seasoning
1 tsp. olive oil
2-3 bell peppers (red, green and yellow)
1 Tbsp. pasta water
½ qt. Heavy cream
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 pinch salt

Cook pasta according to package directions, until al dente. Reserve 1 tablespoon of pasta water. Drain pasta and set aside. In a small mixing bowl, toss shrimp with 2 teaspoons of jerk seasoning. Heat a saucepan over medium high heat. Once the pan is hot, add olive oil and seasoned shrimp to the pan. Cook for 1 to 3 minutes on each side, or until just pink. Remove and set aside.

Julienne the bell peppers and sauté them in the same saucepan with ½ tablespoon of jerk seasoning. Cook until peppers are softened, stirring occasionally. This should take 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Add the cooked shrimp and pasta to the pan. Incorporate the reserved tablespoon of pasta water, heavy cream, Parmesan cheese and a pinch of salt.

Mix thoroughly and serve immediately.

Iliana Escalante-Palacios & Yeraldyn Martinez: Co-owners of Carolina Cravings

Iliana Escalante-Palacios and Yeraldyn Martinez enjoy food and drinks at Ta'Contento Mex Fresh Food.
Iliana Escalante-Palacios & Yeraldyn Martinez enjoy food and drinks at Ta Contento Mex Fresh Food after work.

Yeraldyn Martinez and Iliana Escalante-Palacios met in 2019, and their friendship quickly blossomed out of a shared dream to own a business – and a shared passion for baking cakes. At the time, Iliana was working at Carolina Cravings and Yeraldyn was working at The Phoenix Bakery.

A year into the pandemic, the pair teamed up and took ownership of Carolina Cravings. The bakery previously specialized in classic Southern desserts, but the duo’s reimagined bakery added traditional Hispanic pastries to the menu, creating a local spot where the two cultures intertwined.

The entrepreneurial duo takes great pride in their downtown Pittsboro location and often partner with other local businesses. The sweets shop provides desserts for eateries like Postal Fish Company, Cafe Root Cellar, Ta’ Contento Mex Fresh Food and The Sycamore at Chatham Mills. The team also prioritizes participating in and amplifying community events, fundraisers and tastings. “Collaborating with other local businesses is very important to us,” Yeraldyn says.

They enjoy supporting those businesses, too. For an afternoon or evening pick-me-up after a long day, lliana and Yeraldyn frequent Ta’ Contento, where their go-to orders are tortas, a Mexican bolillo bun stuffed with a variety of meat and veggies and topped with chipotle sauce. Yeraldyn also enjoys their tacos, which come in many varieties and can be customized for any palate.

When Yeraldyn and Iliana close shop on Sundays, they like to head to Cafe Root Cellar for brunch or lunch on the patio. Yeraldyn’s favorite dishes include bananas Foster pancakes, the French toast bread pudding and the fried chicken sandwich. The duo also enjoys classic American eateries in town like Virlie’s Grill, S&T’s Soda Shoppe and Carolina Brewery.

When her family and friends visit (and her own bakery isn’t open), Yeraldyn takes them to Aromatic Roasters for an Aztec latte. In the afternoon, she and her guests enjoy perusing the Pittsboro Farmers Market on Thursdays or walking across Bynum Bridge, which overlooks the Haw River and provides views of the verdant landscape. After a day of exploring, Yeraldyn likes to head over to The Plant to try out the latest experimental beers at BMC Brewing.

Stop by Carolina Cravings from Thanksgiving through Christmas and you’ll be greeted by a line of pies including pecan, chocolate, pumpkin and apple, using crusts baked in-house. The two bakers also offer flan – a rich and creamy Latin custard topped with caramel sauce – during the holidays. When Yeraldyn hosts guests at home, she serves the bakery’s apple pie with coffee for a festive and balanced dessert. Their favorite coldweather recipes include rice pudding and chicken tamales which pair nicely with coffee from Vortex Roasters. They also recommend asking each guest to bring their favorite seasonal dishes and setting them up buffet-style so everyone can enjoy a mix of cultures. – Lena Miano

Sera Cuni: Chef & Owner of Cafe Root Cellar

Sera Cuni Root Cellar Pittsboro

Chef Sera Cuni, owner of two North Carolina restaurants, Root Cellar Cafe & Catering in Chapel Hill and Cafe Root Cellar in Pittsboro, is no stranger to cooking for a crowd. The classically trained chef has plenty of tips for entertaining guests during the holiday season.

