Ben and Karen Barker
1002 Ninth Street
Durham, NC 27705
More importantly still, that Market represented, for us, a way to maintain an absolute finger on the pulse of the rhythm of the season, so that you’re always cooking at the time when things were at their best. —Ben Barker
The husband-and-wife team of Ben and Karen Barker has been serving traditionally inspired, ingredient-driven Southern food at Durham’s Magnolia Grill since 1986, long before restaurants in the area began to call themselves “farm-to-fork.” A native of the North Carolina Piedmont, Ben draws upon childhood memories of his parents’ and grandparents’ culinary techniques and use of farm-fresh vegetables. Karen, a native Brooklynite, has been baking for most of her life and now relishes the chance to pick fresh berries in the summer. The two met on the first day of culinary school and have been cooking together ever since. They are among the Carrboro Farmers’ Market’s most loyal patrons, having built close relationships with many of the farmers. Though Magnolia Grill is consistently lauded as one of the best restaurants in the South and has garnered praise at the national level, the Barkers insist that much of their success lies in the quality of their ingredients.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subjects: Ben and Karen Barker, chefs/owners of Magnolia Grill
Date: July 10, 2011
Location: Barker home, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Interviewer and photographer: Kate Medley
Ben Barker: I am Ben Barker, and I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I currently share responsibility for chefing at Magnolia Grill in Durham with my partner and bride, Karen.
Karen Barker: And I’m Karen Barker, and I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and moved down here after meeting Ben, to Chapel Hill, and we’ve been working together for the past thirty years. Magnolia Grill has been around for twenty-five years this November. And ever since we met in culinary school, we’ve been cooking together ever since.
Kate Medley: Ben, do you want to start by telling us a little bit about the food traditions you grew up with in Chapel Hill?
BB: I was the child of an academic family. My father was on the faculty at University of North Carolina Dental School; however, both of my parents were raised in Burlington, in Alamance County, the adjacent northwestern county from where we grew up. And their families were the first real families to not live on the farm. As a matter of fact, many facets of both of their families still maintained working farms throughout my childhood and adolescence. We’d go drive up Burlington and hang out with my grandparents virtually every weekend throughout my childhood.
And as you might expect, those trips revolved around being together at the table. Most of the cooking on my paternal grandmother’s side was very direct farm food; you know, they maintained a garden even though they lived in the city and had a business there. They had moved there at the Depression, to find work in the mills, because farming wasn’t hacking it in that period of time. However, they still maintained that relationship and link to the land.
My grandfather kept a pretty extensive garden, and my grandmother’s sister and her husband still operated the family farm, which is predominantly a tobacco farm—but subsistence food farm for them as well—at the same time, as well as for the family that sharecropped it with them for the tobacco facet.
So fundamentally, those meals there drove a lot of my thinking about how to eat in a sort of seasonal way without really realizing it until I became an adult and a chef, because it was always seasonal. It was what was out in the yard, and it was what we were eating.
Our grandfather would raise root vegetables and “Ash” potatoes—which is the way he said “Irish”—and white turnips and their greens, and tomatoes and squash and beans, and it was my great, fond memory of walking down there with him barefooted in those sandy rows and watching him make his selections for that moment’s meal.
Food was very vegetable-centric. There would be numerous—what you’d call side dishes, these days, that were really more of the focus of the table, including accompanying pickles—whether they be quick ones, like cucumber and onion—or put-up pickles, like chow-chow and bread-and-butters and relishes and that sort.
And the protein facet was often—and I think this is generational more than anything coming from them, from that Depression Era, you know, unless you had a convenient chicken or a convenient piece of pig nearby, if you had to buy your protein from living in town, which they did, the quantities were smaller. So really it was more about vegetables to us. That’s my recollection. And there was always bread. Now they were quick breads, but there was always bread, and it was an incomplete meal without it. They didn't buy store-bought bread except for when it was time to eat a tomato sandwich, but other than that, there was usually biscuits or cornbread on the table.
You were being instructed in the rhythm of the seasons, and that has fully translated to the way that I cook, and the way that I think about the [Carrboro Farmers’] Market.
Let’s turn to Karen. Do you want to talk about the food traditions that you grew up around?
KB: In a lot of ways, I think my family couldn’t have been more different than Ben’s—from New York, and Eastern European Jewish family on both sides. My parents were first-generation Americans. My dad was the country boy; he grew up in Upstate New York. My grandparents actually had a chicken farm up there. And my mom was the big-city girl; she was from Brooklyn.
