CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Chef Sam Hart has a not-so-secret ingredient that’s hidden in plain sight, celebrating local artists by showcasing their work alongside his.

“Even before the first course comes out, your first impression is what you see around you,” says Hart, the owner of Biblio and Counter- in Charlotte.

This year, he was a finalist for the James Beard Award – Best Chef: Southeast. Hart believes you “eat with your eyes,” and enhances the dining experience with the help of local talent like Ty McBride.

“I feel a very strong connection between with how Ty goes through her creative process and how I go through my creative process,” explains Hart.

In her small home studio, McBride portrays people who are larger than life. When we met her, she was painting a portrait of the southern hip-hop group Goodie Mob.

“I am a die-hard hip-hop girl,” she told Queen City News. “They’re one of the old-school groups.”

To appreciate her art, it helps to take a beat. Her past musical subjects include Chance the Rapper, Tupac, Beyonce, and Outkast.

“I want to do everything I can to best represent the culture that I grew up in,” McBride says.

She started painting as a distraction from the stress of law school. Now working as a paralegal to pay the bills, she strives to be an artist full-time. Her Goodie Mob portrait will shine on a somewhat surprising stage in west Charlotte.

“I guess we can go this way,” said Hart, who has a keen eye.

He shows us paintings like “Matilda” by Jason Lee Parker of Gastonia and “Food Wars” by Josh Henderson, who grew up in Charlotte. In another hallway, an installation of butterflies by Stephen Wilson of Mint Hill is cut out of vinyl album covers.

“You have, as soon as you sit down, almost like an amuse bouche for your eyes,” Hart says. “And getting you ready for what’s going to happen with the food.”

Hart teams with Audra Harman of Octave Galleries to find the perfect artistic complement to his food. Harman says about half of the work is paid for in advance, which is an amazing opportunity for folks like McBride.

That’s amazing!” she says.

“We think artists should be paid upfront and not guessing whether it’s going to sell,” said Harman, the curator of Octave Galleries.

Biblio, the wine bar that connects to Counter- on West Morehead Street, features the creations of Charlotte artist Sam Guzzie.

At Counter-, Hart invites artists to match the culinary vision. His menu in honor of Prince included renditions of music royalty by Jen Hill of Charlotte.

The photography of another Charlottean, Ryan Allen, was paired with the street food menu.

“This experience that they’re creating, it covers all senses,” Harman noted.

“Everyone [on the staff] is pumped when we get into a new menu and know that, ‘Oh today is the day that the artwork comes in,’” Hart says.

Counter-’s menu with a “Here and Now” theme highlighted local ingredients, so Jane Manfredi of Charlotte served up portraits of local heroes like Ricky Singh, the principal at Charlotte Lab School.

“It’s their job and their business and it’s a tough one,” Hart says of the art community. “And so we wanted to at least do our part of making sure it’s a financially viable career.”

McBride’s hip-hop canvases, including a painting of the duo Outkast, are part of the plan for an undisclosed upcoming menu.

“So that is a menu that is coming up and I am not going to spill the beans on that one, haha!” Harman said.

Instead of “starving artists,” the idea is to help them stay hungry by doing what they love.

“We want to see more art in the world, not less art in the world,” Hart says.

“Especially as a minority artist, to get support outside of my immediate community, it’s just different because they’re not even asking me to change,” said McBride.

Originality brings flavor to any space. Hart hopes with a little boost, artists continue to bring beauty to the table.

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “We get asked so many questions about the artwork all the time. And I don’t even know how often you go into a restaurant where you’re even aware of what’s on the walls.”