Mouthful

Durham's Scott Howell of Nana's: The true story of a chef’s chef

Chef Scott Howell goes over the daily checklist at his restaurant, Nana's, in Durham on July 6, 2016. As an owner, Howell is driven to perfection and known for paying attention to the small details, like a burned-out light bulb in the dining room.
Chef Scott Howell goes over the daily checklist at his restaurant, Nana's, in Durham on July 6, 2016. As an owner, Howell is driven to perfection and known for paying attention to the small details, like a burned-out light bulb in the dining room. jleonard@newsobserver.com

There is the Scott Howell you know and there is a Scott Howell you do not know.

The Scott Howell you know is the enterprising chef who created Nana’s 24 years ago to almost instant acclaim and followed it up with such beloved eateries as the now-closed Pop’s and The Q Shack. He is also launching the next generation of Durham restaurateurs by partnering with former employees to open Nanasteak, Nanataco and Bar Virgile.

More than 200 people gathered to celebrate that Howell in Durham in April at a dinner created by an A-list of local chefs and served by his former employees. They toasted his friendship and mentorship and broad influence on what has become the Triangle’s most vibrant dining destination.

The Scott Howell you don’t know almost died in 2014 after a 1,200-pound charcoal grill was dropped on him during its delivery. That Scott Howell spent the next four months taking doctor-prescribed pain killers, suffering from depression and ending up twice being checked into psychiatric hospitals.

“I lost my way,” Howell says. “I was a worn-out chef. I was a worn-out person.”

His recovery continues, but these past two years have changed the Scott Howell we thought we knew.

Path to the kitchen

Howell, 53, grew up in Asheville, where he was raised mostly by his mother after his parents divorced. Sundays meant dinner at his paternal grandparents’ house, where they ate homemade creamed corn and cornbread baked in a bacon fat-greased cast iron skillet. Restaurants were for special occasions. His 12th birthday merited a trip with his mother to Jared’s, which served classic French cuisine.

He graduated from Appalachian State University with a marketing degree but had most enjoyed working at restaurants and golf clubs. From Boone, he went to Hyde Park, N.Y., to the Culinary Institute of America. That time was a blur of weekdays in class, weeknights breaking down whole fish in one of the school kitchens and weekends working at Manhattan restaurants.

Howell had a knack for finding jobs in kitchens run by chefs who would today make up a stellar cast of Top Chef Masters; they have won James Beard awards, run Michelin-starred restaurants and amassed restaurant empires. “My whole career, I fell from one groovy thing to the next,” he says.

While in school, Howell worked for Jonathan Waxman at Jams and Paul Bartolotta at San Domenico NY. (During a break from school, he worked at Malibu Adobe in Los Angeles and ended up cooking at Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s wedding reception.) After graduation in 1988, Bartolotta arranged for Howell to work for four months at the original San Domenica restaurant, a two Michelin star restaurant outside Bologna, Italy. When he returned to New York, he worked for Larry Forgione at An American Place and David Bouley at Bouley. Then he returned to Los Angeles to work for Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile restaurant and La Brea bakery.

While in California, Howell received a call from chef Ben Barker of the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham. Barker asked whether Howell would come back East to be his sous chef. Howell always wanted to return to North Carolina and open his own restaurant. He spent 18 months at Magnolia Grill and opened Nana’s in 1992.

Nana’s quickly caught the attention of local and national critics, including Esquire’s John Mariani, who included it in a list of the best new restaurants of 1993. Mariani called Nana’s “a perfect example” of the way “regional American food, sensibly influenced by nontraditional flavors, is unbeatable when it comes to gastronomic satisfaction.”

Never satisfied, Howell spent the next two decades opening other restaurants. Some were successful: The Q Shack and Pop’s. Others were not: Rockwood Filling Station and Nana’s Chophouse, his only foray into Wake County. After each misstep, Howell would vow to never again venture beyond Nana’s. (“I said ‘never’ so many times,” he says.)

Along the way, Howell trained many chefs and employees who have gone on to make their own mark on the Triangle dining scene. Just a few include Seth Kingsbury of Pazzo! in Chapel Hill, Mattie Beason of Durham’s Mattie B’s Public House and Black Twig Cider House, Tom Ferguson, originally of Durham Catering Co. and Only Burger who is now selling Rise Biscuits and Donuts franchises (73 and counting), and Ashley Christensen, a James Beard-award-winner who has six restaurants and bars in Raleigh.

About Howell, Christensen says: “Scott was an owner maker. He’s not a chef maker.”

All of those chefs and more than a dozen other former employees worked that April tribute dinner, arranged by Durham Magazine. They all had Scott Howell stories to tell, impersonations to share and joy at being together again in the kitchen or the dining room. There were many shouts of “More chive oil!” – a favorite refrain by Howell in the kitchen during the 1990s when such condiments were a finishing touch on many a restaurant entree.

As they talked about the man they were there to celebrate, a portrait of Howell emerged. A passionate chef, who inspires the same in others. A tough boss, who thinks there is only one way to do things in his restaurant: His way. A driven business owner, who expects his employees to pay attention to the details whether it’s correctly cooking a fish filet or replacing burned-out light bulbs in the dining room. Somemight wilt under such demands, but for many it has inspired fierce loyalty.