We actually did live Upstate for about the first maybe five years of my life, on the farm with my grandparents. And so I have vague recollections of that: you know, being in the chicken coops and chasing the peeps around. And there was, you know, always the fresh corn and the fresh tomatoes, going blueberry picking—that sort of thing.
My mom’s family, though, was actually—I think—even more food-centric. For my paternal grandparents it was more—they grew the food, they put it on the plate, but I don’t think there was that absolute joy kind of thing of my mother’s family where, in fact, life totally revolved around food. That was pretty infectious, I think. Every meal was important. We never ate processed foods. Things were shopped for almost on a daily basis. My grandmother lived upstairs from us, and she often would prepare the meals. My mom worked by the time we moved back to Brooklyn.
And my grandmother was a terrific cook, really terrific cook. I got to come home for lunch from school and there was always a hot lunch on the table for me, which I remember very fondly.
The one thing that we were always told to never skimp on in life and never deny yourself was food. In other words, you could have money for very little else, and they were pretty frugal about a lot of things, but always whatever was really freshest and seasonal and delicious, you know, that was definitely on the table—with again, a heavy kind of emphasis, I would say, more on fruits and vegetables than actual proteins. But like because of the Jewish background, I don’t think I ate pork until I was maybe ten. I remember being on a road trip actually down south to visit—I had an uncle who ran Jewish delis in Miami, and we drove down to visit him and I remember we ate in a diner and it was the first time I ever got to eat bacon [Laughs], which has made a lifelong impression on me!
It being New York, kitchens were really small, and so we grew up with the tradition of eating out also, as well as, you know, cooking good at home. Really great ethnic eating, lots of good Italian food, Chinese food, Jewish deli right up the block; there was a bakery on every corner. So it was, I’d say, simple, urban eating at its finest in a lot of ways, and that’s what really got me interested in food. My grandmother was a great baker, and I think that that’s where that gene came from.
And I think I started playing around on my own baking maybe when I was about ten or twelve when I started realizing that you can do that and feed that to people and they’d be very impressed and happy kind of thing—it was like seal of approval. So my mother would have mahjong games, you know, with her friends like once a week and I would do the baking for that rather than getting something from the bakery. So that was probably my first foray into that sort of thing.
What would you bake?
KB: Cookies; I tried Danish one time, which to me, if you think about it, is pretty involved. I can't believe I ever did that, but they came out, and they were really good. Coffee cakes—my grandmother made a Russian-style coffee cake that I learned how to make from her that was really a favorite in the family; cheesecakes, my father and my cousin would have cheesecake cook-offs. They went to perfect their cheesecake recipe. It probably took them about four or five years, so we ate cheesecake every week for like five years, I think, until they got the recipe just right. And it’s a really great cheesecake recipe, got to say. It’s one that I base a lot of what I do in terms of cheesecakes now on.
When it came to baking, that was always my focus—a little bit on cooking, but it was really the pastry and sweet end of things that kind of got me excited. And I kind of tucked that away in my mind for the longest of times, I think, until I went off to college, learned how to cook for myself, did a really good job of what you could do in a little, you know, dorm room with a toaster oven and a hot plate kind of thing, and turned out some pretty good meals, which again impressed all the boys on the hall, so that was gratifying.
And when it came time to sort of figure out—I was a junior and going, “okay, what am I going to do next? What’s the next step here?”—you know, and my parents wanted me to be a pharmacist, I think [Laughs]. I don’t know where that came from. I think they felt it would be normal hours. They were academics, and I didn't really want to go into teaching.
And I stumbled upon an article about the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and thought, “well, this sounds potentially really interesting. You can make a living off of cooking. I really like to cook, and I love to bake, and I’m going to check this out.”
And in New York at the time, there was a small group of women who were really making a pretty big name for themselves in terms of female chefs, and I think it was a time in general, back in the ’70s, I guess—the late ’70s—where American food was breaking apart from the French tradition. You know, people were taking American ingredients and making it ingredient-focused, employing regional cooking techniques and kind of New American cuisine was being born, so to speak.
So after reading about the success of these women, I just found the whole idea of it really intriguing. And after a visit to the school, I just thought, “You know, this is—this is for me; I’ve definitely got to do this.” And so that’s where my focus was for the next two years. And I met Ben the first day of class. We sat down next to each other in Sanitation. [Laughs] And we’ve seriously been cooking together ever since then.
