There were plenty of places to sit in the restaurant. Diners could sit at square tables along the wall, round high-top tables in the middle, or one of the tables in front of the large picture window overlooking Main Street. But none of those is where Rob Masone wants anyone to sit.
“Would you like to sit at the counter?” he asked the couple as they walked through the entrance. He waved toward a row of shiny metal stools fixed to the floor in front of an L-shaped counter. That’s where he wants people to sit. That’s where he serves their food. That’s where the history happened.
When I arrived at Kounter in Rock Hill – a booming small city in South Carolina’s Olde English District – it was already mid-afternoon. The lunch crowd had long since dispersed, leaving only two people lingering over their half-eaten food at a corner table. The dark mocha laminated tabletops matched the large square floor tiles. Black wooden chairs matched the black ceiling. It was a sea of earth tones, but in one small corner, something stood out.
Four vibrant red chairs with dark wood frames stood at the end of the counter. The mid-backed chairs were velvety soft, and I sank an inch into the plush cushions. This was the “Red Chair Experience,” and it was the perfect place to interview executive chef Rob Masone.
Standing across the counter from me, he sported a short-sleeved black chef’s uniform embroidered with his company’s logo. A short-brimmed dark gray ballcap kept the light off his eyes, and a patchy beard covered his young face. His wide eyes were accented with upward trending corners of his mouth.
Masone asked where we should begin. I replied, “At the beginning.”
“When I was five years old, I would stand in the kitchen and point out to my mom all the things she was getting wrong with baking those cookies.”
While other kids spent their youth dreaming of becoming an astronaut or professional athlete or doctor, Masone wanted to become a chef. After graduating high school, he traveled to Charleston to attend Johnson and Wales University – a popular culinary school that has since departed the Lowcountry. After that, he began professional cooking in the catering business. Fayetteville, Charlotte, and Las Vegas – Masone even traveled to Dubai to appear on the popular 59 Minutes culinary show, the first American to cook on the show.
Masone placed a plate in front of me. Three short ribs glistened in a black ginger and bourbon barbecue sauce on a bed of finely chopped pineapple and jicama pico. The meat was so tender, a knife was superfluous. The flavor was so delicious, a breather was difficult.
After a few years as the Executive Chef at the Mash House Brewing Company, Masone got his first taste of owning a restaurant with Braz-N-Rabbit in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It was a short-lived endeavor, and a few years later, he entered the Charlotte culinary scene as the Executive Chef at Heist Restaurant & Brewery.
Masone finally returned to Rock Hill, coming full circle – around the world and throughout the Carolinas. He began searching for a downtown location for a new restaurant. A bar inside a historic building had just folded, so he entered negotiations to buy the property. But at first, he didn’t know he was buying that property.
“I knew the history of the Friendship Nine. I knew it happened where McCrory’s was. But I didn’t know that was the place I was looking at,” Masone explains.
The Friendship Nine was a dark chapter in Rock Hill’s history. In 1961, ten African American students from nearby Friendship Junior College staged a sit-in at McCrory’s Five and Dime. Moments after they sat on the shiny metal swivel stools at the lunch counter, they were tossed outside, molested by the lunch crowd, and arrested.
The next day, the men faced a judge in the circuit court. Guilty. Guilty of trespassing. Guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine or spend 30 days in jail. Only one of the men, Charles E. Taylor, paid the fine out of fear of losing his athletic scholarship. The other nine refused to pay the fine and were remanded to the York County Prison Farm.
In 2015 – 54 years after they were sentenced – county prosecutor Kevin Brackett brought the Friendship Nine back into the York County Courthouse. Walking with canes or rolling in wheelchairs, with wrinkled skin and graying hair, seven of the men took their seats in a packed courtroom. Judge John C. Hayes III, the nephew of the judge who sentenced them in 1961, read their names and charges aloud.
Then, he paused. “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,” Hayes said.
With all the pomp and circumstance deserved by men who were wrongfully convicted, Hayes vacated their original convictions. Not pardons, as Brackett pointed out, because “these men did nothing wrong.”
Standing on the white tile floor, Masone pointed out the nameplates on the back of the shiny swivel stools. John Alexander Gaines, Thomas Walter Gaither, Clarence H. Graham, Willie Thomas Massey, Willie Edward McCleod, Robert L. McCullough, James Frank Wells, David Williamson Jr., and Mack C. Workman. Those were not the original bar stools, but they are in the original location – and “that is the original counter,” Masone pointed out.
“I knew the local story of the Friendship Nine,” Masone said. “It wasn’t taught to us in school or in any of the history books, but we all knew the story.”
That’s why Masone wanted to drive traffic to the counter. As much as he wanted to create savory meals, he also wanted to preserve local history.
Masone lit a butane torch. He rattled off a long list of ingredients, tools, and techniques to make this dessert. I didn’t understand half of what he said, but it’s not important that I understand. I took a bite of the creamy dessert. As the flavors traveled along the sides of my tongue to the back with an overwhelming sensation, I realized he understood what he said.
Does it violate public restaurant etiquette to lick the bowl? I wondered to myself.
Masone has enjoyed a long culinary career since standing in his mom’s kitchen fussing at her for baking cookies the wrong way. But it hasn’t been easy, he quickly pointed out. He simultaneously thinks The Food Network has been the best and worst thing to happen to the culinary world.
“It makes everybody think they can graduate school and become a fancy chef making $80,000 a year right out of the gate. Most of them end up disappointed.”
But Masone was anything but disappointed. For the past hour, he hasn’t stopped chopping, stirring, cooking, pouring, plating, or talking. He has greeted everyone who walked through the entrance. He had casual conversations with the guests. I commented that he must be tired.
He paused for the briefest of moments. His eyes glazed over in momentary thought. Then, the most unrestrained smile rose on his face like the sunrise.
“This is a lifestyle choice. And I’ve never questioned that choice.”