Food & Drink

From two chefs, many

Karen and Ben Barker, owners of Magnolia Grill in Durham on Thursday, April 22, 2010. They're the only James Beard-award winning chefs in NC. Twenty-eight chefs who have worked in their kitchen have gone on to own their own restaurants or become executive chefs.
Karen and Ben Barker, owners of Magnolia Grill in Durham on Thursday, April 22, 2010. They're the only James Beard-award winning chefs in NC. Twenty-eight chefs who have worked in their kitchen have gone on to own their own restaurants or become executive chefs. SHAWN ROCCO -

A decade ago this month, chef Ben Barker of Durham's Magnolia Grill won the Oscar of the culinary world, a James Beard award. Three years later, his wife, pastry chef Karen, did the same. In the years since, they remain North Carolina's only James Beard-award-winning chefs.

On Monday, two Chapel Hill chefs, Andrea Reusing of Lantern and Bill Smith of Crook's Corner, will try to bring home the same honor. The theme for this year's awards gala is "The Legacy Continues," a nod to the mentoring tradition inside restaurant kitchens.

That tradition is strong at Magnolia Grill. The Barkers' legacy includes dozens of cooks who once sweated over their restaurant's stoves and who have gone on to their own success as chefs, restaurant owners, even butchers from Raleigh to California's wine country.

Our chefs' family tree focusing on the Barkers and Magnolia Grill shows a glimpse of the talent that has gone through that kitchen. Surprisingly, this isn't a tale of what the students learned from the teachers so much as what each learned from the other.

"All of these people influenced the way we cook and the way the food is articulated on the plate," Ben Barker says. However, he adds, "it always still remained our food."

Ben's food is described over and over by his former cooks as complex. Dishes leave the kitchen with 18, 20 or more components. Each bite reveals a different flavor, combination and depth.

And yet, those sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, meaty parts are all in balance. "Ben Barker has got one of the best palates I've ever come across," says Scott Howell, who worked at Magnolia Grill in the early 1990s before opening Nana's in Durham.

Meanwhile, Karen's desserts are famously whimsical, turning low-brow ingredients from graham crackers to Peppermint Patties into fine dining fare. A recent offering was peanut butter and banana cheesecake with bacon brittle, aka "The Elvis."

The couple are regular shoppers at the Carrboro Farmers Market. They have long-standing relationships with places such as Peregrine Farm in Alamance County. Their kitchen alumni recall foraging for morels and black trumpets. Recent menus tout Columbia, S.C.'s Anson Mills rice, Siler City's Celebrity Dairy cheese and Chapel Hill's Eco Farm arugula.

Their commitment to local food may be common now, but it wasn't when they started in the late 1980s. Those who passed through their kitchen have continued securing high-quality ingredients and working with local farmers. Joshua Applestone, who has become a media darling of the cool profession of the moment - butcher - credits his experience at Magnolia Grill with leading him to start Fleisher's Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, N.Y.

Coming to the Triangle

The Barkers met as students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. They came to Chapel Hill hoping to work for the Triangle's renowned chef at the time: Bill Neal at La Residence. But Neal turned Ben away, shunning culinary school graduates to train people his own way. When Neal left La Residence to open Crook's Corner, his ex-wife hired Ben and eventually Karen at La Residence. In 1986, they opened Magnolia Grill.

Their first sous chef was Walter Royal, now executive chef at Raleigh's premier steakhouse, Angus Barn. Royal says he learned organization from Ben, whose daily prep lists are legendary among his former staff members. One cook described the two-page legal pad length sheets as "NASA check lists."

Stories of Ben's meticulous nature abound - how he checked every ingredient brought in by a farmer, inspected every fish offered by a purveyor and turned away all subpar ingredients. "Being that methodical and anal, he made damn sure you had everything you needed when it came time to perform," Royal says. "That's one thing I carried with me even decades later."

Open to suggestions

Even now the imprint of chefs like Nana's Howell and Tim Groody, formerly of Sonoma Bistro and Pie Town in Charlotte, can be found at Magnolia Grill. Groody, who worked for the Barkers in the early 1990s, had cooked for James Beard award winners and Michelin-starred chefs before coming to Durham. Howell had worked at such revered restaurants as Bouley and Campanile. About Howell, Ben Barker says, "Scott made us into a restaurant."

During his 1 1/2 year-tenure as sous chef, Howell's suggestions ranged from buying an ice cream machine to allowing people to eat in the bar. Most notably, he started the restaurant's practice of baking bread daily and encouraged Ben to stop serving the same side dishes with every entree.

For Rick Robinson, a line cook at the time, it was a dynamic kitchen because Ben was open to his staff's suggestions and creativity. "To me, that was Ben's genius," says Robinson who went on to open the much-missed Mondo Bistro in Chapel Hill and now works in Napa.

Many former Magnolia Grill cooks say Ben challenged them to develop their palates, urging them to figure out how to tweak a dish to make it better. For those who had no formal training, it was culinary school. For culinary school grads, it was graduate school.

"I would not have been able to succeed in New York without my experience with him," says chef Jason Smith of Raleigh's 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18. He went on to work for restaurateur Danny Meyer and "Top Chef" star Tom Colicchio.

Still meaningful

Several former employees say they still look to the Barkers for guidance or approval.

Sonja Finn worked a mere five months in the Magnolia Grill kitchen during culinary school. But she considers Ben her most influential culinary mentor. She says Ben Barker was among the first to call with congratulations when she was nominated as a semifinalist for a James Beard rising chef award.

When the first glowing reviews came out for her restaurant, Dinette in Pittsburgh, Finn says she had to mail them to him. "I knew he was someone who would be proud of me," she says.

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