How do you remember that day, Ben?
BB: We did sit next to each other and engaged with each other that first day. And within six weeks we had become a couple, which was interesting. And we really pursued the culinary degree program with the idea that we would go off together and have a restaurant.
And, you know, to have your relationship for life sort of founded on a mutual passion for not only each other but for an art and a craft has enabled us to, I think, always have something to reach for with each other. We share our cooking, you know, not just in work but at home, and it permeates our life in a way that’s constantly gratifying and rewarding. So I consider us extremely lucky to have found something that we like to do and love to do with each other.
In those early days of your relationship with one another and in Culinary School, what do you remember of your early dreams for a restaurant together?
KB: At the time, I think we were reading a lot about what Alice Waters was doing out in California. And that sounded really intriguing to have a seasonally based restaurant where the menu was limited and changed all the time and was always based on what was best and freshest. And new product that was generated by, you know, farmers playing around with things, and having it be very farm-centric. I always found that really intriguing.
And at the same time as that, we were reading a little bit about a guy named Bill Neal, who, at the very same time, was doing the very same thing, not getting quite as much press for it, but he was doing it in North Carolina. And Ben was from North Carolina. When it came time to graduate and think about, “Okay what’s the next step?” we almost literally tossed a coin and said, “Are we going to the West Coast—to California—or are we going back to North Carolina?” Because in our minds, we could probably do that sort of thing in either place. And we decided because Ben had family here to try and come back to North Carolina.
And I think that those two restaurants [editor’s note: Waters’s Chez Panisse and Neal’s La Residence] were very instrumental in how we thought about developing our own restaurant, wouldn’t you say?
Tell us about how Magnolia Grill came to be, four years out of Culinary School?
BB: You know, I was—like many young chefs—a little bit more self-confident than I probably should have been. And I had a pretty clear image of what I wanted to do, how I wanted to cook, the food I wanted to present, and the style of the operation as a whole, including service and how that should manifest itself. You know, that the servers needed to really understand about the food, about its sourcing, about even if they didn't know how to cook it, I wanted them to know the process so that they could really relate to the guests and be, you know, fully informed when they were at the table. And so when some servers didn't fulfill that investment in what we considered—perhaps overly so—really important, they occasionally would be lambasted for their lack of investment.
Anyway, we were a little frustrated at one point, and we had been driving over to Durham to shop in this store that was about a year and a half old, two years old at that point, maybe—maybe almost three, called Wellspring Grocery. It was located in a—in a former grocery store on the west side of Durham and—and it was just a really neat space.
I said to Karen, “This place would make a great restaurant.” I mean, we walked in the front door and hadn’t even gone through the—the store even at that point. And we continued to come back. And at one point we finally went over to Lex [Alexander, the founder/owner], and we said, “If you ever decide to move, let us know.”
And they had been growing their dream in a good way and had found another location just up the street that was bigger and enabled them to expand the store and its offerings. And Lex was also ahead of his time in his thinking about food and sourcing it, and putting it out there for people to expand their palates. And he called and said, “We’re moving. Are you interested?” And it was one of those days when I think we were—I was a little cranked off about something, and so we said, “Yes, we’re interested.” And five months later, the restaurant was underway. The process of, you know, underwriting it and putting it together and developing it, and we did all the renovation of the space ourselves with our two partners, and it was a very magical time because you know, you built the restaurant and then six months later you opened the doors and four years out of school we had the dream.
Twenty-five years later, we’re still thrilled with that dream. You know, I hope that the young people who pursue that dream figure out what they’re going to do after that. Most of them now have a better idea.
So the Grill opened in what year?
KB: Yeah, November of ’86.
And tell us a bit about the food you were serving and where that was coming from and—and how the community was receiving it.
KB: Well, when we opened we had already had quite a number of connections made from working at both La Residence and Fearrington House with local farmers, the local fish dealers, so sourcing for us was in a way surprisingly easy for that time. And because the menu changed a lot: I mean, especially when we first opened we would change the menu sometimes every day depending on what was available to us.
Certainly our relationships with a number of the farmers that came out of the Carrboro Farmers Market at the time was extremely integral in how we approached food. I know Ben always said that he built his menu vegetables first. It was all about the vegetables and the plate accompaniments, and then the main dish items and the proteins came afterwards. And so that was something that really we were focused on from the get-go, from when we were cooking down here.
