Chef Antawn Hairston has taken the helm at Mac & Nelli’s in Winston-Salem, and his new menu came out last week.
Mac & Nelli’s, 4926 Country Club Road, has been in business since 2011. Owners Lori and Art Shaver opened it at Robinhood Village shopping center with other partners. But they bought out the partners and, in December 2014, moved to the Harper Hill Commons center near the intersection of Country Club and Peacehaven Roads, giving the restaurant more visibility.
“This is a casual American restaurant and sports bar,” Lori Shaver said. It’s a popular place to grab some wings, drink a beer and catch a game on television. Multiple TVs broadcast a good selection of sports — the restaurant offers the NFL Sunday Ticket and pay-per-view boxing matches.
The menu has reflected the sort of bar-nosh core foods typical of a sports hangout. The 35-cent wing nights, Mondays and Wednesdays, are two of the restaurant’s busiest times. Nachos, burgers and Buffalo chicken dip also have proved popular, as well as the prime rib served on weekends.
All of those items made the move to the new menu with chef Hairston, but many of the existing dishes have been updated. Hairston also has simultaneously tightened the sprawling menu, weeding out a few dishes, and added more variety with the introduction of some of his personal favorites.
A few months ago, Shaver was struggling with her kitchen help, and she said she was lucky to find Hairston. “This is a tough business,” she said. “It can be hard to find good help.”
Hairston, 45, found his calling about 10 years ago. And by all accounts, he found it just in time. “I was homeless. It was me and my dog and as many clothes as I could carry with me.”
Hairston is a native of Clemmons and graduate of West Forsyth High School. As a young man, he did construction, worked as a technician in a center for Alzheimer’s patients, and worked other jobs. But at some point, things went sour for him. “I was young, stupid and hangin’ with a dumb crowd,” he said.
In 2008, when someone had taken him in temporarily, he happened to see a TV news segment about Triad Community Kitchen (now Providence Culinary Training), a program of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina. The program, founded by chef Jeff Bacon, is designed to offer professional culinary training — and a second chance — to people who need it, whether they be homeless, ex-convicts or others.
“I was sitting there having breakfast and I saw that on TV,” Hairston said. Something clicked and before he knew it, he was applying for the program.
“I had always wanted to do cooking,” he said. “All I think about is food.”
Under the tutelage of Bacon and his staff, Hairston thrived. After graduating in 2008, he worked with Tim Grandinetti at Twin City Quarter before going to work at Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro. He spent four years at Mozelle’s, moving up from line cook to lead line cook to sous chef.
When Tre Nonne opened in January 2016, owner Tony Maresca hired Hairston as the head chef. In 2017, Hairston took over the kitchen at Tanglewood Pizza Co.
Early this year, Mack Parker hired him to help out at Diamondback Grill. He also was working weekends at Mozelle’s when the Shavers hired him. Initially, he was just going in to Mac & Nelli’s a couple of days a week, but he soon found himself knee-deep in a menu makeover. With three jobs, plus volunteer teaching at Providence Culinary Training, Hairston was overworked. Something had to give.
“I was stretching myself too thin. I loved everything I was doing, but it was too much,” he said.
He decided that Mac & Nelli’s needed his full attention, though he continues to occasional volunteer teach.
Two months later, Hairston said he has worked out all the kinks in the kitchen. “I feel really good about my kitchen staff,” which includes Providence alumni and others he has worked with elsewhere.
The new menu maintains the Mac & Nelli identity while injecting some of Hairston’s culinary personality into the mix. New appetizers include cheesesteak egg rolls made with prime rib ($12); fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese and house-made pepper jam ($11); and three little pigs ($12), Hairston’s Southern take on nachos with pulled pork, applewood bacon, jalapenos and pimento cheese sauce over crispy house-made pork rinds.
He has introduced several new sandwiches, including the Southern BLT ($10) with fried green tomatoes and the country Cuban ($11) with pulled pork.
The menu also has more vegetarian options, including a black bean burger ($9), sun-dried tomato pesto pasta ($11) and veggie pesto flatbread ($11).
Among the new entrees are Jamaican jerk tacos, available with chicken or shrimp ($11 and $13, respectively).
The brunch menu, served Saturday and Sunday, has a particularly large number of new items. They include fresh biscuits with house-made sausage gravy ($11), and Southern Benedict ($12) with fried green tomatoes, country ham and red-eye gravy. Brunch also includes a rich and creamy shrimp and cheesy grits ($14).
“I like basic Southern comfort food,” Hairston said. “I like bringing back things I had as a kid and maybe putting my own twist on it.”
Shaver feels fortunate she found Hairston when she did. “I’ve always wanted someone like him — who is so passionate about food,” she said. “It’s not just a job to him.”
Bacon visited the restaurant last week to check out the new menu and say hello to his former pupil. “Antawn is incredibly talented,” he said. “With each job, he has grown with each step.”
Bacon also said that Hairston enriches the community, by his volunteer teaching, and with many speaking engagements in which he shares his story. “He’s good at cooking, but he’s also got something else that’s special.”