First, Sera suggests shopping local and using seasonal produce. For her, the Pittsboro Farmers Market is a treasure trove of culinary ideas. “Everything’s fresh and local and it’s grown in our county,” she says. Engaging with local farmers provides an invaluable opportunity to interact with the people who grew your food and learn about the best ways to prepare it.

Sera explains that when you’re feeling stuck in the kitchen, it can be helpful to ask others in your circle what they like to do, picking up tips and tricks as you go. She finds immense inspiration from friends like Bill Hartley, chef at Postal Fish Company, and Greg Lewis, owner of 39 West Catering and The Sycamore at Chatham Mills. She says that when they all get together, their conversations often revolve around new ideas and approaches to food, and bouncing ideas off of one another is a great way to spark creativity.

Above all, Sera emphasizes that the holidays are a time to make cherished memories with loved ones. So, if you’re hosting this holiday season, the best gift you can give yourself is to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Opt for dishes that are easy to make and will hold well in the fridge for a day or two, such as a hearty lasagna or a succulent roast. For Sera, pork is a go-to choice; it’s hassle-free and universally enjoyed – “Unless you’re a vegetarian.”

Lastly, this is not the time to reinvent the wheel, so don’t be afraid to go with what you know. Sera leverages her Italian heritage to infuse a Mediterranean flair to familiar recipes that can surprise guests while remaining relatively easy to execute. “When you don’t know what to make, it can be helpful to fall back on what you know and add a new twist to keep things interesting.” – Catherine VanSchaick

Shane Ingram: Executive Chef at The Sycamore at Chatham Mills

Shane Ingram sits with his dish of a crispy potato spinach flying saucer.
Read on for Shane’s recipe for crispy potato spinach flying saucers.

Shane Ingram’s No. 1 tip for culinary planning this holiday season? Keep it simple.

“I like to prepare everything in advance,” Shane advises. “Cooking for the holidays really starts a week before, so when the day actually comes and all your family and friends are in the house, you want to enjoy that time with them, and not be stuck in the kitchen.”

Shane says The Sycamore at Chatham Mills can help with that – the restaurant will have meals available for pre-order in time for Thanksgiving. “If people don’t want to do the cooking and cleaning and all of that, they can pick up [food] the day before and then just reheat it at home,” he says.

Prior to his start at The Sycamore in April 2023, Shane honed his skills with celebrated chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter, and was part of Patrick O’Connell’s team at The Inn at Little Washington that earned three Michelin stars. Shane was previously executive chef at The Fearrington House Restaurant, and owned an award-winning, fine dining restaurant in Durham, Four Square, which is now closed.

Shane keeps entertaining at home manageable with fun and hassle-free recipes like his crispy potato spinach “flying saucers,” which can be served up as a snack, appetizer or side dish. – Anna-Rhesa Versola

Recipe: Crispy Potato Spinach Flying Saucer

Shane Ingram's crispy potato spinach flying saucer

To Make Shane’s crispy potato spinach flying saucer, grate an Idaho potato, squeeze out the water and form into two disks. Place spinach in between the two disks and pan fry until golden.

1 Idaho potato (washed)
½ cup wilted spinach
Salt and pepper to taste

Take 1 Idaho potato (washed) and coarsely grate on a box grater over a bowl. Squeeze out the excess water from grated potato and arrange into two discs of equal measure, about the size of small hockey pucks.

Place a ½ cup of wilted seasoned spinach on top of one disc, then place the second disc on the spinach to make a “flying saucer.”

In a shallow pan, fry the stack to golden brown on each side, and finish for 10 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.

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