Introduce us to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
BB: You know, when I first started going to the Carrboro Market as a cook at La Residence in 1981, the summer of ’81, it was a seasonal market. It was in the old covered parking lot one block behind Main Street, and there were about ten vendors there: Bill Dow, who has been one of the daddies in here; Ken Dawson shortly thereafter; Howard and Louise Pope, who really were tobacco farmers and also truck farmers that sold all the produce that I knew from growing up, but it was—. Dan Graham, another person. It was a fairly small market, reasonably well supported by the food intelligentsia—which is the precursors to current foodies, I guess. Mostly academics, as well as some of the resident population that lived in Carrboro and on the periphery of Chapel Hill.
But there were few restaurant shoppers that sought that Market out. But Bill [Neal] had really defined that as part of the way that La Residence would operate. And so Bill Smith, who was cooking with us at that time, and Sherry Kline, who was the kitchen manager at that time, carried that mantra along with them and said, you know, “This is the way we’ll define the menu, is we’ll go to the Market and see what’s there and then we’ll build what we’re going to cook today out of what we find on Saturdays.” It was a once-a-week market, and so it was somewhat limiting.
But what we found interesting was that the growers were receptive to the cooks that would come to the Market. They were interested in what—we obviously represented higher-volume purchasing, maybe more consistency because we were there week after week. And—and so Dan Graham was a great example of someone who was growing traditional beans—green beans, that is—and I had said, “You know, we can't get any haricots verts. I was wondering, would you consider trying to grow those?” And he said, “Well, sure; I’ll try that.” And was rewarded by finding that not only did we buy them, but the other clients bought them.
More importantly still, that Market represented, for us, a way to maintain an absolute finger on the pulse of the rhythm of the season, and so that you’re always cooking at the time when things were at their best. And you may well know that if you are handling an ingredient at its peak of perfection, then often you’re in a great position to succeed with that finished product. And as a consequence, our food became better as we became more reliant, more insistent that the growers provide us with you know what we were looking for.
And there was also, just at about that time in the early ’80s at the Market, a couple of new young growers who were coming in who were really looking at the Farmers Market as an opportunity to make a lifestyle choice: to own some land, and to not work for someone else; to direct their own lives. Both of those professions: farmers—farming, and cooking—chefing, are very labor and time intensive. And so we found fairly early on that we shared a lot of the work ethic, the understanding of how hard you work would translate into the end result and became very good friends and cultivated marvelous enduring relationships with the people that grew stuff for us. Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm are now lifelong friends.
That moment on Saturday of going to the Market was an opportunity to not only secure the things that we wanted to invigorate our cooking, but also to renew that relationship with the land, because we weren't on it. It was the touching of beautiful produce. It was, you know, feeling like you could pick the nicest things to put in front of people. And it has continued to drive the way we think about food, because it’s just—that connection, constantly—it’s almost more important to me in a way, the sourcing, the buying, the touching, the selecting, the conversation about rain and drought and pests and—including the human ones—that has enabled us to continue really derive a tremendous amount of pleasure out of the, you know, the organic process of being a cook.
Karen, do you want to tell us about y’all’s Market routine? Tell us about a Saturday.
KB: It does differ a little bit of how it originally was, I think. Originally we really would go and literally shop the Market spur-of-the-moment. There was often something new and different that somebody was trying in terms of growing that if you got there early enough—and initially, we were some of the early birds kind of thing—you could snap up, because there would only be so many raspberries there that day or that sort of thing.
As people’s farming methods progressed and, I think, became a little bit more streamlined and economical and organized, so did our menu planning. And what would happen is we would get together actually off-season with some people—Alex and Betsy, primarily, but a couple of the others—and almost go through seed catalogs and say, “Hey, you know, can you try this, this season? You know, you did those really great, you know, red onions last year; is there any way that you can try cipollini onions?”—kind of thing. And so we would almost kind of order up the produce six months in advance, and kind of think about what, potentially, we could do with it.
It’s still a very social occasion I think for us, though, because you don’t get to see these people that much in-season but for the Farmers’ Market. Sometimes off-season, you know, we might get together for dinner or that sort of thing every once in a while. And again, our relationship with the Hitts, I think, has translated in a marvelous way, because we’ve actually even traveled with them a couple of times: once to Italy and once to Spain.
In the late ’80s and—and into the ’90s and now even, how did the community respond to both your ever-changing menus and new produce that was maybe unfamiliar to them?
