Hillsborough, N.C. — Here are a few of my favorite things:
The Thai curry mussels and fries at Kitchen. The beignets during Rue Cler’s brunch service. A simple springtime scoop of strawberry ice cream from Maple View Farms. Lemon, new potato and leek soup from Toast. The pickled pepper portabella bagel sandwich at Monuts Donuts. Goat Lady Dairy eggs Benedict at Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club’s Fairview Dining Room. Oysters Rockefeller from Elaine’s on Franklin. The chilled cucumber vichyssoise with pickled littleneck clams from Piedmont. Braised pork belly from The Black House at Straw Valley. The fried oyster salad from the Fearrington Granary. Mandolin’s chicken and waffles. The steak frites from Acme. The braised beef sandwich from Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop. The patatas bravas from Mateo. The nine-herb salad from The Siena Hotel’s Il Palio. Fried chicken from Venable. A pimento burger from Bull City Burger and Brewery. The spicy oyster mushroom curry from Jujube. The artisan cheese plate from Oakleaf. Bida Manda’s crispy pork belly soup. Seared scallops with lavender hazelnut pesto from The Carolina Inn’s Carolina Crossroads. Saltbox Seafood Joint’s crab grits.
OK, so that’s more than a few, and the really incredible part is that I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned the food trucks, the farmers’ markets, the wide array of ethnic eateries, the cupcake shops, the gourmet grocery stores, the bars serving sophisticated cocktails with house-made syrups and tonics, and the new but swoon-worthy restaurants that have opened as I’ve been writing this.
Some foodies are born. Others are born again when they move to the Triangle. I’ve always appreciated a good meal. My family was even in the food and hospitality business for a while, owning and operating a bed and breakfast.
But I didn’t become obsessed until moving to the Triangle in early 2009. The food scene here is just that good. It demands that you put down your iPhone over lunch so that you can really savor what you’re experiencing. It motivates you to spread the word: “Soft shell crabs are back at Crook’s Corner!” (Although it is always hard for me to go to Crook’s and not order the famous shrimp and grits.) It inspires even the most laidback people to make a comprehensive list of restaurants they must try in the next 90 days. (It’s all about organization and goal-setting, people!) It evokes an appreciation of its past – even folks who weren’t around in the days of Bill Neal and Ben and Karen Barker know and respect these culinary pioneers.
Our food scene is a profession, an obsession, a pastime, a conversation starter at a cocktail party.
And it begins and ends with the relationships our chefs have with farmers. Here, chefs have their favorite farmer on speed dial. The farmer – more rock star than invisible supplier – brings a boxed-up surprise to a chef’s kitchen door, and the contents inspire an outside-of-the-box nightly special by sundown four hours later. Cooking with food grown near home – or as we just call it around these parts, cooking – is a given. Chefs go to great lengths to credit the farms of origin when they write up their nightly menus. Some chefs are even growing their own produce.
But the relationship would mean nothing without the consumer. This area’s educated and sophisticated population demands a stellar experience delivered to them by the food industry’s finest. Triangle diners have a favorite restaurant, a favorite chef, a favorite bartender, a favorite host, a favorite server – and yes – a favorite farmer and farmers’ market.
A beautiful, ripe strawberry would not exist without the farmer and his operation. It would be squandered were it not for the appreciative chef to treat it with its deserved respect, creating a dish in which the flavors emerge bright and clean. And without a discerning diner – one educated on seasonality and open-minded about cooking methods who is willing to pay extra for the satisfaction of biting into a piece of fruit that hasn’t been traveling across the country in the back of truck for a number of days – those plated efforts would be in vain.
As good as it already is, Triangle food just keeps getting better. Acclaim and awards – like Ashley Christensen’s 2014 James Beard for Best Chef: Southeast – certainly help. And as chefs from New York City and Napa Valley relocate here, they’re spreading the word and recruiting their revered and talented colleagues.
But more than that, the interest in food is growing, as students of cuisine are becoming the ubiquitous masters of it. More of us want to farm. More of us want to make craft beer, wine and liquor. More of us want to bake breads and pies. More of us want to butcher pasture-raised beef. More of us are launching food product lines – from coffee to peanut butter – all made right here in culinary incubators before being shipped around the world.
And driving the entire movement is the fact that more of us want to eat well, whether we define that as organic or biodynamic, rustic or upscale, calorie-conscious or gut busting.
Sometimes, we have to pinch ourselves: How did this happen? How do we deserve this? We have the gastronomical opportunities of a big city without the insane traffic, exorbitant cost of living, or unfriendly atmosphere.
But brief, unnecessary moments of guilt quickly subside. When we taste that next perfect morsel – it’s never far away – we are overcome with a thought: Food this good deserves to be appreciated. It demands word of mouth, social media posts, online reviews.
My advice? Savor first, and Tweet later.
Editor’s Note: Get the full scoop of the Triangle’s food scene at TASTE 2016, presented by Johnson Lexus, happening April 21-23. This is your chance to taste all this delicious food for yourself! Buy tickets at tastetheevent.com.
The Grand TASTE Experience will be held at the Durham Armory, Thursday April 21, 6:30 p.m.to 9 p.m.. The evening will feature 30 local chefs and a dozen beverage purveyors—not to mention a live jazz band!
At All in the Nana’s Family, celebrate the legacy of renowned Durham chef Scott Howell and his iconic restaurant, Nana’s. This event happens Friday, April 22, 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Enjoy a locally farmed, four-course meal that will have you falling in love with Nana’s all over again, prepared by chefs trained under Howell himself.
Taste’s Family Cookout at Maple View Farm, happening Saturday, April 23, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will have great activities for adults and children: hayrides, face painting, delicious hot dogs, and locally brewed beer. Not to mention some great bluegrass from Back Porch Orchestra.