The Fearrington Houses executive chef Colin Bedford has earned a distinction so rare that it is the culinary worlds equivalent of winning multiple Olympic medals.
Bedford was named a grand chef last month in Italy by officials with Relais & Chateaux, an exclusive association of luxury hotels and restaurants. He is among only 21 chefs in the U.S. to have earned the title, which includes such culinary superstars as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
The honor does not come with money or a medal but brings great prestige.
Ive been projected into this group of chefs that Ive looked up to ever since I have been in North America, Bedford said. The sleepy old town of Pittsboro has been projected onto this world stage. Now, well try to make it a culinary destination.
All 160 grand chefs work for Relais & Chateaux, an association of more than 500 owner-operated properties around the world. To join, the owner must be accepted for membership and the property must undergo a rigorous inspection every three years.
In the late 1980s, R.B. Fitch, developer of Fearrington Village, added what is now an 18-room inn to the restaurant to join Relais & Chateaux. Many well-regarded chefs preceded Bedford in Fearringtons kitchen: Edna Lewis, Shane Ingram and the James Beard-award winning Ben Barker.
Fitch is very proud of his chefs accomplishments, saying about Bedford: Hes very creative. Hes very much a team man. Thats why you are successful in this business.
Bedford grew up in Yeovil, a town in Englands Somerset county, 130 miles southwest of London. He is an only child of a stay-at-home mom and a truck-driver dad. (Or as Bedford says it: lorry driver.) His mom is an excellent home cook. His father grew vegetables in a community garden. He was surrounded by good, fresh food even if he was the only kid in his class with tongue sandwiches in his lunch box.
He graduated from culinary school at 18 and started his career in a nearby fine dining restaurant, then moved to Canada and in 2005 became second-in-command in the kitchen at Fearrington House restaurant, where a three-course meal costs $89. Within four years, he became the boss, overseeing an 11-member staff and food throughout the property from room service to catering.
Last fall, Relais & Chateaux officials held a three-day meeting at Fearrington. They were so impressed with their visit that they suggested Bedford apply to become a grand chef. At their urging, Bedford did.
Officials dont say if a grand chef application is dismissed or accepted. An anonymous inspector, similar to a secret shopper, stays at the inn and dines at the restaurant unannounced. Bedford could only wait to hear yes or nothing.
In the meantime, he and the other restaurant managers went to New York to visit other Relais & Chateaux properties, and see what they might be able to adopt in Pittsboro. They returned to make minor changes: hooks to hang ladies handbags off the bar tables, moving the hostess stand and computer so it wasnt the first thing customers saw upon entering the restaurant, making the table settings as minimalist as possible so diners werent intimidated by all that glassware and cutlery.
The propertys manager, Theresa Chiettini, persuaded Fitch, her boss, to underwrite some new decor. Gone are the English country draperies and upholstery that didnt match Bedfords modern food. Now, there are sleek chocolate- and latte-colored carpet and furniture with clean walls.
Bedford decided to up his game as well. Starting last winter, he changed the entire menu each season. And the managers held a training day each quarter to introduce the waitstaff to the new menu. Sitting down together to eat the new dishes helped the cooks and waiters to get along better.
About the staff, Chiettini says, In 12 years, this is the best team weve ever had.
All that work helped Bedfords food shine for the inspector who concluded his report by writing: Flawless. The food is refined, creative, beautifully presented, technically speaking demanding, without falling into the trap of over-technifying; flavour of the ingredients remains the main attraction. Each single dish was perfect with regard to texture, flavor and presentation. Absolutely worthy of a Grand Chef.