The restaurant fairy tale of The Chef and The Frog begins in an ice cream parlor in France.
A Cambodian woman living in Paris and a French man who had just returned from studying abroad in the United States met in the parlor along Paris’ Champs-Elysees. Though each had a significant other, a year later they would marry.
Fast-forward three years, and Guillaume Slama and Sokun Nuon-Slama moved to Atlanta with dreams of opening a restaurant. Sokun would serve as executive chef, and Guillaume would manage the front of the house.
But dreaming was cheaper than reality. They grossly miscalculated the amount of money required and spent the next seven years working to save enough money to buy a restaurant.
That opportunity came in the form of a bed-and-breakfast just outside Athens, Georgia. Before long they were running several restaurants in town as well as a hotel. In a community that relied heavily on tourism, they were thriving.
But in 2008, as in all fairy tales, things took a turn for the worse. The financial crisis took a major toll on the region.
“It was as if someone had their hand on a faucet, and the flow of water just stopped,” Guillaume Slama said. “The real estate bubble burst, and revenue went down 90 percent. But we had faith in the economy. I had seen it bounce back before and believed that after a few months it would improve.”
That wasn’t the case.
The Slamas exhausted every option to keep the businesses afloat. Then, in walked a North Carolina businessman, who after dining several times at the hotel, delivered the Slamas a proposition – move to Whiteville, North Carolina, and reopen his restaurant – The Southern Kitchen.
After much consideration, the Slamas accepted the job and relocated to Whiteville in 2009. Following several months of renovations, The Southern Kitchen reopened, serving Cambodian eggrolls and Beef Bourguignon.
On opening day, one of their first customers, after looking over the menu, told Guillaume he should “fire that fancy chef and get a Southern cook in here.”
But 30 minutes later there was a line at the door.
“Everyone in town was calling each other saying, ‘The restaurant is open, the restaurant is open,’” Guillaume said.
As the sole restaurant in downtown Whiteville, it drew a lot of attention and quickly gained a loyal following. Sokun introduced customers to dishes from her homeland, such as Cambodian Beef prepared with lemongrass, bell peppers, onion, kefir lime leaves and jasmine rice and wowed them with her take on Southern classics like shrimp and grits.
But the restaurant was in disrepair, and as fate would have it, a group of VIPs were dining during a rainstorm. Above their table, the roof began to leak, soaking the plates and patrons.
The building’s owner was not willing to make the necessary repairs, and the Slamas hands were tied because they were recovering from their losses in Georgia.
Days later, the group that had been dining when the roof began to leak, along with several loyal patrons, came forward with an offer to help finance the purchase and renovation of the building across the street.
“What these people have done for us is unbelievable,” Guillaume said. “It really is a fairy tale.”
In all, it took about three years to complete the renovations and two years ago this month, The Chef and The Frog finally opened for business.
Four months later, a villain returned in the form of Hurricane Matthew. For the Slamas, everything stopped again.
“We had 2 feet of water on our side of the street and 4 feet on the other side,” Guillaume said. “All the bridges into Whiteville crumbled, and no one could come into town. We had no electricity. But again the town rallied together to ask us what we needed. It really is incredible how they’ve adopted us.”
The Slamas describe their food as a fusion of Asian and French along with a few Southern twists in a casual fine-dining atmosphere. They serve escargots, French onion soup, tuna tartare, fiery Thai shrimp, filet mignon, roasted pork belly and fried green tomatoes, making dining at The Chef and The Frog a multicultural adventure.
“This town is really coming back, and I think we have really become an anchor for them,” Guillaume said about downtown Whiteville.
Operating an upscale restaurant in rural Columbus County comes with a unique set of challenges, from access to ingredients to a limited labor pool. Guillaume said his food and wine costs are often higher than those of restaurants in Wilmington or Myrtle Beach because of the lack of competition among distributors.
“Because we’re in a rural area, people expect the food to be inexpensive,” he said. “But what they don’t realize is the added expenses we face just by being located in a rural community.”
While The Chef and The Frog has a loyal local following, the restaurant cannot survive on the support of locals alone. The restaurant depends upon travelers from out of town.
“What I’d really like for people to understand is that if you go to Europe, many of the best restaurants are not in the cities, they’re on the outskirts,” Guillaume said. “I would like for people to know that we’re worth the trip for the experience.”