On September 19, the first night of the two-day Radically Rural event, attendees will have the opportunity to network, reflect and enjoy food by Keene chef entrepreneurs, Denise Meadows and “Charcoal Charlie” Pini. Last year, the CONNECT event drew 550 registrants from 21 states. This year’s theme, What’s Next! Is the same motivational question that Meadows and Pini have been asking themselves all along. Their business is a testament to a commitment to community and a desire to build and grow in place.

Pini’s passion for cooking began under the stars around the open fire as a Boy Scout. In his 20s, he and brother, Doug Pini, drove to Cape Cod to spectate and eat their way through a New England BBQ society contest. Their curiosity and openness and generosity of the BBQ community merged into opportunity. They found themselves at the helm of cooking equipment (lent to them by other participants) and ended the day awarded 2nd place in the chicken category.

Pini finds community — and community seems to find Pini. Since that auspicious win, Pini hasn’t left the competitive BBQ arena, competing three or four times a year. He celebrated his wedding to Carlotta in the smoky clutch of both his “BBQ family and blood family” at Peters Pond Rib and Brisket Festival on Cape Cod. One of Pini’s favored expressions is “trial by fire,” both because he has spent a lot of time over the open flame and because he has learned what he knows by experience. He acknowledges, though, that he has not done this alone.

A WINDING ROAD TO SUCCESS

In the winter of 2001, Meadows came Keene to open the EF Lane hotel on Main Street. Meadows received a degree in convention and event management at Schenectady County Community College (in New York State), and has worked in “doing hospitality and food in some fashion and form most of my adult life,” she says.

Pini also worked at the EF Lane, as maintenance director.

“He was our ace in the hole,” Meadows says of Pini who would pinch-hit in the kitchen.

After the closure of the EF Lane Hotel (the hotel is presently run by Marriott under the name Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott), Meadows was brought on to run the Keene-based First Course Culinary Job Training, a culinary training program for adults with special needs and Pini came with her. When Pini reflects on the First Course Culinary Training program, he admits he was always looking forward.

“In the back of my mind,” says Pini, “I knew, when I have a restaurant, these are the people I am going to be calling on.”

In 2011, First Course Culinary Training became a casualty of the state budget cuts. Meadows and Pini had both been building catering businesses. Hers, Fresh Chick Catering, focused on locally sourced produce; and his, Charcoal Charlie’s, on BBQ. The two worked out the Neighbor Made Kitchen, a privately owned shared-use commercial kitchen that Pini helped to envision and develop. When Neighbor Made closed in 2015 because of a lack of investors, the two found themselves without a kitchen, but still with events on the books.

They borrowed space until the inevitability of leasing settled in. Instead of leasing, the two combined forces, and bought the old North Street Market at 79 North St. in Keene, home to their catering kitchen and now open three days a week for takeout.    

“We always work together, no matter who booked the event,” says Pini.

 Early on in the process of looking for a kitchen, Meadows gave Pini the book, “Business for Punks.” It is this playfulness and willingness to learn despite decades of experience that makes CC&D’s kitchen so approachable.

When asked what Pini had learned about being an entrepreneur, he says, “I learned to be an entrepreneur.”

It happened along the way. Trial by fire, as he would say.

CC&D’S CREATIVITY SHOWCASED AT CONNECT

This will be the third year that Pini and Meadows have catered the CONNECT event. The first theme was “Innovations” and Meadows spent time designing food that reflected a new way of experiencing classic dishes, such as a Caprese kabob skewered with a scientific pipette filled with balsamic. Last year, Meadows honored the local and rural heritage with a whole smoked pig from Keene’s Archway Farm, miniature lobster boil cups, and stations featuring regional favorites including a corn table covered with local sweet corn fritters, grilled corn and corn fritters. The table honoring local dairy producers offered flavored milk, cookies and mini Fluffernutter sandwiches. Past events and this year’s CONNECT event will also feature an extensive cheese spread, a table laden with local whole wheels and charcuterie, one of the CC&D’s hallmark presentations.

“I have a passion for local cheese and charcuterie,” says Meadows.

During summer conversations with Meadows, she was still playing with the CONNECT menu. This flexibility is a product of the trust between Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center, and Meadows. This openness, originating with Kristiansen, allows CC&D to be open to the changing availability of seasonal products and allows ultimately for Meadows and Pini to provide a better value.

Flexibility and trust between the client and CC&D allows for better-controlled costs, more flexible sources and ultimately greater business sustainability,

“If you trust me to take care of your event, in having that freedom, you are going to get more of your budget worth,” says Meadows.

Their expertise allows them to spread out the costs, and offer more than if the menu was heavily dictated.

This year’s CONNECT event, held in the Mabel Brown at Keene State College, will call on CC&D to pull from their deep bench of culinary relationships built over their years of dedication to the Keene community.

The CC&D’s Kitchen Market, which Meadows refers to as a “one ass kitchen,” will be bustling with preparation.

“It is the most rewarding thing you can do because it is such a high stakes event,” says Pini. “Failure is not an option.”

Learn more at www.facebook.com/CCandDsKitchenMarket.

Paige Lindell writes from Rindge, New Hampshire.