For Magnolia Grill’s Karen Barker, life revolved around food. What a sweet life it was.

Karen Barker, the James Beard Award-winning baker of Durham’s Magnolia Grill and one of the brightest stars of the culinary scene she helped establish, has died.

Her husband, Ben Barker, said she died Saturday, Feb. 2, from metastatic cancer. She was 61.

Karen Barker, known for her sublime and whimsical desserts, won the 2003 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, a national award given each year to the country’s top baker. That she won for her work in Magnolia Grill’s Ninth Street kitchen in Durham, one of the very few chefs in a small market to ever win, expanded the scope of culinary excellence beyond just America’s largest cities and started to draw attention to the Triangle’s restaurants.

“It was a powerful win for her,” Ben Barker said Thursday in an interview with The News & Observer. “It proved you didn’t have to be from a major metropolitan area to deliver world class food.”

The Barkers’ beloved Durham restaurant Magnolia Grill remains among North Carolina’s most influential, looming large in the Triangle dining conversation, despite closing nearly seven years ago. Ben Barker also won a James Beard Award as Outstanding Chef: Southeast. The two of them are just a handful of North Carolina chefs to win the coveted culinary award.

“Her desserts were extraordinary, complex, the flavors perfectly integrated and layered,” Ben Barker said. “She built a standard of excellence here.”

The married couple’s kitchen also launched the careers of numerous chefs and owners of some of the area’s most acclaimed restaurants, including Angus Barn executive chef Walter Royal, Scott Howell of Nana’s and pastry chef Phoebe Lawless.

After closing Magnolia Grill in 2012, the Barkers helped their son, Gabe, open Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro three years later. Karen launched the restaurant’s dessert program, highlighted by rich and seasonal gelato and renditions of Italian cakes. Gabe Barker has been a two-time James Beard finalist since then for the Rising Star Award.

Gabriel Barker, son of Ben and Karen Barker (in background), former chef-owners of Magnolia Grill, stands in the space of what will become Gabriel’s new pizzeria at 408 W. Weaver St. in Carrboro on Tuesday, June 24, 2015. Chuck Liddy

A love of food

A love of food was the centerpiece of Karen Barker’s life, never shying from the occasional slice of pie for breakfast.

Karen Barker, born in Brooklyn in 1957, grew up on the Russian-Jewish cooking of her grandmother and all the tastes of New York at the time. Her grandmother taught her how to bake and made her lunch every day.

“My grandmother used to tell me, you know, the one thing that you never skimp on in life is food,” Karen Barker said in an interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance in the mid-2000s, when Magnolia Grill was still open. “So for me it’s — it’s about my whole life — it’s my working life, it’s my social life, it’s what I do with friends, it’s what I do every day professionally. It’s what I like to read about, and certainly, it’s more than just sustenance.”

Ben and Karen Barker met on the first day of culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., 40 years ago this year, placed side by side in the classroom.

“Being in the kitchen with her grandmother, I know, is where she saw the love of food,” Ben Barker said. “The table was the centerpiece of the family for both of us. Food is where you got to share and know each other. It’s what we loved and understood.”

They quickly became a couple, and in the course of their relationship, pieced together the dream of opening their own restaurant, with Karen gravitating to the sweet side and Ben to the savory.

“She was always way more talented than I am,” Ben Barker said. “I’m kind of a good brick layer, I can stack them up pretty well. She made things that were really extraordinary.”

After graduation, the couple married and returned to Ben’s childhood home of Chapel Hill to begin their careers, hoping to work under famed chef Bill Neal at Crook’s Corner, but were turned away by the late Southern food master because of their formal training. Instead, they both worked under his proteges at La Residence and then later took over the Fearrington House kitchen from the legendary Edna Lewis.

Karen and Ben Barker pose on the day they opened the Magnolia Grill in 1986.

The Barkers opened Magnolia Grill in 1986 as a seasonally focused fine dining restaurant in Durham, during an era long before the city became the foodie darling it is today. Still, Magnolia Grill blossomed.

Karen Barker made the desserts, handled the books and arranged the flowers in the restaurant, while Ben Barker cooked the savory courses. They had an open kitchen, the labor of love in the food on display to the dining room. It’s standard these days but unheard of then.

