By Jordan Jackson
Provence of Carrboro, with its red umbrellas, outdoor patio and tables topped with lavender flowers, transports North Carolinians to the French Mediterranean without the cost of airfare.
The quaint restaurant uses fresh, seasonal ingredients and local sources, serving up white plates of quiche du jour, salad finely drizzled with exotic vinaigrettes and many other classical Provincial dishes. It sits on West Weaver Street in the heart of Carrboro, just a short drive or long walk from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Provence has been open for about 12 years, but transitioned to new ownership in 2012. Baptist Knaven, the executive chef, met the previous owner of Provence in the restaurant industry and was asked if he would be interested in taking over the restaurant.
Before taking ownership of Provence of Carrboro, Knaven worked at the restaurant for about a year to learn the area and the crowd. While working at Provence, Knaven met Jerry King, a retired neurosurgeon. King was interested in supporting someone to open or take over a restaurant. King and Knaven took over Provence in October 2012 and have been reviving the restaurant ever since. King is now the co-owner of the restaurant and helps fund its operations and renovations.
“The goal was to renew our customer base,” Knaven said.
Even before Knaven took ownership of the restaurant, he began to work on revitalizing the customer base and modernizing the way the restaurant operated. He said there was a lot of work to be done to update the customer base as well as the interior and exterior of the restaurant.
One of the first things he did while working at Provence was open it for brunch on Sundays. He said it did not take long for that to take off and bring in more customers.
“The clientele was long-time clientele, and there was very little growth from the bottom, from the younger crowd,” he said. “And so, that was one of my goals — to feed from the bottom so that you get a sustainable business.”
Waitress Megan McBride assists guests with their French accents, which can come in handy when attempting to pronounce Provence, the owner’s name and many of the dishes listed on the menu.
McBride said her favorite dishes at Provence are the escargot, the build-your-own crepe and the risotto de homard grillé, two grilled lobster tails served over shrimp and sepia risotto, finished with Parmesan.
Knaven said one of the secrets to his food at Provence is to follow the KISS model: Keep It Simple, Stupid. While he loves going to restaurants where they use complicated spices, he would rather keep it simple when seasoning his own dishes.
He said he often gets compliments on the way he prepares his fish. He tells his customers that he uses two secret ingredients — salt and pepper.
“Things have to be fresh. Things have to be honest and seasoned the right way. You don’t need 25,000 herbs in your kitchen to make things tasty,” he said.
Knaven, a classical musician-turned-chef, is originally from the Netherlands, but spent much of his life working in the South of France and other Mediterranean areas. The two were both interested in opening up a restaurant, so his wife went to university and studied higher management while Knaven worked at different restaurants.
Knaven and his wife moved to the United States in 2003. The couple lived in Morehead City, where they owned and ran Café Zito, a Mediterranean restaurant. He said it was convenient being near the coast because he had more fresh seafood to choose from.
Knaven and his family primarily moved away because the restaurant was only busy during the summer months.
Provence of Carrboro is busy year-round, shedding light on how French restaurants can thrive in the United States.
But the lack of this renowned cheese-and-bread-based cuisine is rooted in history, as Knaven explained. When France did not get involved in the Gulf War, Americans were offended and refused to embrace the French culture, including the food, he said.
“That is the nice thing about this area — that people are very open-minded,” he said. “And there is room for a French restaurant.”
Rachel Poulin, a UNC-Chapel Hill student who spent the 2014-15 school year studying abroad in France, said French food is not full of shocking flavors but rather rich subtle ones. She also said French food is not common in the United States because it is expensive and the flavors can be heavy.
“The concept of bread and cheese is taboo in America, and being the base of most French dishes, it would be difficult for this to take off on the whole,” she said.
McBride provided another explanation for America’s lack of French restaurants. She said French cuisine is very difficult to cook and often not taught in culinary schools, so many American chefs are not familiar with the cooking style.
“Provence is a unique place in the fact that we are more of almost a French-country type of cooking style, but different than what we have down in, let’s say in Louisiana,” she said. “So this is a little more traditional country and Provencial food.”