A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_165499" align="alignright" width="300"] Owner Charles Sullivan and his cousin, Chef Alzadia Ledbetter, are carrying on a family food tradition.[/caption] The Bible verse on Tisha Tate’s uniform reads “Thanks be

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_165499" align="alignright" width="300"] Owner Charles Sullivan and his cousin, Chef Alzadia Ledbetter, are carrying on a family food tradition.[/caption] The Bible verse on Tisha Tate’s uniform reads “Thanks be

Food for the Soul at Victory Kitchen

Owner Charles Sullivan and his cousin, Chef Alzadia Ledbetter, are carrying on a family food tradition. photograph by Tim Robison

The Bible verse on Tisha Tate’s uniform reads “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory.” As she moves from table to table on a Saturday morning, greeting her guests, the taste of homecoming and celebration is in the air. Scents of bacon and coffee mingle with sounds of laughter and conversation as Tisha places a hand on a customer’s shoulder, offering a steaming refill for an empty cup.

Victory Kitchen, the Rutherford County restaurant known as much for its warm hospitality as its home-cooked Southern meals, is about a 20-minute drive from the Lake Lure Welcome Center on a two-lane road that winds through rolling countryside. At 9 on this Saturday morning, the windows of old farmhouses are still dark. The local library, hosting a stuffed-animal sleepover, is closed. An American flag drapes lazily beside a resort sign. The area is so quiet at this hour that it’s easy to imagine that the whole county is asleep. But follow the road to the top of a hill and pull into the parking lot beside the white farmhouse with a low front porch and a red OPEN sign blinking in the window. Step inside and discover a cozy dining room humming with life.

Charles’s daughter Charlene Mayse serves and works the register. photograph by Tim Robison

Victory Kitchen & Restaurant got its name from Tisha’s brother, Christopher Brown, who opened the place in 2016 after retiring from the Marines and returning from Fayetteville to his hometown of Rutherfordton. He’d served for 23 years — most recently in Afghanistan, where he attended Sunday services on base at a place called Victory Chapel. The restaurant is a family affair. Chris’s sisters Tisha and Charlene serve and work the register, and his cousins Jackie and Alzadia make magic in the kitchen with meals that the family matriarch, Vassie, raised them on: livermush sandwiches, homemade chicken salad, shrimp and grits with fried cornbread. The latter is particularly popular this morning.

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A soldier like Chris might find victory on a battlefield, but to Tisha, the Bible verse on her shirt reminds her of the kindest, safest place she’s ever known: her Grandma Vassie’s house, where she woke on Sunday mornings to piano notes and Vassie’s uplifting voice singing “Victory in Jesus,” her favorite gospel song. Vassie was a tall, proud woman who cooked and sang like nobody else. She was also the glue that kept the family together after her brother, who worked at the local sawmill, died of gangrene, leaving behind a wife and nine children, with one more on the way. Vassie triumphed over scarcity by creating abundance for loved ones. Food, faith, and family were what she taught by example. She showed that a great meal can nourish the spirit as well as the body; that the light of faith can guide us through dark times; and that, more than blood, loving service is what makes a family. And when relations would get tangled up, Vassie was the one who would speak up and straighten things out.

Find Southern comfort food and warm hospitality at Victory Kitchen. photograph by Tim Robison

A few years after Chris opened Victory Kitchen, he fell in love and moved away. His father, Charles Sullivan, stepped in to keep the restaurant going. These days, Charles also gets help from Vangie, his fiancée, as well as from his granddaughter Aniyah, when she’s not attending high school classes. Running a restaurant may seem like a strange choice for Charles, a guy who started out pushing a lawn mower 40 years ago and built a landscaping business that lasted decades — enough time to get to know most everybody in the area. The late-career switch was a leap of faith. But Charles’s good name preceded him; the restaurant quickly filled with families whose lawns he’d once tended.