Howell has rewarded that loyalty. He is partners with five former employees in three of his restaurants. He also helped the brothers Tom and Dan Ferguson get their start. Howell let Tom Ferguson run Durham Catering Co. out of Nana’s kitchen when he first started. Howell opened the original Q Shack with Dan Ferguson as a partner in 2003; Dan Ferguson bought out Howell in 2005.

“I will never be able to thank him enough,” says Dan Ferguson. “Scott loves taking care of the people who have taken care of him.”

‘I wasn’t the man anymore’

Despite that generous spirit, Howell says he wasn’t actually all that trusting and didn’t let many people in. His parents’ marriage finally ended – after getting married and divorced twice – when Howell was 10. “It just crushed me,” he recalls. He kept his guard up after that, fearful of being hurt.

That changed in 2010, when he started dating Aubrey Zinaich, 36, the sales rep for a distributor who sold wine to Nana’s. They married a year later and Howell became a stepfather to her son, Redmond, then age 3. Marriage, but especially parenthood, started to change him. Zinaich says: “Being a parent is helping him heal that tear in his heart.”

Around the same time, Howell started opening more restaurants with former employees. The first, in 2011, was Nanataco, across from Nana’s. For that project, he asked longtime server Jennifer Gillie to manage the restaurant. Three years in, he made her a partner.

The next was Bar Virgile, which Howell opened to be a part of the booming downtown Durham dining scene. He approached Daniel Sartain, a manager at Nana’s, about being a partner and managing the cozy, cocktail-focused restaurant.

Then when Howell was asked about opening a restaurant next to the Durham Performing Arts Center, he turned to brothers Graham and Brad Weddington, longtime Nana’s bartenders, and a Nana’s sous chef, Tyler Vanderzee, to open a steakhouse. All three are partners in Nanasteak, which opened in February.

That’s all a prelude to better understand what happened after that grill fell on his leg the week before Thanksgiving in 2014. He was left with compound fractures in both bones below his right knee. He underwent six surgeries, was taking doctor-prescribed Oxycodon, a highly-addictive opioid, and was bedridden for four months. “He almost had his leg amputated,” his wife says. “During his third surgery, he almost died. He was in a medically-induced coma for 24 hours.”

While he recovered, Howell had a deep bench of people to lean on to run his businesses. His wife had been planning to quit her job and help run the restaurants so she did so a month earlier. Other longtime employees stepped up to keep Nana’s and Nanataco running and keep Bar Virgile on track to open a month later.

Howell did not take comfort in knowing his businesses were running smoothly without him. This was a man who hadn’t taken more than two weeks off in more than 20 years. This was a man who was used to being in charge. This was a man who struggled with trusting others and who now was completely dependent upon them.

His ego took a hit. Depression took hold. A nervous breakdown ensued.

“I had been the man for so long and suddenly I wasn’t the man anymore,” Howell explains.

When he was well enough to be involved with work, he could be belligerent. “He would raise a shit storm,” his wife recalls.

Mental health issues are common problems in the restaurant industry. That’s what can happen with a high-stress job, long hours and readily available alcohol and drugs. “For a profession that’s so much about sensual joy and physical satisfaction for the end consumer, it’s hard as hell on the psyche,” wrote food writer Kat Kinsman, about why she started a website, Chefs With Issues, to encourage a more open discussion.

The leg injury brought a lot of things to a head for Howell: long-term depression, lack of sleep, partying, years of long stressful work hours and weathering business successes and failures.

It got so bad that twice he found himself checked into a psychiatric hospital, once after asking his wife to remove a gun from the house. In March 2015, he agreed to go to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in the North Carolina mountains.

It was a difficult time. He refused to see his wife for two months. He wrote her a hateful letter and then called to tell her not to open it. He took a personality test and was told he was a sadistic narcissist. In those 84 days, he had to confront the worst things about himself while also trying to let things go and not beat himself up anymore.

Despite how hard it was, the couple refused to give up on each other.

Her: “I took my vows seriously. I really meant it. I was going to stick it out. He has a disease.”

Him: “She’s stuck by me. She could have just as easily gone.”

‘Scottie’s awesome’

At the end of that tribute dinner in April, one by one, many of the folks who had cooked and served that meal stood up to thank Howell. They knew what Howell had been through the past couple of years. This was their chance to say how much they valued his friendship, how much they admired him and that they loved him.

Then of course, it was Howell’s turn to speak. He looked out at the crowd of former employees, longtime customers, friends, classmates, his mother, his best friend since the sixth grade, and of course, his wife and his stepson.

Howell says: “Breaking my leg and losing my life for a minute, I think it was the only thing that would make me stop” – his voice cracking – “and enjoy my family and friends.”

A few moments later, Redmond joined him at the front of the room. The 8-year-old gave him a hug and commandeered the microphone: “All I want to say is Scottie’s awesome.”

More Information

Scott Howell is a partner or owner of four restaurants in Durham:

Nana’s, 2514 University Dr. #104, Durham, 919-493-8545, nanasdurham.com

Nanataco, 2512 University Dr., Durham, 919-489-8226, nanataco.com

Nanasteak, 345 Blackwell St., Durham, 919-282-1183, nanasteak.com

Bar Virgile, 105 S. Mangum St., Durham, 919-973-3000, barvirgile.com

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