“There were no other contemporary restaurants, really, at that time,” Ben Barker said. “It was somewhat advanced, the kitchen open to the dining room. The goal was to show there were human beings back there devoting great care and attention to your food.”

Ben Barker will admit to the slight dent of his ego in acknowledging dessert as the draw to Magnolia Grill, accounting for 65 percent of the restaurant’s sales.

Caitlin McCormick, pastry chef of the celebrated restaurant FIG in Charleston, worked at Magnolia Grill immediately after graduating from UNC, intending the job to be a brief stopover on the way to graduate school. Instead she found a deepened love of cooking and a new career.

Karen Barker’s dessert menus were longer than most restaurants, usually eight different sweet dishes, each one a knockout, McCormick said. There was always something chocolate, always some expression of seasonal fruit, always some sweet take on cheese.

“I thought she was a wizard,” McCormick said, noting she met her husband working at Magnolia Grill. “In the first month of working there, I realized this is my life and my world. I knew I never wanted to do anything else in my life.

A love of pie

Pie was Barker’s true love in the dessert world, Ben Barker said, predisposed with naturally cold fingers that wouldn’t melt the fat in the crust dough. Her philosophy was berries and fruits in their seasons, the likes of blueberries and peach in the warm months, sweet potato pie, perhaps, in the winter.

She was named Bon Appétit’s Best Pastry Chef in 1999.

Karen Barker is in charge of the desserts at Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro. The current menu includes a Buttermilk Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta. Juli Leonard

“She always felt sweetness was the last thing she was was absolutely looking for,” Ben Barker said. “There was a complexity, a layering of textures and flavors, ingredients integrated in a not-quite-expected way, that made her desserts a delight and surprise from start to finish.”

Ben Barker said Neal dined at Magnolia on a couple of occasions, referring to Karen as the ice cream queen.

“Pie is a delivery system for love,” Ben Barker said. “Though Karen believed there was no pie or cobbler that wasn’t better with ice cream.”

Chef Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, the reigning James Beard Outstanding Restaurant of the Year, called the Barkers his “spiritual soulmates.”

“It was always ‘Ben and Karen.’ Those words were how you addressed them,” Stitt said Thursday in a phone interview. “They were a legendary couple, you could see and feel the love they had for one another. It was inspirational.”

Son Gabe Barker grew up in Magnolia Grill, doing his homework while his mom arranged flowers on the dining room tables and his father prepped for service. Not being a fan of cakes, his birthday dessert was often enormous chocolate chip cookies decorated with icing. His parents’ extraordinary care with food has been the largest lesson, he said.

“To be able to open Mercato with a really small pastry program, to walk in the door and have all these perfect recipes, was a tremendous benefit,” Gabe Barker told The News & Observer Thursday. “She’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. But it is perfect whatever she chooses to do.”

Karen and Ben Barker’s Pizzeria Mercato will be a full-service, casual restaurant serving “pizza Americano,” a hybrid of Neopolitan and New York pizza styles. Gene Furr Gene Furr

In spending her entire career in the Piedmont of North Carolina, the girl from Brooklyn came to know the South through her senses, absorbing tradition and place through the produce of the season and the methods of the local cooks before her. Ben Barker estimates it took his wife a year-and-a-half to understand his mother’s strong Southern accent, but that the food itself became a kind of dialect.

“She was always receptive to adventure and new things,” Ben Barker said. “There was a fine genteel demeanor, but a powerful inquisitiveness ... My grandmother was a great baker and she wanted to learn that skill set. She learned the repertoire of Southern desserts: cobblers, cakes and pies, mastering and excelling in them, but putting her own imprint on them. I don’t think she ever felt she was usurping some Southernness; she loved to make delicious food and wanted it to be excellent. She became the greatest Southern baker who wasn’t raised in the South.”

When it came time to fill out Karen Barker’s death certificate, Ben Barker wanted it to say “Greatest Pastry Chef” as occupation. He was told that it was doubtful that would be permitted.

It was accepted as fact for the official record.

A memorial service for Karen Barker will be held in the spring, Ben Barker said. Though she loved flowers, in lieu of them the family suggests donations to child hunger organization No Kid Hungry.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.