I heard a car and the distinctive barking of four German shepherds coming up the driveway. Out from the car came Chef Baptist Knaven and his wife, and he (quite unsuccessfully) tried to temper the energy of his four energetic hounds before introducing himself.
“Call me Baptist. Are you vaccinated?” I nodded, and we both took off our masks. He led me through the back door, through the inside of a brightly painted house of yellow and red, and offered me a seat in the front patio.
While the location did not have a proper sign, I knew I had found the right place for the new French restaurant to open in town: I was greeted by a metal rooster sculpture, an homage to the Gallic rooster, of course. Chef Baptist Knaven’s soon-to-open Mosaic Cafe & Bistro of Carrboro, North Carolina was tucked in an unassuming spot on West Weaver Street. Located just outside the central parts of downtown Carrboro, Knaven graciously sat down with me to explain not just Mosaic’s exciting new food but also the entire philosophy behind his work.
Before Mosaic, Knaven’s place was home to Provence of Carrboro, a French establishment often frequented by people on special occasions–or those with much disposable income.
A French couple opened Provence back in 2002, and Knaven later bought the entire restaurant in 2012. From its beginning, Provence was always operated as a staple of Carrboro’s food scene. However, over the years, Knaven intentionally brought gradual changes to try to make French cuisine more accessible to a broader audience. For Knaven, reinventing Provence as Mosaic was the natural next step, and COVID-19 only accelerated that opportunity.
Mosaic is a cafe during the day, and a bistro in the evening, and that’s when Knaven really believes the adventure will kick in. To decrease the formality, the bistro offers a simpler menu than what was served at Provence. Mosaic is still a destination, but the atmosphere is meant to be younger, less stiff, and more adventurous–especially when it comes to food.
Knaven wants to create “an explosion of excitement” by focusing on made-in-house small plates for the bistro menu, along with larger entrées. These casual and easy-going appetizer-style plates are essential to creating what Knaven wants to be a communal experience: whereas people often get their own dishes, two to four people at Mosaic can order six to eight plates to share.
Mosaic also features a simpler wine selection, especially those that can be paired with a wider range of dishes. This signals another marked change from Provence, which had over 180 different wines. Mosaic’s wines touch each region of the world, but there are only twenty whites by glass, twenty reds by glass, and 30 to 40 wines by the bottle. These broader wines are not only food-friendly but also make for easier choices. Simplicity, Knaven emphasized, is the ultimate goal for customers. If not simplicity, Knaven asked rhetorically, then what’s at the core of a great culinary experience? Knaven hopes that the choice for people will be simple. He hopes that people may say,
“‘I don’t know what to eat for tonight, but let’s go to Mosaic.’”
Knaven grew up in the Netherlands, and while not initially interested in food as a career, he was surrounded by food as a child. The youngest of four children, Baptist Knaven grew up in a relatively empty nest, and his mother often worked in the evenings. It was mainly his father who was busy in the kitchen. A couple of times a week, Papa Knaven would also take him out to dinner to taste the restaurant world. Through these experiences, the culture of food and restaurants was inculcated early in his life.
During college, though, food was not a huge focus for Knaven, and his initial career had nothing to do with restaurants. Still, for all the huge parties thrown during his previous professional life, Knaven was always in charge of the preparation and cooking. Living in Amsterdam was also a formative experience in international cuisine. Combined with his work-related travels, Knaven had multiple opportunities to taste flavors from all around the world.
After transitioning to freelance work for several years in the restaurant business, Knaven decided that he wanted to open a restaurant with his wife. Even when the details and logistics weren’t completely laid out, there was one thing Knaven knew he wanted, and that was to open that restaurant before his fortieth birthday.
Finally, things started to fall in place. With the help of Knaven’s in-laws, Knaven, his wife, and their toddler moved to Morehead City, North Carolina, where their first restaurant was to be located.
