Small & Mighty

Chef John Wright of Glenwood Grill
Executive Chef John Wright in the Kitchen of Glenwood Grill

The kitchen in the bustling neighborhood eatery Glenwood Grill is long and narrow. Stainless steel prep stations back up against four walls—one for produce, one for meat, one for seafood and one for rolling silverware.

A long metal line, in restaurant lingo, bisects the space, where cooks prep and assemble dishes before stashing them on an eye-level shelf, or window, ready for the servers. A double bowl sink and four-burner stove round it all out, creating an L-shape in the back corner.

But for the absence of storage coolers, this may sound like your typical restaurant kitchen. At no more than 800 square feet, though, it is remarkably tiny for a place that serves as many as 200 guests on a busy night.

“I’ve seen kitchens three times the size of this one, with the same amount of seats,” says executive chef John Wright, who has headed the Raleigh mainstay for twenty years. The Grill specializes in southern and Coastal Carolina-inspired cuisine. “No one, now, would build a kitchen this small. There’s no advantage to it, but you’re going to make do with what you’ve got.”

So where does Wright store all the food he uses to cook with?

On the back corner wall, between the sink and the stove, a door leads outside to a pathway to two garden shed-sized storage coolers. It’s still not much space, but Wright says this is how he ensures that the food he keeps, which is sourced locally from the mountains to the coast, is constantly fresh.

Wright and his staff have long since mastered a system that keeps things running smoothly during the busy lunch and dinner hours, six days a week. Three line cooks, a dishwasher or two, a busser, and two chefs are used to working on top of one another, day in and day out.

“It’s very, very organized, believe it or not,” Wright says. “If you get out of the system, it’s like throwing a kink in the chain.”

He also says that having seasoned staffers on hand—Wright has kitchen staffers and servers who have worked under him for more than 15 years, and manager Chris Klewicki has been with the Grill for nearly 20—is helpful.

“I have a great rapport with all of them,” Wright says. “It’s a good place to work but a hard place to get into, because we don’t have much turnover. That’s pretty rare in the restaurant business.”

Wright says he can’t think of another restaurant in Raleigh the size of his that has a comparably small kitchen. Despite its size, however, the kitchen in the Glenwood Village building has been doing its job for a long time—the space that now houses the Grill has always been a popular spot.

Through the 1980s, the space was known as Edwina’s Cuisine, Raleigh caterer and chef extraordinaire Edwina Worth Shaw’s first brick and mortar location, with only around 45 seats (compared to Wright’s 80). Among longtime Raleighites, Shaw is remembered for her mastery of French cooking, and she was one of the forerunners to the city’s now vibrant food scene.

In 1990, the Glenwood Village building was remodeled, and Glenwood Grill opened in the shopping center. Wright came onboard from Charleston, S.C. in 1997, and the restaurant has been booming ever since.

“Last year was our busiest year ever, and this year, we’re up substantially,” Wright says. He just finished updating the space, though there wasn’t much he could do about the kitchen.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t ever thought about having a bigger one.

“We have some opportunities to expand, but I can’t talk much about that,” Wright says. “But yes, absolutely I’d like to have a bigger kitchen. Right now, it’s wishful thinking but it would be a dream.”

For Raleigh foodies and out-of-towners who have frequented the spot for the past 30 years, it’s safe to say that, if an expanded Glenwood Grill were to open up somewhere, it would be a dream come true.

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