“Here I am – 50 years old and starting a restaurant, and then COVID happened. It’s kind of crazy.” – Christa Csoka of The Artisan’s Palate
COVID-19 and the attendant economic fallout have pummeled restaurants, galleries and artists. So, a hybrid restaurant/art gallery has been dealt a double whammy.
But The Artisan’s Palate owner Christa Csoka (pronounced “Cho-kuh”), daughter of a U.S. Army colonel who taught at West Point, is both tough and agile.
With the support of her staff, she closed her NoDa space – which had been open for just a year – for a short time before and after the New Year with the hope the closure was temporary.
They were right. Csoka dreamed of this for too long – 30 years, to be exact – to let a pandemic and a recession stop her. The café/wine bar/tapas restaurant is again open for business.
A Gift for Hospitality and Leadership
Csoka developed a knack for hospitality at a young age. Her family entertained West Point cadets almost weekly. “Making people happy through food was always my love,” she said.
While she’s a culinary artist, trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, she doesn’t consider herself a visual artist.
“I always knew I wanted to combine art and food,” she said. “When I first moved to Charlotte in 2003, I went to NoDa for gallery crawls and loved that. I was working with my dad in his leadership consulting business and sort of got disconnected from my dream.”
After her father had a stroke (from which he’s recovered), she decided it was “now or never.”
Like so many have of late, Csoka pivoted. “I learned a lot from having worked for my dad’s company,” she said. “That’s one of the things we taught – how to adapt to your new reality.”
“So here I am,” she continued. “Fifty years old and starting a restaurant, and then COVID happened. It’s kind of crazy.”
The Business End of Creativity
When opening The Artisan’s Palate, Csoka wanted to feed her patrons amazing food. She wanted to provide space where local artists could display their work and find an audience.
Each artist shown in the gallery gets a one-person show for a month with (in normal times) an opening and a closing reception.
Csoka’s found that marketing and selling art are often scary challenges for artists. They don’t always know how to price their work. They often price too low. That’s something Csoka understands.
“My art is my food, and sometimes it’s hard to price that,” she said. “We tell artists: You can’t raise the price once you’ve set it. You can always go lower.”
“We require our artists to get prints made,” she said. “And that’s been really successful. People may not be able to spend $3,000 for an original painting, but they’ll pay $100 for a limited-edition signed print. ”
Csoka has a few requirements of artists. They have to fill the entire space with their art, and the pieces have to tell a story. “The art needs to be cohesive,” she said. “There needs to be a purpose to it.”
Making Space for Emerging Artists
The artists given shows at The Artisan’s Palate are at different stages of their careers. “A couple of months ago, Dakotah Aiyanna, who painted [the first L] in the Black Lives Matter mural, had a show here. This her first show. But she has something to say, and she says it beautifully. She sold quite a bit. I was very proud of that.”
“We’ve given a few artists their first show, and that’s kind of cool.”
A 15-year-old glass artist, Elijah Kell, sold more than any other artist since the gallery has been open. The gallery has also held shows for painters and photographers. Jay Watson, a woodworker who built the gallery’s barn door, and Sam Sykes, a metal artist who created the interior signage and planters on the exterior, will soon have their own shows.
Feeding Body and Soul
Who’s curating these shows? Csoka is.
“I’m the curator, chef, dishwasher, bartender and gardener,” Csoka joked. “Not really; I have a terrific staff. But I created all the drinks and named them after friends. I want to make people happy, whether it’s through art, food, music or cocktails.”
Csoka described her menu as heavy on “elevated comfort food, with an emphasis on local ingredients, and a dash of whimsy.” Bacon-wrapped dates, shrimp and grits and pork belly are favorites. Skillet meatballs “have lots of mozzarella cheese and some bread for sopping up the sauce.”
The gallery isn’t hosting events now. Prior to the pandemic, they played host to monthly opening nights for their featured artists. “We’ve been really diligent about no more than 10 people in the gallery,” she said. “But still, every single artist that has shown in our gallery, before and since COVID, has sold.”
How You Can Help
Like all restaurateurs, Csoka relies on the community. She invites you to visit if you feel comfortable. Artisan’s Palate has garage doors that the staff opens when the weather’s warm. And when it’s not, outdoor heaters help. They require guests to wear masts, but don’t worry. If you forget yours, they’ll provide one.
“It’s hard,” Csoka said. “I know people don’t feel comfortable right now with [COVID] numbers going up. People can always come in and buy the artwork or buy retail coffee or wine. If you’re not comfortable eating in, getting takeout is great, although that’s not where restaurants make money. The truth is: I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I had one.”
More Bites of Artisan’s Palate
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