Feb 22, 2022 - News

Chef Sam Diminich is opening a restaurant a mile from where he used to be homeless

chef sam diminich

Photo courtesy of Sam Diminich

How it started is a series that takes a peek behind the curtain of Charlotte small businesses. It’s inspired by NPR’s How I Built This, a podcast hosted by Guy Raz.

Chef Sam Diminich is a personal chef for Christian McCaffrey, the owner of successful meal delivery and catering service called Your Farms Your Table, and in 2020 he beat Bobby Flay.

Now, he’s opening his own restaurant called Restaurant Constance, named after his daughter, in west Charlotte. He’s targeting a fall 2022 opening.

  • The menu will be dictated by the seasons, inspired by Sam’s farmers market finds. He hopes to have some staples on the menu, too, like oysters and sushi. 
  • The exact address is 2200 Thrift Rd. It’ll take over the original space of Counter- in The City Kitch, as Unpretentious Palate also reported last week.

Even without the new restaurant up and running yet, this is what a typical week day for Sam looks like:

  • 5-6am: wake up
  • 7am: Make breakfast for CMC
  • 9am: Workout for about an hour or so
  • Start shaping menu for YFYT
  • Produce meals for YFYT
  • 6pm: Make CMC’s dinner or other personal chef duties
  • 8pm: Administrative duties like working on new concept, merch, etc.
  • 11pm: Ben’s Friends support group meeting
  • Midnight/1am: Finally hit the hay

If you’re doing the math, that leaves less than five hours for sleep every night. Even so, Sam’s one of the most energized people I’ve ever met — the definition of grateful to be here.

  • No one appreciates life like someone who’s been close to losing theirs.

Sam started drinking and using drugs as a young teenager while he worked at his family’s Italian restaurant in Myrtle Beach.

  • He graduated high school in July 1994. One night in August, his dad walked by and said “school starts tomorrow.” He signed Sam up for a two-year culinary program at Harry Georgetown Tech in Conway, SC.

While Sam was in culinary school, he started working at French restaurant, which is where he really fell in love with cooking.

  • Couple years later, he entered a competition at Murrells Inlet and won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.

Sam came to Charlotte in 2004 and took a job at Dakota’s, now New South Kitchen & Bar. He was abstinent at the time, not using drugs or alcohol. But he told me he wasn’t doing the work to heal, either.

  • He relapsed in 2009 after being prescribed opiates for an injury.
  • In 2013, he became homeless. He couch surfed and lived on the streets of West Charlotte.
  • He was using opiates, heroin, crack and alcohol.

Sam was assaulted near the corner of Tuckaseegee Road and State Street in October 2014. He was accused of being an undercover cop. He spent seven days in the hospital with a third-degree concussion, a separated shoulder, 13 staples and other injuries.

  • He went back to the streets for a few days when he was released from the hospital.
  • “I didn’t want to die, so I called my parents,” Sam shared with me.
  • Nov. 16, 2014, Sam, age 38 at the time, entered treatment in Sumter, S.C. That was Day 1 of his sobriety.

He left treatment after six months, with $260 to his name. He rented a room, bought an air mattress and a track phone. It was all he had, that and an old TV and DVD player.

  • His first job out was at a calzone spot in South Carolina, but he wanted to get back to Charlotte to live near his two kids, who were still young at the time. They’re 14 and 18 now.

“I was trying to force my way back to Charlotte to get back to my kids,” Sam said. “So I was on Craigslist Charlotte, and I saw this job for a fine dining restaurant in Sumter.”

  • It was like the universe was telling him “not yet, Sam.” He had more work to do in South Carolina.
  • He got the job and had to relearn everything, starting as a line cook.

“I had nothing,” Sam said. “I went to Walmart to get shoes, and I went to Bed, Bath and Beyond and bought the shittiest knife I’ve ever had.”

He climbed the ranks, and used his end-of-year bonus to move back to Charlotte, where he found a job at Fran’s Filling Station (now Fat Cat).

  • Six months in, he started looking for new jobs on Craigslist again. This time, he saw a listing at Upstream. He had experience with the restaurant group, and they knew his story.
  • They took a chance on him again, on the condition he took a drug test and stayed sober.
chef sam diminich and his kids
Sam and his kids, Constance and Allan Grey. Courtesy of Sam Diminich

In 2020, when the pandemic started, Upstream let him go. In the months following, Sam started Your Farms Your Table, a local meal delivery service inspired by farm-fresh ingredients.

  • After hearing about YFYT, Christian McCaffrey reached out to Sam asked him to be his personal chef.

Part of YFYT’s mission is to connect people with nourishing meals, made from whatever’s at the farmers’ market. The menu changes daily.

  • But the foundation of the business is wellness and taking care of the people who work there — many of whom are in recovery.
  • “It has to start with our team, there’s no other option,” Sam said.

“The industry is notorious for substance abuse — for working hard, living harder,” Sam said.

  • He’s not focused on revenue; he’s focused on creating sustainable careers for the people in the food and beverage community. But if you’re curious, “when it comes down to finances, we’ve never done better,” Sam said.
sam diminich preparing food
Courtesy of Sam Diminich

In late 2020, Sam was delivering a meal for YFYT across the street from where he was assaulted years prior, where he’d nearly lost his life.

  • It brought him right back to the night of the assault. Flashbacks, fear — a whole range of emotions set in.

But the old Victorian house where it happened wasn’t there anymore.

  • For Sam, it was a jarring visual reminder that, just like the neighborhood, he’s different now, too.
  • “A new house there gave me new hope; it reinforced I’m on the right path,” Sam told me. “… That house doesn’t belong there anymore and neither does my identity.”

What’s next: Restaurant Constance will open later this year, only a mile from where Sam was homeless using drugs and alcohol.

  • Just like YFYT, the mission behind Restaurant Constance is to take care of food and beverage workers and tell the story of local food.
  • “If we’re just another restaurant that serves great food, I’ll be let down,” Sam said. He wants Restaurant Constance to transcend the transactional nature of dining. It’ll be all about creating meaningful connections through food.
  • He’s also starting a subscription-style club called the Farm Cult, launching early 2022. For $600 a year, you’ll get priority seating at Restaurant Constance, a monthly YFYT meal for two, and one six-course private meal prepared at your house by Sam.

“I pinch myself every day,” Sam said, “sometime’s multiple times a day.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Sumter, S.C.

Note: If you’re in recovery, Sam helps lead the local chapter of Ben’s Friends, a free support group for people in the food and beverage industry.

restaurant constance signage
Courtesy of Sam Diminich
  • Find information about national meetings here, and reach out to Sam at [email protected] if you’re interested in the Charlotte group.

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