“You have to help people without telling them.” Chef Curtis McGhee of Rantoul’s C&C Kitchen prefaced his explanation that his soups and sides are pork-free. Not only does he want all of his friends to enjoy his food, his commitment to extracting the concentrated flavors of organic, non-GMO ingredients means he does not rely ham hocks, bacon, processed foods, or excessive salt to produce the richness associated with Southern American cuisine. He sources fresh, local, and quality ingredients. Then, with love and alchemy, he distills and balances their pure flavors into complex, deep, and satisfying dishes. Even the iced tea is an organic blend of peach and raspberry black tea, and is fantastic.
All his sides are vegetarian, but you would never know it. His collard greens have body and a smoky depth that is addicting, and his red beans and rice stick to your ribs without weighing you down. His macaroni and cheese glistens with smoked gouda and a creamy goodness that is lifted with a piquant kick. The servings are generous, and could easily feed three people.
Soups, chilis, and stews are all pork-free, but that doesn’t sacrifice flavor. The Cajun Gumbo is a huge winner. Its deep roux and stock sets a bold bass note, while the fresh herbs, spices, “Holy Trinity,” and chicken andouille sausage blend with brio. The gumbo is nutty, herbaceous, yet smoky and hefty. Also, the corn muffin that comes with the stew is sweet, and light as air. It crumbles to create golden nuggets that complement the savory gumbo.
The Hardwood Smoked Brisket Chili also exceeds any chili I’ve had. The brisket is of the highest quality, and accounts for the deep richness of the chili. It is lustrous without being unctuous. The umami of the chili is layered with tomato and beans, which brings brightness, bite, and creaminess to the stew.
Chef McGhee’s long history of heading kitchens in Chicago’s Gold Coast and Bucktown bears in the technique, playful sophistication, and creativity in his food. His mission to elevate what is otherwise seen as humble food can be viscerally experienced in the perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp in his Shrimp Po’boy. The crunchy and well-flavored deep-fried crust yields to firm and juicy shrimp. The bread is airy and delicate, but holds the creamy remoulade sauce which is cut by pickles flavored with lime juice, tomatoes, and lettuce mix. The balance between crunchy, cool, tangy and creamy is divine. The po’boy also comes with incredible fries. These hefty wedges are seasoned with spices, and are perfectly crunchy, and yet pillowy on the inside. I was surprised by how these thicker fries defied the steam, and maintained their crispness and airiness throughout my meal.
The Smokin’ Carolina, which is a smoked pulled pork sandwich topped with house-made slaw, pickles, and BBQ sauce, is top-notch. I am relieved to report that the rich flavor of pork is foregrounded, and merely accentuated by the tangy, sweet, yet spicy BBQ sauce. The texture of the pork is amazing. It is tender, melts in your mouth, but also has some crispy bits from blackened bark. The refreshing slaw is tossed in a creamy, zingy, and sweet dressing. The Smokin’ Carolina’s combination of flavors is faultless. The inherent sweetness of the rich, umber meat is brought forth by the BBQ sauce in a call and response. That conversation is kept fresh by the slaw and pickle.
Chef McGhee is also happy to push the palettes and expectations of his community. His creative take on Shrimp & Grits, served during their weekend brunch, is an unexpected rendition of a classic. He serves toothsome yet creamy grits in a gumbo gravy that smothers huge, firm, and fresh shrimp. To bring these components together, he garnishes the dish with a garlicky tangle of sautéed baby kale that makes the savory gumbo, nutty grits, and sweet shrimp harmonize perfectly. The buttermilk pancakes that substituted the toast were fluffy, tangy, and perfectly golden.
The Chicken and Waffles is another masterful study of contrasts. The chicken is pressure-cooked, and then coated in a proprietary dry rub, which also makes the flavor-packed crust. The crust is crunchy, salty, and the meat is moist. The chicken is served on a sweet, fluffy waffle that tastes of birthday cake, and is garnished with strawberry slices. The meal comes with strawberry or honey butter, depending on what Chef Cameshia McGhee is inspired by. I had it with the honey butter, which was perfectly balanced so you can appreciate both the butter and the honey. It also wasn’t too sweet, so you could still use the maple syrup. This chicken and waffle is well-thought out and perfectly executed. The contrast of sweet and salty, soft and crunchy, is refreshed by the vibrant strawberry, and brought together with the honey butter. And the outcome is simply euphoric. Thankfully, the chicken and waffles are on the main menu, so you can have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
C&C Kitchen also has just started their Friday happy hours, with $1 chicken wings and $3 well drinks.
In many ways, C&C Kitchen is an extension of Champaign-Urbana’s micro-urbanity. It melds the sophistication and trends of a major city with the generous riches of the country. For example, Chef McGhee is planning pop-up restaurants with his chef and sommelier friends from Chicago to introduce Champaign County to new culinary experiences. C&C Kitchen was also awarded a 2017 Tourism Impact Award for attracting visitors who travel for food.
The elation that C&C Kitchen’s food delivers is transcendent. Its bold, complex flavors and creatively crafted dishes are examples of things done well from start to finish. If you’re in need of a deeply life-affirming experience, or a desire to be reacquainted with unmitigated integrity, soul, and satisfaction, I highly recommend C&C Kitchen. Once you’ve experienced Chef McGhee’s accomplished and vivacious comfort food, I’m sure you’ll be travelling to Rantoul more often.
C&C Kitchen is located 107 East Sangamon Avenue, Rantoul, and is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can find more information on its Facebook page.
All photos by Jean Lee.