BB: I would say that, you know, in the early ’90s, the Market was really starting to achieve a significant presence in the community. Carrboro Market was still the only real, local farmers’ market in the Triangle area at that point. But what really happened was that marvelous symbiosis that I spoke of previously, you know, we would invite farmers to grow new things.
Well, this was starting to really be something that people had acknowledged; people were really starting to feel that there was a genuine reward for supporting the growers at the Carrboro Market, you know, that the payback was so demonstrable that they really could understand the value of developing that relationship. And the Market grew and responded to that, you know, became more and more vendors. People would see things on our menu and say, “Where do I get that?” you know, and then they’d want to go and shop for it at the Market.
And as it became, you know, a more extended market and started in the early spring and went into the late fall, it started to expand the horizons. The growers around here started to really realize that—and now it is a year-round market—this climate enabled them to generate more income from their land other than just the summer product. And that consequence enhanced what we were able to do. You know, we were able to cook in the regional farmers’ vernacular for nine months out of the year.
I think the other really transformative moment for Carrboro is when the farmers realized that they could sell meat, and that really changed the grower profile. First, for many of them, they were able to do that in addition to their produce. And basically, many of them realized that the more something weighs, the more money you get for it. And meat weighs more than a lot of produce. And secondly, that hogs are easy to raise for the most part, and that well-raised hogs taste good, and people like knowing where their animals come from.
Poultry has been more difficult just by virtue of the fact that processing is difficult here. And processing is difficult for meat and poultry, but it’s even more so for that, and that’s unfortunate. But the meat side of it has really transformed a lot of the Market, because besides the number of growers who do both, there’s some people who specialize just in meat and have proven to be very successful with bison and lamb and goats and things of that nature. So I see it’s just all of the sudden, the Market is becoming much more complex. You know, there’s prepared foods there now. April McGreger does really marvelous things with canned and pickled items.
So you know, it’s interesting to see, particularly having just gone and experienced the Ferry Market in San Francisco last week, you know, where a lot of our measure of our region is founded on what we thought Northern California was doing with food; the comparables are appropriate, that really we do as good a job and we provide a lot of the same exceptional level of ingredients. We’re not there on fruit and stone fruit—
KB: We’re getting there, though.
BB: —but, you know, there are some people who are doing some great things with fruit. Lyon Farm is magnificent for berries and peaches and some other things. So we’re moving in that direction, and so it’s pretty exciting to see that people aren’t just sitting still with it.
Ten years ago, we could never get a fava bean; this year we got all the fava beans we wanted, and more. The growers are responsive to the cooks and to the regular public these days. And they’re making, I hope, a good living out of it, because you know, it is extraordinarily hard work and they are subject to the vagaries of the weather, but they’re figuring it out now—and some people extremely so.
Are y’all seeing other chefs at the Market?
KB: Oh yeah.
BB: Unquestionably. We don’t take responsibility for it, but we do know that there’s a lot of people—smart people, cooking around here, some of whom came through us and some of whom came from other places. But that market-to-table philosophy is pervasive. You almost can't not do that and be considered legitimate. Whether that’s valid or not, it really is, I think, a fundamental underlying belief amongst most young cooks and chef-owners, chef-proprietors: shop the Market.
You know, Andrea Reusing is a great example of someone who is firmly entrenched in that philosophy and it—and it delivers on the plate for her. Mama Dip is still coming to the Market, and you know, she has to use a cane, but she still comes to the Market. [Editor’s note: Mama Dip is the nickname of Mildred Council, who owns Mama Dip’s restaurant in Chapel Hill.] I’m waiting until I get my handicapped parking space over there, which won't be long, I don’t think. [Laughs]
As the Carrboro Market has expanded and the number of farmers’ markets in the Triangle area has grown substantially, what are the growing pains that the Carrboro Market specifically faces? What challenges are there?
KB: You know, I really wish that they could get this meat-processing thing worked out. And it’s a whole rigmarole of, you know, government regulations and paperwork and red tape, I know. Because I do think that to totally transform things, that protein angle would be just absolutely key.
BB: I would also say that there’s, you know, with the expanding market thing, there’s been a little bit of dilution of Carrboro’s Market, because what we see—even with the breadth of availability—that a lot of the growers grow the same things. You know, they see what’s successful, and some are less willing to be experimental now than they used to be, with certain exceptions. There are a few people who are really trying to press the envelope and see how much they can grow and what they can deliver and what will the Market support?
