DURHAM — By day, Bryan Zupon is a Duke University senior studying history and economics. By night, he's an avant garde chef who prepares poached duck for his friends and infuses fruit with carbon dioxide to give it some fizz.
For the past year, Zupon, 21, has hosted weekly dinner parties at his cramped campus apartment, bowling over friends and the occasional chef and food writer with his ultramodern cuisine.
Word of this venture, which he calls Z Kitchen, has spread more widely and rapidly than he'd like. He insists that Z Kitchen isn't a restaurant, but Durham County health officials aren't convinced.
If Z Kitchen did qualify as a restaurant, it would be illegal because it lacks proper permits. The Health Department scolded Zupon last year over some language on his Web site -- www.zkitchen.net -- that suggested Zupon was running a restaurant. Now, authorities want to be sure Zupon is truly cooking for friends and not running an eatery out of his apartment.
"We are looking into him very carefully right now," said Robert Brown, the county's environmental health director. "It sure looks like he's running a restaurant. He's getting reviews up and down the East Coast."
It isn't clear that Zupon, a 21-year-old from Basking Ridge, N.J., is doing anything wrong. While reluctant to discuss the county's investigation in depth, Brown did say a key issue surrounding Zupon's venture is whether he charges or accepts donations for his meals. He has, at least at times. Dean McCord, a Raleigh lawyer who runs a food Web site, www.varmintbites.com, dined at Z Kitchen last year. In a review of the dinner he posted to another Web site, McCord said he and fellow dinner guests paid $40 each.
"We covered the food costs," McCord recalled in an interview. "It was certainly much, much less than you would have paid at a restaurant."
A New York Times Magazine piece last month did not say whether Zupon charges or accepts money for his meals, and stories in other publications either didn't address it or hinted at it being a secret.
Zupon says he doesn't accept money. He chooses guests and the menu and considers Z Kitchen nothing more than a vehicle that allows him to cook, eat and talk with like-minded foodies.
"I make no claims of being a chef or even a cook," said Zupon, who has never worked in a restaurant kitchen. "I'm just an individual who really likes cooking and hosting dinner parties serving modern food."
A really nice stove
Zupon became interested in food as a youngster. His parents encouraged his culinary curiosity by taking him to some of New York City's finest restaurants. When the family remodeled its kitchen, Zupon lobbied for -- and received -- an elaborate stove.
At Duke, he's wholly immersed in the local food culture. He is the food writer for the student newspaper. He is co-chairman of a student advisory group that examines food offerings on campus. He frequents the area's top restaurants, meets their chefs and chats with other food nuts on Internet message boards.
When he moved from his first dorm to a campus apartment, he leaned on his parents to subsidize his hobby. The result is a kitchen jammed with high-end cooking tools such as water baths and a vacuum food sealer, the latter a tool he uses to cook in the "sous vide" style. Translated literally as "under vacuum," sous vide is a cooking technique in which food is sealed and cooked very slowly at a constant temperature to maximize flavor and tenderness.
His are gourmet menus with modern, unpredictable twists. One recent dinner featured poached duck breast in a foie gras butter. He often uses a CO2 cartridge to carbonate fruit.
McCord, the Raleigh lawyer and food blogger, came away from his Z Kitchen experience impressed with both the food and Zupon's ambition.
Recalling an effervescent grape he tasted, McCord called Zupon's spread "whimsically intellectual."
"He's the type of person who, if I was in the business world, I'd hire in an instant," McCord said. "He's a doer, not a talker."
From apron to business suit
In some ways, Zupon is a study in contradiction. His love of cooking and encyclopedic grasp of the food subculture's language and terminology suggests a culinary artiste with a future as a restaurateur.
In reality, he has varied interests. As a teenager he spent as much time playing hockey as he did tinkering in his parents' kitchen. When he graduates, Zupon will forgo the apron for a business suit; he already has a job lined up with a Chicago management consulting firm.
And when it comes to all the attention he's received for his Z Kitchen venture, Zupon is also of two minds. He acknowledges, with some discomfort, that the more publicity he gets, the less he is an underground sensation, and perhaps the more likely authorities are to impose some sort of restriction on him. On the other hand, he's a college kid who has already received some fawning press and is still juggling interview requests.
"It has gotten a little bit away from me," he said. "I couldn't really turn down The New York Times. I figured if I go out, I go out with a bang."
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