Mouthful

Former Magnolia Grill chefs helping son open Carrboro pizzeria

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.
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. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Ben and Karen Barker want to make one thing clear about the new pizzeria they hope to open around New Year’s in Carrboro: This is their son Gabe’s restaurant.

The James Beard-award-winning chefs are coming out of retirement since closing Durham’s Magnolia Grill in 2012 to help their 27-year-old son open Pizzeria Mercato.

“We think we have something to offer Gabe,” said Ben Barker last week in a sit-down interview with his son and wife. The trio have recently been developing recipes for the casual restaurant’s menu.

“It has – I admit – completely been fun,” Ben Barker continued. “He’s shown me some stuff that, as a 62-year-old chef, are killer.”

Gabe Barker had worked for his parents at Magnolia Grill while in high school and college. But always as a bus boy or waiter, not in the kitchen, which was his parents’ domain. After graduating from UNC-Greensboro, he went to San Francisco to work in kitchens, including a French bistro, a Southern restaurant and a friend’s California-Italian eatery where he got his first taste of being a manager.

But the “game changer” – the experience that made Gabe Barker realize he could do this for a living – was working for Craig and Annie Stoll, owners of Delfina in San Francisco. Craig Stoll won a James Beard award for best chef in that region in 2010 — the food world’s highest honor. Gabe Barker got a job at the couple’s pizzeria. After a year, he was promoted to sous chef.

What Gabe Barker says he learned during his three years at Pizzeria Delfina was how to have high standards and produce consistently excellent food despite being in a very busy restaurant. “Everything mattered,” Gabe Barker said. “It did there and it will for us.”

It’s not like Gabe Barker hasn’t always known what high standards are in the restaurant business. His father won best chef in the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation in 2000. His mother took home best pastry chef, a national award, three years later. The family restaurant was a fine dining destination in the Southeast.

Gabe Barker comes by his high expectations honestly. While some may view it as intimidating to work with your parents who have achieved so much in the same industry, Gabe Barker is not intimidated. “I think I view them differently,” he said. “My expectations for myself are higher than their expectations of me.”

Return home

So he was open to the idea when his father sent him a text with a photo of the building for rent on West Weaver Street in downtown Carrboro. Gabe Barker always thought he might move back home. The restaurant that he is creating with his parents’ help is very different from the hushed dining room, perfectly-composed plates of a Magnolia Grill experience.

Pizzeria Mercato will be a 49-seat full-service, casual restaurant serving what Gabe Barker describes as “a Neapolitan-inspired take on New York-style pizza.” There will be the classics (margherita, broccoli rabe and sausage) as well as more contemporary ideas (guanciale, Pecorino Romano, black pepper, scallions and an egg; provolone, radicchio, capers, anchovies and a Caesar dressing).

There will be salads, soups and vegetable dishes that take advantage of the fresh produce at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, which inspired the restaurant’s name. There will be baked pasta and roast chicken as well Italian wines and North Carolina beers. Menu prices will range from $5 to $17.

Karen Barker is designing a simple dessert menu with gelatos and likely olive oil cake, polenta pudding cake and biscottis. (“We’ve been reining her in,” Ben Barker noted.)

All three of them are clear on one thing.

“This is not fine dining,” Gabe Barker said. “This is not Magnolia Grill.”

Added his father: “Bring your strollers!”

Looking for a job?

The Barkers are hiring wait and kitchen staff for their restaurant. Those interested should send a resume to pizzeriamercatonc@gmail.com.

  Comments