Executive Chef & Owner
Even now, Lewis Donald can’t cut into a radish without thinking of his grandfather.
Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, Donald wasn’t the best student in the classroom, but he could spend all day studying the rows of vegetables in the garden his granddad Ray planted every year. He was just a teenager when Ray gave him the advice that shaped his life: “Lewis, you need to find something to do with your hands.”
Donald has lived in six different states since then, mastering numerous cuisines as a cook and chef at restaurants, country clubs, resorts, and a specialty food store. In Sweet Lew’s, he fulfills his dream of running a classic barbecue shack.
Donald crystallized his love for barbecue in the mid-2000s while working at the Greenbrier Resort alongside championship pitmaster Ken Hess. Every weekend, Hess fired up the smoker at his house in the tiny mountain town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and invited Donald and other resort staffers over with their families for a big meal.
“Birthdays and holidays, we spent them all together,” Donald says. “That’s where the difference between grilling and barbecue happened for me.”
The camaraderie and consistency of Southern barbecue may appeal to Donald for reasons beyond food. He left Ohio for Los Angeles in 1997 when he was just 17, landing a job as a cook in an Italian restaurant. He moved to Hawaii two years later, then spent two years there before coming home one month after September 11, 2001. His mother offered him a room at her new home in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Donald commuted 90 minutes to a job as a cook in Chattanooga. That job led him to an apprentice at the prestigious Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, and that job led him to the Greenbrier.
Donald moved to Charlotte in 2008. He honed his barbecue techniques over the next decade while working as an executive chef for some of the city’s top kitchen programs, from Charlotte Country Club to Carmel Country Club to Reid’s Fine Foods.
When he wasn’t at his day job, he’d pop up at various places in town making brisket or pork, from catering charity functions to Panthers tailgates, putting down roots in one place for the first time in his life.
With Sweet Lew’s, he takes the lessons from all of those travels and distills them into a simple menu that reflects not just North Carolina’s culinary history, but also the belief that’s driven him since the days in his grandfather’s garden: The best food makes you feel right at home.