The Triangle food scene may best be described as a teenager experiencing a growth spurt.
In three years, the area has doubled the number of chefs (from two to four) who have brought home the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef awards, the Oscars of the food world. Downtown Raleigh is such a nighttime dining destination that the Mecca, an old-school lunch spot, is now open for dinner and late night and so packed that people spill out onto the sidewalk. And Durham restaurants can’t seem to stay off the pages of The New York Times, Esquire and Bon Appetit, which named Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop one of the 50 best new restaurants of 2014.
In the last year or so, the scene has shown more signs that it is maturing. A number of talented food and beverage folks have moved here and are drawing national attention.
There’s Fred Dexheimer, one of only 140 wine professionals in North America to earn the master sommelier certification since it started in 1973 and the only one in North Carolina. Dexheimer, 37, is an owner of Straw Valley Food & Drink in Durham, which opened in March and has already been featured in Food Arts magazine.
Then there’s Daniel Ryan, 31, and Kim Floresca, 32, the husband-and-wife chefs who took over One restaurant in Chapel Hill last summer. The duo was named the People’s Best New Chef – Southeast by Food & Wine magazine. Earlier this year, N&O restaurant critic Greg Cox christened One the Triangle’s 2014 Restaurant of the Year. Ryan and Floresca have worked at restaurants that would make up a bucket list for those who travel to dine: Per Se and Eleven Madison Park in New York City, The French Laundry in Yountville, Ca., Alinea in Chicago and the now closed elBulli in Spain.
Before coming to North Carolina, Ryan and Floresca were aware of the handful of restaurants with national reputations, among them Lantern, Fearrington House and the now-closed Magnolia Grill. They love what they have discovered since then, including the seven farmers markets where they shop.
“It’s amazing to us that (the Triangle’s) not on the culinary map yet,” said Kim Floresca of One. “It’s a little hidden gem.”
While the Triangle food scene is growing up, a prominent dining critic says it is has yet to reach adulthood. Josh Ozersky writes about restaurants and dining for Esquire magazine and visited the area earlier this year. His assessment: “I don’t think the Triangle is quite there yet.”
Other Southeastern cities are maturing more quickly, Ozersky said.
“It’s not the next Portland,” Orzersky said, referring to Oregon’s largest city, which is awash with culinary choices, from buzz-worthy food trucks to fine dining. “Nashville is the next Portland.”
Rose’s owners, Katie and Justin Meddis, represent another facet of the food scene’s advancement: the return of food professionals who grew up here.
Katie Meddis, 32, grew up in Carrboro and her husband, Justin, 31, wanted to relocate from San Francisco after attending a meat conference in Concord, N.C., several years ago. Katie Meddis knew they had made the right decision when they went to the annual Farm to Fork picnic, an event in Orange County that brings together a Who’s Who of the area’s chefs and farmers. Katie Meddis said they met many peers in that one afternoon and “everybody was excited about what we were going to do.”
“Would they have come back here if there wasn’t a food scene? No,” Jennings said. “Those people who felt they had to leave the place where they were from have found it can now support what they want to do. That’s awesome.”
Among those people is Urban Food Group’s new executive pastry chef, Stephanie Nikolic.
When Nikolic, 35, grew up in Chapel Hill, Top of the Hill restaurant was a gas station with a dirt parking lot. When she left after high school, Lantern (named one of Gourmet’s Top 50 restaurants) had just opened. After culinary school, Nikolic worked at restaurants owned by noted chefs Michael White, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse in New York, Las Vegas and most recently, Charlotte. She’s impressed with the Triangle’s evolution.
“My long-term goal was to come home,” Nikolic said. “It’s really nice to see not only the Triangle growing but the whole state growing.”
Nikolic is not the only one: Gray Brooks, 47, who owns Pizzeria Toro in Durham, grew up there. He worked in Seattle for 12 years for James Beard award-winning chef Tom Douglas, who owns more than a dozen restaurants. From afar, Brooks watched the transformation of the Triangle and Durham, in particular, and decided to return. He opened Pizzeria Toro in 2012.
“To me,” Brooks said, “it’s just an exciting thing to be a part of.”
Even Dexheimer, the master sommelier at Straw Valley Food + Drink, was drawn here by family ties. His business partner is his brother-in-law, Adam Rose, former chef at Il Palio restaurant at the Siena hotel in Chapel Hill.
In some ways, this is nothing new. For years, talented chefs with or without ties to North Carolina have come to the Triangle and opened restaurants, including Scott Howell of Nana’s and Shane Ingram at Four Square Restaurant, both in Durham.
But the influx of new food and beverage talent does seem to be on an upswing recently, and restaurant owners are seeing that in the résumés coming across their desks.
Jennings of Urban Food Group, who is looking to open restaurants in Virginia, Texas and Colorado, says he recently interviewed a chef who worked six years at Daniel, the flagship New York City restaurant of famous French chef Daniel Boulud. Jennings recently hired a new executive chef: Nate Garyantes, 41, who worked for several years for well-known Spanish chef José Andres in Washington, D.C.
Jennings isn’t the only one seeing more and better résumés in recent years.
Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen won a James Beard award this spring as the Best Chef in the Southeast. But before that, Christensen said it was rare to hear from eager job applicants.
“We had a long period of time where we didn’t see résumés at Poole’s,” Christensen said, referring to the fine-dining eatery that helped launch her restaurant group, which now includes a cocktail bar, three other restaurants and a fourth restaurant opening this winter. “(Now) we’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of résumés.”
Since winning the James Beard award, Christensen added: “The thing I noticed immediately was a ton of requests for stages,” when a young cook works for a week in another restaurant’s kitchen, often at the request of their boss.
Others agree that the local food scene is only going to get better.
Noel Sherr came to the Triangle to open Cave Taureau wine shop in downtown Durham two years ago. Sherr had spent 10 years working in the wine business in New York City, including time as general manager of Chamber Street Wines, one of New York City’s best wine shops.
“I think it’s the beginning wave of what’s going to continue to grow in the area,” Sherr said.
For the scene to gain more visibility, Esquire dining critic Ozersky said it needs more chefs like Scott Crawford, who led the food and beverage operation at the five-star Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary.
“If there were more guys like him, the area would have a bigger footprint in the national media,” Ozersky said.
Lucky for the Triangle, Crawford didn’t move on to a larger market.
He is opening two restaurants in downtown Raleigh: Standard Foods later this year off Person Street, and Nash Tavern next year on Nash Square.