Next chapter for Caffe Phoenix chefs unfolds
August 1, 2012By Liz Biro
If this adage is true, “It’s not how you start but how you finish that matters,” then Caffe Phoenix’s last night of service Tuesday was an ending worth tears and cheers.
For many who attended the four-course meal that concluded the downtown restaurant’s nearly 23-year run, the last supper was a final chance to sample some Phoenix favorites and recall fond memories as well as the restaurant’s tremendous contribution to downtown revitalization in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Tears led to extra cheers, no doubt, for chef Carson Jewell, 30, who devoted most of his professional life to the restaurant, and for Jewell’s colleague and close friend Alex Morgan, 25.
The childhood buddies each clocked a decade in the Phoenix kitchen. They plan to open their own Wilmington restaurant sometime in 2013, Jewell and Morgan said.
Jewell in 2000 started as a dishwasher in the original Caffe Phoenix kitchen at 9 S. Front St. He got a lead on the job from Morgan’s brother, who was a Caffe Phoenix cook.
Jewell and the Morgans were friends, Alex Morgan almost like a little brother to Jewell.
“I took Alex to school every day and made sure he did his homework,” Jewell said.
In 2003, Morgan joined the team.
Each left Phoenix briefly. Jewell was gone for about two years starting in 2001. Upon returning, he worked his way up to executive chef.
Morgan departed in 2010 to do time at Raleigh’s well-known Poole’s Diner and in 2011 to work respected American chef Charlie Palmer’s District Meats, now named Charlie Palmer’s District Tavern, in Denver, Colo.
Each claimed devotion to Phoenix, even after its move in 2010 to its 35 N. Front St. location.
Michael and Deborah Caliva opened Caffe Phoenix in 1989, a time when downtown revitalization was in its infancy.
Phoenix launched in the middle of a freak storm that dumped more than a foot of snow on the city. Diners came anyway, some of them cross-country skiing over, to sample what would become one of downtown’s most recognized restaurants.
Over the years, Phoenix changed hands but remained a hotspot, especially for celebrities. Robert Downey Jr. and Virginia Madsen both visited this year.
Despite difficulties since owner Roy Clifton died in May and Clifton’s wife, Ann-Marie Clifton, decided to close Phoenix shortly after, Jewell and Morgan kept the kitchen interesting.
They smoked pork chops and simmered pig heads, created a late-night menu and constantly envisioned and executed interesting specials using local ingredients, including a hefty pork belly chunk atop corn, tomato and zucchini succotash.
Jewell and Morgan’s new restaurant, the pair said, will focus on the American South. Menu details are due later.
“I think I’m going to take the month of August off, stop cooking for a while,” Morgan said, adding he might land in a Wilmington kitchen afterwards.
Jewell is headed for a few months of surfing in South America. Neither man is worried that area diners will forget his name.
“People have said to us, ‘We’ll be looking for you,’” Jewell said, “and that makes me feel good.”