Knaven–at thirty-eight–got his first taste of opening his own restaurant. In his previous profession, Knaven already worked odd hours, so working on holidays, evenings, and weekends was nothing new for Knaven. Broadly, his food was based on the small-plate, antipasto style of Mediterranean cuisine that included influences from regions in the Mediterranean coast (Spanish, Italian, Greek, the South of France, Northern Africa).
And what followed was an exploration of what “authenticity” meant to Knaven. “It wasn’t that all the dishes were authentic [at my first restaurant], and there was very little authentic cuisine in that area to begin with,” Knaven explained, but that was not an excuse to stop striving to bring unknown dishes and to introduce different flavors to the area.
However, the reception to his culinary philosophy was rather cool in a small Southern town of just ten thousand. Knaven reflected on his early doubts: who would want to try roasted eggplant spread or fried sardines when most residents there grew up with fish that was fried, boiled, or steamed; shrimp fried, boiled, or steamed; or scallops fried, boiled, or steamed. How people grew up eating coincided with difficulties getting people to try unfamiliar dishes, but Knaven did not want to compromise the authenticity of the dishes. This disconnect, Knaven argued, would often cause many restaurants to lose sight of their original identity and cater too much to the relatively plain, American palate. He joked that he felt like he had to open a KFC during those early days–in the name of authenticity.
To illustrate his point on the lack of authentic food (even for the free-spirited town of Carrboro, let alone Morehead City), Knaven asked me where I am from. I was born in the US, but my parents came from two Chinese provinces with vastly different food profiles.
“Exactly!” Knaven’s sage-like persona suddenly became animated, “what does ‘Chinese’ food even mean? The stir-fry you find at a ‘Chinese’ restaurant? No, that’s the ‘Americanization’” of a much more diverse spectrum of distinct cuisines.”
Knaven also tried to introduce new flavors to the Morehead City and greater Carteret County community by forming a relationship with the director of Carteret County Community College’s culinary department. While it seemed like your average community college, Knaven said that the community college’s culinary program was comparable to the leading culinary schools around the US.
When the program was closed over the summer, the director would also work at Knaven’s restaurant. When the school was open, Knaven would teach an international cuisine course at the community college. Their syllabus was organized by country, area or province, and weekly lunches were prepared by students: A head chef would pick which dishes to prepare from their chosen region. Twenty other students would help prepare the meal.
After he started teaching, he noticed a more diverse food scene in Carteret County. Within the last ten years, his former students have held great culinary positions, contributing to even more change in the local restaurant scene.
The international cuisine course–like his restaurant–was overly ambitious in trying to represent many influences from so many places. That being said, his goal as an instructor was to instill the intent to create dishes that reflected their places of origin. He enjoyed introducing new cultures to these young people through his class, since for many, if you were born in Carteret County, you would live there for the rest of your life. It was even a rarity to go outside the county to a neighboring one. Compared to Amsterdam–a cosmopolitan city of diverse foods, cultures, and religions–the community of Carteret County was an enormous culture shock.
“In Amsterdam, you can find twelve Ethiopian restaurants, each one with a distinct Ethiopian profile,” Knaven went on to describe, “but in general most people in Carteret –and even [in Carrboro]–just say ‘we’re going ethnic tonight, Chinese or Ethiopian?’”
So how did Knaven become interested in French cuisine, and what does French cuisine mean to Knaven? French cuisine is often marketed to Americans as poshy and uptight, limiting its audience to upper-middle-class families. “For the most part,” Knaven recalled from his culinary studies in France, “unless you’re in the big cities of France–Paris, Lyon, Nice–fancy restaurants are far and few in the rest of France.”
Knaven compared cuisine of the rest of France–the simple, rustic dishes–to a mule with a carriage. Quality was the golden rule. When Knaven first thought about plans to rethink Provence, he wanted to tackle the perception that French cuisine was exclusive.
The stereotype, Knaven thought, could be explained by how French cuisine is often considered to be a culinary art form. “The French were the first to standardize and experiment with food,” Knaven explained, “but the goal of these efforts was to actually make it easier for the average cook to make delicious meals at home.”
