This Must (Really) Be The Place
When Chez Noir, Carmel’s hot new French- and Spanish-inspired bistro housed in a cozy downtown bungalow, was awarded a Michelin star after being open less than a year, it was easy for locals to celebrate their beloved neighbor’s triumph.
Never mind that Chef Jonny Black and his wife and business partner, Monique Black, have only lived in the Carmel area a few years. They quickly emerged as fixtures in the community—not only as superb restaurateurs, but as champions of local farmers, fishers, and foragers, as well as dedicated shepherds of their restaurant team.
“We’ve loved Carmel since we honeymooned here more than ten years ago, and it just kept drawing us back,” Monique says ahead of the restaurant's October anniversary. “It’s one of the places I always felt a lot of peace, and peace in a lot of ways breeds creativity and possibility. Carmel made us think about what’s possible and what’s next.”
"Carmel made us think about what’s possible and what’s next.”
<div class="quote-attribute">Monique Black</div>
Then there’s the bounty of Monterey Bay and the verdant inland mountains and valleys that surround it. “It’s kind of a goldilocks situation because there’s so much incredible food that grows within 100 miles or so of Carmel, including some of Jonny’s favorite farms, growers that he’s had relationships with for over a decade,” Monique says.
Citing favorite farms like Dirty Girl, Lonely Mountain, Serendipity, Four Sisters, and Borba, Jonny says his cooking takes direct inspiration from whatever comes in from the farm, garden, or boat that day. “Here you can really live the romantic chef ideal,” he says. “Since we live above the restaurant, farmers come to the house with deliveries and boats dock at sunset and come right here with the catch. Being here allows us to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to the food that we serve.”
Take, for example, the abalone skewers, which was singled out by the Michelin team as one of its five favorite dishes in all California. Still alive in the shell when they arrive in the kitchen, direct from the docks of the Monterey Bay Abalone Company just five miles away, the shellfish is delicately sliced and lightly seared in abalone liver butter, then served speared on a twig of native bay laurel. The dish is one of Jonny’s signatures, and it’s emblematic of his overall style.
THE ROAD HOME
Jonny was born in San Francisco. But he grew up mostly in Virginia, which is where he first garnered attention for his cooking by winning a national competition as a teenager and earning a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America. Jonny then rocketed through stints at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Brooklyn’s short-lived Governor (a casualty of Hurricane Sandy) where he met Monique.
Returning to San Francisco as chef de cuisine at Quince, holder of three Michelin stars, Jonny established himself as one of the city’s rising stars, later becoming executive chef for Atelier Crenn and the other restaurants in Dominique Crenn’s portfolio. (At one point, while traveling with Crenn, he found himself in the palace kitchen cooking for the president of France.)
A one-year stint at Pineapple and Pearls in Washington, DC, took the couple back to Monique’s hometown. But they found they missed California too much. The position of executive chef at Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, which Jonny accepted in May 2019, drew the young family back west—and to the Monterey area. Then they soon began contemplating going out on their own.
“There’s a kind of freedom that comes with not being one of a thousand restaurants with the same sort of outlook. You can just do what you want. We’re not one of the cool kids.”
<div class="quote-attribute">Jonny Black</div>
“That was always the dream, and we just kept having conversations, and finally it felt like time,” Monique says. Having started her career in cooking, Monique deliberately switched to front-of-house, where she now calls the shots on the look and feel of the restaurant, choosing and training the staff and serving as maître’de. “I’m the person you see when you walk in the front door,” she says simply. And it is the first indication to patrons that the Blacks and their team are about as hands-on as it gets, dry-aging fish, hand-turning pasta, harvesting caviar, and even making salt from seaweed they collect themselves.
If not an extension of, it is closely aligned to their hyper-local farm-to-table philosophy. It’s fundamental to their success, and the Blacks wouldn’t want to do it any other way. But it’s not without challenges, such as coping with the canceling of this year’s salmon season. Where there is challenge, though, there is opportunity, and the twist only seemed to fuel Jonny’s creativity. As the region’s fishing crews brought in different catches, new items appeared on the menu: thorny nose rockfish, soft prawns, skate, and coonstripe—a type of shrimp with a glowing orange body striped like a raccoon. Showcasing the advantages of being near Monterey Bay.
(NOT) THE COOL KIDS
Since moving to Carmel, the family has settled right in. Their son and daughter ride the bus to school with friends—some of whom are the children of other local chefs and restaurateurs. “There’s something special about being in a small town, and Carmel is its own universe with a really strong identity,” Monique says. “Even the air smells different here. It’s got this salty freshness.”
Adds Jonny: “There’s a kind of freedom that comes with not being one of a thousand restaurants with the same sort of outlook. You can just do what you want. We’re not one of the cool kids.”
Carmel’s strong sense of community has buoyed Chez Noir from the start, with local and semi-local regulars who have rallied behind the endeavor. “People think of this as their restaurant, too,” Monique says. “In the wintertime we’ve had guests tell us, ‘If you’re slow, give us a call, and we’ll bring a couple friends and come in.’”
The Blacks don’t expect the Michelin honor to bring big changes—other than the chance to forge further down their creative path. “It’s just a really great validation, knowing that people get it,” Jonny says. “Getting noticed on a national level just means that we’re doing something special and we’re on the right track.”
While there has been speculation that the Blacks might open a second restaurant, no such plans are currently in the works, Jonny says. ”We want to do more down the road in Carmel, but we haven’t even been through a full year of seasons yet, so I think it’s just digging into what we’re doing and going deeper, trying to refine and be a better version of ourselves.”
To that end, they transitioned to a four-to-five course prix fixe menu in October—the restaurant’s one year anniversary—to present a more complete and intimate dining experience. “When you come into the restaurant, there’s this fun, vibrant energy,” Monique says. “It’s not supposed to be this stuffy endeavor, with a huge line of courses you can’t understand. We want it to feel like the best kind of dinner party.”
That’s not surprising, given that Chez Noir started as a month-long series of informal Tuesday night dinners at Anthony and Alissa Carnazzo’s beloved local restaurant, Stationaery, in 2022. “We got to know Jonny and Monique because our kids went to preschool together,” Alissa says. “So when it came time for them to put their foot forward, they did a residency at our restaurant so they could present to the community what they wanted to do.”
The Blacks dubbed the temporary setup, “This Must Be the Place,” serving a five-course menu and taking over the front and back of the house with their own staff. “We ate there every Tuesday and it was so much fun,” Alissa says. The gesture of goodwill is characteristic of the sense of collaboration that has grown up among the newer local restaurants, she says. “There’s a feeling that when one of us does well, it helps everybody … I’m so grateful that the people who are moving here to open restaurants are helping create this beautiful sense of community.”
That sense of appreciation is shared by the Blacks. “I looked around in service last week and just felt a wave of gratitude,” Monique says. “This is the restaurant that we said we wanted to have, and we have it, and it’s working. Nothing compares to that.”
Visit cheznoircarmel.com for reservations. The weekly-changing prix fixe menu starts at $125 per person (with optional supplements and wine pairing). <img src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/6457f19f1c1e1601e2c9c3f6/6487a9355b63a6818c705cea_CC-Icon--20.svg"alt="CC"height="20" width="20">
San Francisco-based journalist Melanie Haiken writes about travel, science, health and the environment for dozens of publications including National Geographic, BBC, Condé Nast Traveler, CNN, AFAR, and AARP. She shares her adventures and travel tips at Health-Conscious.Travel.com.