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Pioneering Durham chef Scott Howell is closing Nana's, his beloved fine dining restaurant

Durham chef Scott Howell reflects on closing Nana’s restaurant

For 26 years, Durham chef Scott Howell lived his dream of owning and running a restaurant, the acclaimed fine dining Nana's. At the end of the month, Howell, an eight-time James Beard Award semifinalist, says he will close his flagship restaurant.
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For 26 years, Durham chef Scott Howell lived his dream of owning and running a restaurant, the acclaimed fine dining Nana's. At the end of the month, Howell, an eight-time James Beard Award semifinalist, says he will close his flagship restaurant.

For 26 and a half years, Durham chef Scott Howell lived his dream of owning and running a restaurant, the acclaimed fine dining Nana's.

But Howell, an eight-time James Beard Award semifinalist, says he will close his flagship restaurant at the end of the month and retire from the kitchen, ending an era of white tablecloth restaurants in one of the South's great dining cities.

While Howell calls his departure from the kitchen a retirement, he's prepared to start a new chapter.

He's working on building an outdoor music venue with plans to transform a warehouse he bought near Ponysaurus Brewing. There, he said, he will open a second Nanataco, one of his fast-casual concepts, and two other concepts.

"I had a dream. Now I have a new dream," Howell said Thursday morning.

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Chef Scott Howell at Nana's on July 6, 2016. He is closing the fine dining restaurant after more than 26 years. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Howell said Nana's has became too expensive to run and too much work, even though it's still as popular as it's ever been.

"Nana's is an albatross," Howell said. "It's so expensive to operate a business like Nana's. There are no white tablecloth restaurants opening anymore. Not even in New York."

Over the years, he has become one of the pillars of Triangle dining, offering lessons and mentoring a number of area chefs and restaurateurs now running their own projects.

He also owns or is involved with restaurants Nanataco, the Q Shack, NanaSteak and Bar Virgile, all in Durham.

He made the decision Wednesday, the same day he and chef Rick Robinson announced they are opening a new counter-service restaurant, DeeLuxe Chicken, in the former Oval Park Grille space in Durham. It is expected to open in July and will be modeled on fast-casual Nanataco, which is run by managing partner Jen Gillie.

Those restaurants will remain open.

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Fulfilling a dream

Howell grew up in Asheville and trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He worked for some of the top chefs in New York and Los Angeles, including David Bouley and Nancy Silverton, and returned to North Carolina in the late 1980s to be sous chef at the now-closed Magnolia Grill for James Beard winner Ben Barker.

Howell opened Nana's in 1992 as one of Durham's only fine dining spots, along with Magnolia Grill. It was everything he ever wanted.

"Nana's was my dream," Howell said. "I found out I wanted to be a chef, I found out how to be a chef. I got the keys to Nana's on Nov. 1, 1992, and we opened Nana's on Dec. 1, 1992.

"I worked 80 hours a week for the next 10 years of my life," he said. "People would ask 'Why are you working so hard?' I'd say, 'I'm having the time of my life. I'm living my dream.' How many people can say they got to live their dream for 26 and a half years?"

Today, the Triangle stands out nationally for its burgeoning food scene, with Durham at the forefront of what kind of impact food can have on a city. Howell's tenure connects the before and after of Durham dining, and his restaurants have been beloved as pricey special occasion destinations and everyday casual restaurants, both ends of the spectrum woven into the fabric of the city.

But for Howell, today's Nana's seems out of place.

"It is the end of an era," Howell said. "I'm a chef from the '80s. Half the people working in restaurants weren't even born in the '80s. I watched food get hot, chefs became famous. I worked for some really cool chefs and learned some really cool things. I got to work in Italy, New York. I got to live my dream."

An unexpected chapter

Howell would likely still be writing his chef story if not for an accident in 2014, when a 1,200-pound grill fell while being unloaded, crushing his leg and nearly killing him. Suddenly, after building a life of control and a reputation for exacting demands and high expectations, everything changed.

"When something happens like that and you've always been bulletproof and felt like you could do anything and then all of a sudden you couldn't do anything, I went from being the man, and then I couldn't be the man," Howell said. "I was a working chef. When that was taken away from me, it changed the way I thought about Nana's."

He has been open in recent years about the physical and mental effects of the accident. In 2016, he told The News & Observer that he struggled with depression and twice was checked into psychiatric hospitals. He also went to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Earlier this year, he told Men's Health magazine he had to learn to walk again. He told the magazine he smoked marijuana and drank heavily.

When Howell went down, his wife, Aubrey Zinaich, stepped up and ran Nana's without skipping a beat, but so many changes and unexpected roles took a toll on their relationship, ultimately leading to a separation.

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But he overcame the struggles to return to the restaurant.

Still, in the years since, with Howell forced to be more of an administrator than a chef, he said, he realized he was no longer doing what he loved. He sees a city teeming with new restaurants and feels the time for leaving the kitchen is right.

Howell owns the Nana's building and expects to one day welcome some other chef's new project.

"I want to do something new," Howell said. "If I'm being honest, it's time. It's just time."

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