Who the Hell is Dion Sprenkle?
Last week I drove out to Lexington for a visit with Chef Dion Sprenkle with just two questions on my mind: How did Sprenkle, a relative unknown — at least to me and literally everyone I asked about him — manage to win Best Chef in our Best of the Triad reader’s Poll? And why would anyone want to start a fine-dining restaurant in Lexington, best know for its barbecue and because it sits in the middle of Davidson County, where alcohol sales are still forbidden.
I don’t claim to be the Triad’s foremost expert on the culinary scene, but I do try to keep abreast of what’s happening. And when something seismic like this happens — past Best Chef winners include high-profile kitcheneers Leigh Hesling and will Kingery — I know I’m missing something big.
Sprenkle’s eponymous restaurant has been open just over a year on Old Highway 52. It’s a mere 15 minutes from downtown Winston- Salem and accessible from all points of the Triad, but is deeply past the imaginary divide that separates city from country. He and his business partner found the place in 2011 after a long search that took them through Greensboro, where he says they were priced out of the old Ganache location, and downtown Winston-Salem. Sprenkle had been executive chef at the Old Town Club for seven years and wanted to try something new.
Initially he envisioned a food truck, basically a rolling gourmet kitchen where he could pump out fresh food at catering gigs and to the people on the street. Then he started to think bigger.
Sprenkle paid his dues at a pivotal time and place in culinary history: New York City in the early 1990s, before hipsters posted pictures of their meals on Tumblr, before Anthony Bourdain blew the lid off the industry with Kitchen Confidential and the food networks co-opted the whole thing for round-the-clock programming.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he started working the lines in the city’s best restaurants: the Gotham Bar & Grill, the River Café.
“The certificate gets you through the front door,” he said. “but you gotta work your way through the system. The guy behind me is looking to get my job. I was looking to take the job of the guy ahead of me. It’s a manly, rah-rah atmosphere.”
He clawed his way to an executive chef position within eight years, two ahead of his goal.
Things are different in his 100-seat dining room in Lexington. It’s relatively quiet. Nobody wants to eat after 9 p.m. And, of course, there’s no booze, but you can bring in a bottle of wine if you like.
The menu, too, reflects Sprenkle’s current paradigm, with a low end of $11 — for spaghetti and meatballs. It’s one of the most popular dishes.
But Sprenkle takes even a dish like spaghetti and meatballs and makes it big time.
The sauce takes all day to make; the meatballs harken back to his youth, spent among the Italians of northern New Jersey. He makes the sausage himself.
Sprenkle uses paper napkins — “Eventually the linen company owns your restaurant,” he said — but he changes the menu every day, depending on what’s in season. He’s sourcing vendors all over the state and beyond — his fish comes down by truck from New York City within 24 hours of being loaded at the dock.
The room is classy, especially considering its former life as a buffet line, but not so refined as to scare people off.
“I don’t want people to look in the windows and say, ‘Wow, that’s one of them fancy places. We’ll go on our anniversary,’” he said.
Right now, he said, he’s drawing Lexingtonians down from the surrounding low hills. And people from the cities are starting to make the trip out past the barbecue joints and the Richard Childress Racing Museum.
“Yes, we have a Lexington address,” he said, “but we’re only 15 minutes from downtown 4 th Street. Well, it takes 15 minutes to drive down Hanes Mall Boulevard.”
He’s got a point. And more importantly, he got the votes. Sprenkle and his restaurant pulled ahead in the early months of voting in nearly every applicable category in Best of the Triad polling. Besides Best Chef, his restaurant also won Best Lunch Specials.
The lunch menu also rotates with regularity, but a few well-worn specials will always be on it. The burger, he says, is “almost not even a burger.” He hickory-smokes the meat before he grills it. And, in another nod to his past, Sprenkle brines his own pastrami and corned beef.
His Reuben sandwich, on marbled rye with thousand-island dressing, was the first taste of Sprenkle’s cooking I ever experienced. And I’ve already locked the address into my GPS so I can eventually find my way back.
Chef Dion Sprenkle’s; 5475 Old US 52, Lexington; 336.731.6496; chefdion.com