When Chef Eric Gabrynowicz took over as Tupelo Honey’s vice president of culinary operations last fall, he knew he had to keep a few things in mind as he scrutinized and ultimately tweaked the restaurant’s menu.
First, the fried green tomatoes weren’t going anywhere. Neither was the Shoo Mercy Sweet Potato Pancake and the biscuits brought to the table before the meal arrives.
“Tupelo is a great restaurant,” said Gabrynowicz, whose title also includes corporate executive chef. “Nothing is broken.”
That said, diners want healthier options, he said. As head of the kitchen operations for Tupelo Honey – which has grown from its original downtown Asheville location to a small chain of 15 restaurants with one in Raleigh – he needs to entice diners to come back more than once a month.
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“For me, the times I tried Tupelo, before I came on board, I’m stuffed,” he said. “I feel like I ate too much.”
He was tasked with creating a menu that is “true to its Southern roots, that was playful and gave people an opportunity to try new food.”
The result is 12 or 14 new dishes that started appearing on the Raleigh menu last month. Raleigh’s restaurant on Oberlin Road, on the fringes of Cameron Village, was the first to get the new menu with Gabrynowicz traveling to other sites to roll it out.
It’s been a process that engages both creativity and hard numbers. It’s not easy to alter a beloved menu of any restaurant that’s been around for awhile. In the case of Tupelo Honey, it has become a tourist destination since it opened in 2000 and has launched two New South cookbooks.
Tupelo Honey has grown, too, beyond its Asheville borders. There are now four North Carolina locations – the original, Raleigh, Charlotte and another one in Asheville that attracts locals. Other locations are in Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. Tupelo is heading west this year with new restaurants in Denver and Frisco, Texas.
Gabrynowicz took advantage of that loyal customer base. Customers of Tupelo’s Shoo Mercy Club, a rewards club for frequent diners, were surveyed. Metrics were used to look at every single dish on the menu to see what diners were ordering and why.
“We take our guests really, really seriously,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re telling you what they want.”
While it was essential to keep the Tupelo brand, it also was an opportunity for Gabrynowicz, a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist, to put his own spin on dishes.
Since he was hired in October, he has made 60 dishes in a test kitchen in Asheville to see what might land on the menu.
The result is more composed dishes, or those that have an emphasis on presentation.
The kale and quinoa salad, on the small plates portion of the menu, is topped with watermelon radish, pickled watermelon rind and yogurt dressing. The roasted and raw carrots, also a small plate, has a mix of tri-colored carrots and is topped with a saffron buttermilk dressing. On the entree side, the cauliflower “steak” comes with parsnip purée, mushrooms and rainbow chard.
Those who want to indulge still can.
“Absolutely,” Gabrynowicz says. “It’s staying true to our roots. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Like those fried green tomatoes, he says, “They’re what you feel a Southern restaurant should be.”
There also is shrimp and grits, supper plates with sweet tea roasted chicken and stuffed Carolina mountain trout, and wine-glazed short rib.
Brunch has a new “Cinna-Biscuit” topped with pecans and Foster rum sauce and “Southern Shakshuka” with two baked eggs, goat cheese grits, avocado and Creole sauce.
And then there’s the Chicken Fried Love, a $50 meal for two. It’s the whole bird that’s been brined for 24 hours. It comes with grilled apple, pickled blueberries, hot honey sauce, buttermilk biscuits, two sides, two pear salads and one shared dessert. New equipment was bought in to make the meal come together.
“It’s a big old huge platter of biscuits and sides. It’s what I want to eat,” Gabrynowicz said.
The chefs at the two new restaurants in Denver and Frisco will test out a new concept of localized specials. It that works, Raleigh’s Chef Andrew Davila might gets some room to play, too.
“God willing, God bless, Tupelo has been loved by a lot of people,” Gabrynowicz said. “Here are some things you love, and some things you might love to.”
Info: 425 Oberlin Road, tupelohonecafe.com
Jessica Banov: 919-829-4831; @JessicaBanov