Patron Saint of Oysters
St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar debuts
by Dean McCord
photographs by Keith Isaacs
St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, which opened on Wilmington Street in April, isn’t a typical New Orleans Creole or Cajun restaurant, with a faux French Quarter theme. “I wanted the place to reflect a more contemporary vision of New Orleans, with influences from the large immigrant population there,” says Sunny Gerhart, the chef and owner, whose Louisiana roots run deep. He has done that with a menu that incorporates Vietnamese and Asian influences, using ingredients like coconut and miso alongside more traditional fare such as andouille and house-made boudin.
“The restaurant reflects his family’s history, but in the present,” says Gerhart’s longtime friend, mentor, and former boss, Ashley Christensen, who handed over the site of Joule, her former coffee shop and restaurant, so that Gerhart could create a place of his own.
He’s created a newly vibrant and fun eatery, with a strong sense of community. He’s made it his own with new booths, local art, and a bar made from old church pews, which are a nod to St. Roch, the Catholic patron saint of good health, bachelors, and dogs (it’s also the name of the neighborhood in New Orleans’ Bywater area where Gerhart’s extended family lives).
His St. Roch is more than a sum of its parts, more than just a place to get good oysters, red beans and rice, and booze. It’s also a reflection of Gerhart, his family, his upbringing, and the individual champions who have kept him going over the years. It may sound unlikely that a restaurant could act as a stabilizing force in a person’s life, but St. Roch is one for Gerhart. It is his rock, or rather, with apologies, his Roch.
Gerhart is a quiet and undemonstrative man, so it’s a surprise to learn that his father, Tiburtius Gerhart, Jr., was a hard-edged, brazen Marine, tasked with excoriating fuzzy-faced enlistees in boot camp. His father’s military career meant Gerhart never lived in any one place for more than three years. But he was always home in New Orleans, where his parents had their roots, where he lived as a young child and again as a young teenager, and where he returned regularly for holidays with his extended family.
Gerhart may have learned to love food in New Orleans, but he learned to make it his life’s work in North Carolina.
During his high school years, his family moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina, where his father was stationed at Camp Lejeune. Gerhart went to college at East Carolina University, “but I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do.” It was in Greenville where his attraction to food and wine began, first in a local wine store (where Humble Pie chef Josh Young also worked). “I quickly became more interested in the wine than I was in going to school. I also learned how much I loved sharing wine with people.”
Gerhart began to explore the country. He worked in a winery in northern California; moved up to Baltimore where his parents moved after his dad retired; and waited tables and sold wine in Wilmington, where he lived on a sailboat.
And then, on April Fool’s day in 2004, Gerhart’s father, 46, died suddenly of a heart attack. Bubby, as his friends and family called him, was gone. So Sunny, an only child, moved to Baltimore to take care of his mother, Shawn. He worked in a wine shop to keep himself connected to the food world, but he was restless. Shawn knew that he was interested in going to culinary school, so she told him, “If it’s what you want to do, do it. It’s just money.”
Gerhart followed his mother’s advice. “As soon as I was at cooking school, I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I worked hard at it.” With an hour-and-a-half commute each way to school and long hours at the wine shop, Gerhart rarely got more than five hours of sleep. But he persisted, and landed in Raleigh after graduation, working beside Ashley Christensen at critically acclaimed Enoteca Vin, where she first made her name. When Christensen opened Poole’s Diner in December 2007, Gerhart was at her side.
Several years later, after Gerhart had left Poole’s to work at other places, Christensen tapped him to open her new coffee shop/restaurant concept, Joule. But after dinner service was dropped and Joule became more of a coffee shop and lunch place, Gerhart got antsy. “I was tired of making &*^%$@! sandwiches.”
He wanted to do something new, something on his own, something that reminded him of home. So in October 2015, Gerhart started talking with friends and looked at spaces and concepts. He gave Christensen a year’s notice that he would be moving on. And then Christensen herself came up with an idea. She realized Joule wasn’t going to become the place she wanted it to be, and offered the space to Gerhart. “I always loved the Joule space,” Gerhart says.
And so, on New Year’s Eve 2016, Joule served its last meal – fittingly, the brunch menu from Poole’s Diner. And just four months later, on April 28, St. Roch opened its doors. Now it’s Gerhart’s new home, a place where he has honored his family, friends, and others who have supported him over the years, but most importantly, Bubby and Shawn. And where the rest of us are welcomed as his new family, his Raleigh family, enjoying roasted oysters, a muffaletta salad, and a Sazerac – with a twist. Just like home.