The generosity of the community doesn’t surprise Charles. Locals also stood by him years ago when the company he worked for was sold and he suddenly turned to contracting. “I grew up in a place without prejudice,” he says, adding that he expects that may be hard to believe coming from a Black man in his 60s. Charles still vividly recalls hovering around Vassie’s kitchen with his white buddies, waiting to taste her fried chicken. Raised in nearby Rutherfordton, Charles only left the area once — to live for a year in Sarasota, Florida — and says that he’ll never make the mistake of leaving again.

Visitors to Victory Kitchen enjoy their morning coffee in the restaurant’s homey dining room. photograph by Tim Robison

He’s discovered that his mountain community trusts him not only with their landscaping needs, but now also with their appetites. And he returns their trust by operating a farm stand beside the restaurant, where he sells vegetables from his garden and from local farmers. The sign next to the screened door reads “Self-Service Today,” and customers can step inside anytime they wish to select from fresh produce or jams, sweet potato butter or bacon salsa, cold sodas or handmade birdhouses. Visitors tally their bill in the sun-faded spiral notebook on the counter. They sign their names, add their cash to the stack of bills in the middle drawer, and count out their own change. It’s an honor system that works, something else about which to feel … victorious.

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This morning, the Matthews family sits at a long table inside Victory Kitchen with their grandchildren, who expect at least one meal at the restaurant when they’re visiting from a nearby community. Dave Matthews first met Charles decades ago, when the two were strong young men. In a phone call more recently, Dave told Charles about some heavy equipment in his garage that he could no longer move on his own. The next day, Charles showed up with guys he’d hired to help, and they got the job done. That’s life in Rutherford County: People lend one another a hand, knowing that what goes around comes around.

Alzadia — or Zate, as everybody calls her — cooked at a local resort for years before joining the family business. Though her Aunt Vassie died more than a decade ago, Zate still feels her spirit in the kitchen. When she can’t quite recall the secret ingredient in a family recipe, it comes to her like a whisper over her shoulder. And there’s no better way to honor Vassie’s memory, Zate says, than by bringing people together for food and friendship.

Popular dishes like shrimp and grits with fried cornbread are inspired by Charles’s mother, Vassie. photograph by Tim Robison

Each Friday night, the Victory Kitchen menu features seafood specials, and the crew makes brisket, ribs, and pulled pork right on the premises. This morning, Zate emerges from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and greets regulars Fred and Doris at their corner table. Fred has brought his own berries to sprinkle on top of the special oatmeal that Zate made with his dietary restrictions in mind.

After eating, visitors can stop by Charles Sullivan’s farm stand outside and pick up some fresh, locally grown produce on the honor system. photograph by Tim Robison

For some, the word “victory” may mean a medal or a trophy. For others, it’s a shout of hallelujah or a whispered, heartfelt prayer. Victory is written all over Zate’s face, and on her, it looks like working with love and joy in service to others. Charles tastes victory over his hard times whenever he empties the cash drawer in his farm stand or moves from table to table to greet friends and family.

The secret to Victory Kitchen’s success, Charles says, is simple: He treats people like he wants to be treated. And none of it, he adds, would be possible without family by his side. His people — not just blood relatives but also beloved community — stood by him through the lean years, so he does all that he can to do right by them in prosperous times.

It’s likely that Charles’s air of gratitude is why silver-haired Ester Jackson from South Carolina is back for breakfast after dining for the first time at Victory Kitchen last night. As she and her husband inspect the menu, Mrs. Jackson hits on exactly what makes the little farmhouse kitchen so special: “This place,” she says, “reminds me of home.”

Victory Kitchen
959 Buffalo Creek Road
Lake Lure, NC 28746
(828) 436-5023
facebook.com/victorykitchen1

This story was published on Feb 27, 2023

Krista Bremer

Krista Bremer is the associate publisher of The Sun magazine and author of A Tender Struggle: Story of a Marriage.