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Charlotte Chef Serves Fresh, Local Meals — And Second Chances

sam with art stovetop.jpg
Sarah Delia
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Sam Diminich had an artistic version of the photo of his stovetop created.

For Sam Diminich, the year 2020 began on a high note. For starters, the 44-year-old Charlotte chef was featured on the cooking competition show "Beat Bobby Flay" on the Food Network.

In front of a live audience, Diminich went head-to-head against celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Not only was Diminich a strong competitor, he won.

On top of that, Diminich was the executive chef of Upstream Restaurant, a high-end seafood restaurant in Charlotte's SouthPark area. That was a position he had worked hard to get to.

Then in March, the pandemic hit. You can probably guess what happened next.

“So, I remember we had a meeting, an emergency meeting on Sunday, and that we were going to close for lunch,” Diminich said. “And then by that Tuesday, we all found out really via email that we were going to close up. It was a shutdown, we would not be retained. My next instinct was to figure out how the hell am I going to feed my kids?”

Upstream Restaurant ended up closing for good due to the pandemic.

And Diminich went into survival mode.

“You know, to understand all that, you would have to understand my backstory,” he said. “My backstory is this: I had already lost everything. I was already homeless, you know what I mean? And I wasn't going back to that.”

The life Diminich refused to go back to was one littered with drug use and alcoholism. He became homeless in 2013 after years of substance abuse issues. He lived on the streets of west Charlotte off and on for about a year and a half.

“I was into heroin and I was into crack, and so I did unlawful things to support my habit,” Diminich said. “When I slept, I slept in the gas station bathroom, or I'd go find a chair at the emergency room at Presbyterian or something like that. It was just ... it was just rough.”

Diminich, who has two children, recalls seeing his daughter during that period.

“It was a Saturday morning, she saw me at a gas station,” Diminich said. “She saw me, I saw them. And then I pretended like I didn't see them. You know, it was one of those situations where it was really emotional. And I was asked to go back to the house and shower up and get some help, and I wasn't ready to do that. So I didn't, and I left.”

Diminich was assaulted while living on the streets. And he worried that would only get worse. He reached out to his family, who helped him get a bus ticket to Myrtle Beach, where he is originally from.

“When I left the west side of Charlotte it wasn’t because I wanted to get sober, that was not in my plans. It was because I didn’t want to die,” he said. “So it wasn’t like I had grand plans of getting sober and living this life as a chef on the Food Network and owning my own business. It was, 'I don’t want to die.' I didn't want my kids to bury me and I wasn't ready to go. And so I took a chance and rolled the dice and got on that bus.”

stillhere_stovetop.jpg
Sarah Delia
Sam Diminich keeps this photo close to remind him of the humble beginnings of Your Farms Your Table.

He spent about six months in a treatment center that changed his life. What he learned there stuck.

Which is why when Diminich was suddenly without a job in March of 2020, he immediately took action. He drove out to an Amazon warehouse in Charlotte to try to find work. But lots of people had the same idea, it turns out. He remembers a line out the door. He says he was one of that last people who got into the building that day.

The good news was he got a job.The bad news was it wouldn’t start for two weeks.

But not all bad news is actually bad news.

“Like, if they started me that day, then I would have accepted and we wouldn't be here right now, probably,” he said.

In the time before he was supposed to start his new job at Amazon, he had an idea. It came to him while talking to a friend who is a farmer — a farmer who was also scrambling to figure out what to do next.

“And the reason why is because he had 26 wholesale accounts all shut down throughout the Charlotte area,” he said. “So he had a whole season of crops, you know, that he had harvested and then a whole other season in the ground. And so all of that was, in a sense, robbed from him in that moment.”

Diminich bought what he could from his friend and begin tinkering with a menu. He thought, what if he could keep doing this and not only support himself and famers but also provide fresh, local meals delivered to the community at an affordable price?

That’s how his new business Your Farms Your Table came to be. Customers in the Charlotte area can log onto the Your Farms Your Table website and order a three-course meal for $30.

And it’s not just about keeping it local and affordable, he says. Your Farms Your Table also aims to help those newly sober. Almost all the drivers who work for him are in the early stages of their recovery, Diminich says, which ranges from one to two years of sobriety.

“And what happens there is that somebody that’s newly in recovery — that doesn't know how to balance a checkbook yet, doesn’t know how to pay their bills yet, doesn’t know how to show up to work on time yet — can come into a place where you have like-minded individuals,” Diminich said. “(People) who are accepting and show grace but are still assertive. And, you know, we all have jobs to do, can present said person with a schedule, say, ‘OK, you have 25 hours a week at $15 an hour. Now this is how you budget your life.’”

Those are some of the skills he had to learn when he got sober in November of 2014.

Even with as much success as Diminich achieved during a global pandemic, there were plenty of rough spots too. His mother passed away in June of 2020 due to complications with alcoholism.

“She was an isolated drinker," he said. "And I knew that she was lonely, I just couldn't get to her, you know. So, I had to process all that.”

He was never tempted to use, Diminich says, but had a lot to work through. He did that with the help of Ben’s Friends, a fellowship of restaurant workers who are in recovery. The group held virtual meetings where people could check in throughout the pandemic.

“Somebody would log on and it would be Day 1 of getting sober in the middle of a pandemic — which is mind boggling that people are doing that,” he said. “You know, I got sober in normal life and it was still the hardest thing I've ever done in my time.”

sandy.jpg
Sarah Delia
Sam Diminich's dog Sandy is a rescue who never leaves his side.

He also credits Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him maintain his sobriety; he continues to mentor a few young men as they navigate their own sobriety.

And cooking, of course, continues to provide for him in ways he never could have imagined.

Sitting in his apartment surrounded by cookbooks, family photos, and his dog, Sandy, who is quietly curled up on his couch, he points to a framed photo of his home stove. In the picture, there are a few pots and pans. This is where he created and cooked up the idea for Your Farms Your Table.

“That’s a picture of what I started out with," Diminich said. "I keep it by the stove to remind me every single day to keep moving forward — and that the best is yet to come.”

He now operates out a commercial kitchen in west Charlotte. It's not far from where he once lived before he got sober — yet it’s light years away.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.