One of the pioneers of this movement was Auguste Escoffier, whom Knaven described as the “great-great-grandfather of modern French cuisine.” Escoffier standardized, simplified, and modernized French cooking methods. His tour de force was the creation of the Five Mother Sauces–the basis for nearly every sauce in Western cuisine. Once you can make a hollandaise, Knaven said, then you could make twenty other sauces. The same is true for the béchamel! As far as complexity, you just needed to be able to read Escoffier’s cookbook, which also included methods on how to break down a cow, a pig, a deer, and more. Since there were no restaurants in the early 19th century, home was where Escoffier’s food was meant to be.
While he enjoyed his time at Carteret County, Knaven never fully recovered from the culture shock. It was in Carrboro where Knaven found the community to be more international and multicultural. However, he was quick to add that even Carrboro was not a place he will be forever bonded to, for he’s a “survivor” who can find roots “wherever.”
His adventurous spirit corresponded with his exploration of the “source of food” rather than the “culture of food.” Comparing the evolution of food to the evolution of life (his daughter is a brilliant evolutionary biologist), Knaven argued that only when we travel to places can we fully understand why and how the food originated. Only when we have the curiosity to explore the flour and wheat grown in France can we even fathom duplicating a dupe of a baguette in the US.
Staking out a piece of land in one place comes at the cost of giving up exploring other places. “In order for evolution to grow, we have to go to other places,” Knaven emphatically said. The best Japanese restaurants in Europe cannot compare to even the average restaurant in Japan. The atmosphere of going to a “mom and pop” restaurant in a small Italian village is that of eating in someone’s restaurant and house, where the owner might ask if you would like to try a bottle of wine from his brother’s vineyard nearby. How can one innovate if the evolution of food will continually be based on a falsified notion of that place?
Knaven resides with his wife in Carrboro, and they have a little place of their own in the countryside. While Knaven himself does not miss his past, he still senses a lack of culture and art in the area. Pointing to an unkempt, piece of land of sprawling grass, Knaven argues that we don’t take care of our global community by neglecting our own. He called for people to fix their community, the school system (yes, the one I’m from, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools), as opposed to emphasis on trivial things, like the new shiny objects large companies market to solve problems that didn’t actually exist.
In Morehead City (where he stayed for six years), before every shift, the crew had dinner together. After every shift, they had a drink and a laugh. He paused, and before he continued, he took a moment to appreciate how his wife continues to tolerate his odd working hours (and that was duly noted in my notebook). The same was true for the camaraderie at Provence.
Compared to the exhilaration of opening his first restaurant, Knaven said that his zeal has been tamed by his experience in the restaurant industry. His current focus gravitates to how his business can actually contribute to his community (wherever that may be). When restaurants had to close in March 2020 (with takeout and delivery only), Provence felt the tightening of their budget. In the fall, they were able to open the patio but could only operate at limited capacity indoors. For a fifty-seat restaurant, it became unsustainable to serve only a dozen clients. The first draw from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) allowed Knaven to buy time. However, the bad weather, talks of a second draw from the PPP, and no money left in the bank by December forced Provence’s temporary closing to become a permanent one.
Knaven talked to the front of house manager, kitchen manager, and the sous-chef to put forward a plan to rebrand to a younger crowd. “Let’s reinvent,” Knaven proposed, “how people perceive French cuisine. Let’s have people invest their money in Carrboro they otherwise would spend elsewhere.”
To make his new restaurant more vibrant, Knaven emphasized that this was an opportunity for the community. “I didn’t lose sleep over the loss of the restaurant–I lost sleep over the loss of jobs, for the fifteen people [who worked at Provence].”
When I exited the restaurant, the Gallic rooster glanced back at me as if to reaffirm the restaurant’s French identity, but the unfinished building reminded me of all of Knaven’s new ideas for new beginnings. Ultimately, all of these influences will create a bold and unique cafe and bistro for everyone to enjoy.