My thoughts on how we became the foodiest city in the South involve our largest stepping-stone, Magnolia Grill, with Ben and Karen Barker. So many talented chefs have time with the Barkers under their belts. That’s no coincidence. We are also blessed with intelligent, creative farmers and a climate that encourages year-round crops, to varying degrees of course.
One additional thing I’d like to point out: The camaraderie among restaurants is magnificent. Run out of an ingredient? Text a neighbor. “Who do you guys use for grease-trap cleaning? For linen service? For Internet?” Everyone steps up, and everyone lends a hand. Group hug!
I’m a bit of an interloper, though I have newfound Southern street cred by virtue of having married a beautiful woman from southern Georgia, so here’s my two cents. I think Durham is such a great food city because of, ironically, all of us who have come here from somewhere else and yet have embraced it. So, everything out there is a cool hybrid of Southern food and something else.
My business partner, Julian [Benfey], nailed this very thing when he created our fried chicken bun. He said his inspiration was the Chick-fil-A sandwich, but it’s an open-faced Chinese steamed bun with a delicious piece of fried chicken, a pickle and some sriracha.
The first Southern dish that I embraced was the fried chicken biscuit. I had just moved here and was working at Carolina Wine Co. when the owner, Chrish Peel, admonished me upon learning I’d never had one. He handed me a Bojangles chicken biscuit and said, “I would expect a bon vivant like yourself to have already tried one.” Now, while Bojangles was my gateway, I’ve since become a much bigger fan of Sunrise in Chapel Hill.
I think people in our area love the heritage and history that goes along with food in our region. I think that it is very exciting for anyone who is a participant, including myself, to unearth it.
The people who are cooking and the people who are studying [Southern food] are interested in digging deeper than just fried chicken and pimento cheese and deviled eggs. People want to really define what that classic dish is. We’re taking those classic dishes and using them as reference points, and we’re bringing them forward – paying homage.
Everyone feels like they need to go outside our region and bring something from another place here. I am very adamant and very passionate about not doing that. We have a rich, long food history, and we need to have people come here and say, “Oh, I saw this place in Durham, I want to do that in New York City.” Let’s go. We’re all authentic. We have some really true food DNA and there’s still more to be unearthed.
For me, the goal is: Can I channel my grandmother? Can I channel my mother? And then I add my own skills as a chef to what they did and really dial into those flavors.
A community of tireless farmers, amazing cooks and decades of tireless work by groups like Center for Environmental Farming Systems and Carolina Farm Stewardship Association to grow our local food system.
Our local food scene was cultivated by Ben Barker and Scott Howell. The universities, Research Triangle Park and most recently DPAC, bring the infrastructure necessary to sustain so many great restaurants.
I’m from Durham, and my family has always been a foodie family. Mostly we sourced delicious stuff from our family and small places in town. Wonderful folks who started a vibrant small farmer culture here years ago – credit to Bill Dow and Alex and Betsy Hitt for their work on this, in Carrboro especially. Native sons and daughters who decided to settle here and bring knowledge and love of food. Notables are Ben and Karen Barker and Bill and Moreton Neal and Gene Hamer. They trained tons of folks [working] in restaurants today.
And those folks have trained new folks.
I’d say that the South has a rich food culture and was just sitting here ready for the deliciousness to descend. We are kind of like Berkeley with bacon!
It's thanks to people like Ben Barker, Scott Howell, Walter Royal, Amy Tornquist. They put us on the map. Good food starts with good people. Camaraderie, not competition, and the ability to get [a restaurant] open without offering your first born.
Nobody fries like we do. We are also not afraid of two ingredients that make everything better: Butter and cream. We also love to take our time. Everything is slower in the South and cooking is not an exception. Low and slow, as they say.
I would say one of the biggest reasons would not be in number of restaurants but in “execution.” Dishes are generally well thought out, true to ingredient integrity and taste like what it is. Many restaurants talk wildly on the menu and then all you taste is one thing. I think the restaurants in Durham execute their food, thus actually pulling it off.