Sparks flew on Charlotte’s culinary scene recently between two heavyweights of Black food culture. Celebrated chef Greg Collier and Hungry Black Man food critic Starex Smith traded shots in an intense verbal battle that lasted more than two hours (in two parts) on Friday, June 2. It was viewed on Facebook Live by at least 10,000 people.
At issue? The value of publicly criticizing Black-owned restaurants, which operate in an industry slow to accord respect, accolades or access to resources.
Smith, a South Florida-based social media influencer and restaurateur, was broadcasting from the dining room of newly reopened eatery Uptown Yolk. Founded by Greg and Subrina Collier, Uptown Yolk is a long-awaited iteration of the original Rock Hill breakfast spot (formerly known as The Yolk) that in 2012 heralded their entry into the rarified air of food industry elite.
More than a decade and four semi-finalist and one finalist James Beard nominations later, the Colliers are an undisputed culinary power couple. They’ve been praised for mentoring rising stars of color and their fine dining concept, Leah & Louise, was dubbed the No. 2 restaurant in America by Esquire magazine.
Smith, who has over 200,000 followers on social media, gave Uptown Yolk a mostly glowing review. “This is the best food I’ve had in Charlotte,” he remarked. Then he added: “This place is 10 times better than Leah & Louise.”
He particularly liked the waffles, Bird in the Hand chicken sandwich, and an omelet, though he took issue with a savory jam. It wasn’t his only point of complaint.
It’s also not the first time Smith has made disparaging comments about Charlotte’s Black restaurant scene. On an Instagram post, he commented that he “hated” Leah & Louise, and at other times poorly rated Cuzzo’s Cuisine and LaWan’s Soul Food. Cuzzo’s recently closed its doors unexpectedly following a fire. LaWan’s co-owner Kenneth Adams passed away from cancer May 28.
Impromptu roundtable: Starex Smith and Greg and Subrina Collier
When Collier learned of Smith’s presence, he invited himself to the table for a lengthy and pointed conversation that ranged from Black restaurants’ dearth of media coverage to the economic and cultural impacts of negative reviews.
“From a personal perspective as a business owner, I think a lot of us feel a way … You come into a Black-owned restaurant, you’re not going to always have a positive review because you’re not going to always like the food, right? But because your reach is what your reach is, you have the ability to mess people’s sales up,” Collier said.
“Me and Subrina have been doing this long enough and are fortunate that we’re mentioned with every group of food. Best chef in Charlotte? Best restaurant in Charlotte? Best Black restaurant in Charlotte? We’re mentioned. We’re fortunate in a way that everyone else is not,” he said. “Most Black businesses, especially Black restaurants, don’t have the platforms that other restaurants do.”
Almost an hour into the Facebook live, Subrina Collier joined the conversation. She voiced frustration with his vague “hate” comment.
“I feel like Black people should give one another a little more grace but I also want us to improve. I gotta be able to take the good and the bad but I just want the bad to be weighted. Even if it’s good — what did you like about it?” she said. “I appreciate still what [Smith is] doing — now, he’s pissed me off, but I do appreciate what he’s doing.”
Subrina referenced Smith’s recent takes on Mert’s and other restaurants in Charlotte. “I feel like it’s kinda harsh — it’s like coming to somebody’s house and talking s— in their house. … You can say what you want anywhere else, and I can’t control that. … To come to my house and go live and talk s— … that’s one thing I don’t agree with.”
Smith defended his practices, insisting that he upholds a standard for Black consumers, who often feel powerless.
“I want these people out of the industry that are in the way, taking your customers. Because guess what you’re doing? You’re paying your servers livable wages, just like me at my restaurant,” he said.
“At the end of the day, there’s things that all of us can do better but I can’t change the way that I report simply because of someone’s personal feelings,” Smith said. “You open a business, you open yourself for public discourse. There is nothing else to it.”
What do you think? Send us an email and let us know, and check back soon for a broader discussion with the Colliers and Smith, as well as food innovators and scholars across the country.
This story was originally published June 12, 2023, 5:30 AM.