A great example is the Brinkleys, who have a wealth of vegetable selection, but they also are growing wheat for whole-wheat flour, and corn for meals, and they have just a marvelous selection of various finished pork products, including sausages and ground meats and things of that nature. And I think they really are sort of providing the one-stop shopping opportunity there.
Can y’all give us an idea of what was on the menu at Magnolia Grill last night and sort of how the Market bounty entered the menu?
KB: Green tomato soup, which is a standard of ours, an oldie but a goodie that it’s so good it keeps returning year after year.
BB: Corn chowder. We do a tomato sampler plate from three different producers—that’s three different growers—that does have actually fourteen different varieties on it, with Chapel Hill Creamery mozzarella, so it’s sort of like “Carrboro Caprese.” You know, the ingredients aren't always in the front of the menu; they’re often more, as I and Karen indicated to you earlier, the components develop the menu in that way.
You know, we’re thick with beans and shelling beans right now, snap beans of various types. There’s braised Romano beans that are crazy-delicious. Corn is really starting to come on. Tomatoes will start to be—have become more and more integral to every dish, and so peppers and chilis are really starting to make their component; cucumbers—I’m just trying to think about everything that I picked up yesterday. It is—
KB: That ham and headcheese plate?
BB: Well, you know, is that a function of the Market? It sort of is, so—. Well yeah, it’s a Chapel Hill Creamery pig that became a ham, that’s twenty-four months old that’s served with baby butter beans and then a headcheese made from an acorn-fed, whey-fed hog, and so it’s a pretty straight-up market plate. You know, but it doesn’t announce itself that way. It’s just, everything on it is immediately from here.
And yet, you know, if you think of a ham that takes two years to get to the point where you can serve it, you know, there’s some association with my uncle who cured hams. And that feeling of treasuring an animal enough to invest twenty-four months, and realizing a really marvelous end-result.
KB: Desserts right now, it’s all about the berries. I just went and picked blackberries because that’s my preferred kind of way of spending two hours out at Lyon Farm, and so I come back with enough berries for, you know, at least half the week kind of thing. Blueberries, we’re still into. Peaches are coming on. We don’t have everything in the dessert realm, but as much as we possibly can, you know great mint-chocolate chip ice cream with mint from my garden right now. So there’s always—always something, you know, delicious and wonderful and garden fresh.
What have I not asked y’all about that is pertinent to this conversation?
KB: Maybe the lineage, which I find really interesting, because just as we’ve sent a lot of young cooks off into the world who now have their own really wonderful restaurants and—not just strictly restaurants, but bakeries, or, you know—
KB: —butchers, whatever they’re doing, the same for the farmers. The older generation of farmers that have spawned the young generation of farmers who are really starting to come into their own right now.
BB: Yeah; I think there’s been several, but Alex and Betsy are one great example, and Ken Dawson is another great example, of two Market stalwarts who have nurtured and mentored young growers and given them the tools to be successful in a farm-to-market economy—or economic model, that is.
KB: And the multi-generational farms, too, I find really interesting, because there’s several of them at the Market now and it’ll be, I think, interesting to see how they progress, I mean the Brinkleys being one of them. McAdams is a family farm kind of thing. So when you’ve got—
BB: The Grahams.
KB: The Grahams, yeah; there’s actually quite a number of them, so hopefully the tradition continues and gets passed along within the family. I think that would be really wonderful.
BB: I think the other aspect of it that I appreciate is that even with all the fava bean and white Hakurei turnip growing vegetable-of-the-moment things, there’s still some people who want to grow the old varieties, and that’s really important to me as someone who wants to be able to—one, still cook with those ingredients that mean Piedmont, North Carolina, to me. But also to be able to put them on the plate in front of customers. You know, with diverse audience that we have at the restaurant, there’s less and less people who may have been exposed to that. So be able to do stewed okra in a white-tablecloth restaurant, to braise pole beans or flat beans, to cook purple-hull peas and corn, to have, you know, creamed corn. The vegetables that were on that table that I talked about at the outset of this conversation that define the way I think about where I grew up and the food that I am built on is still available for me to get there. There was a period when it sort of tried to go away, and then fortunately there’s other chefs and consumers like us who demanded that they come back.
And so I’m grateful to be able to have those ingredients. You can get wonderful turnip and mustard greens to cook in the way that they’re supposed to be cooked. You can, you know, feel like you’re translating—or, I guess, channeling—your grandmother when you’re standing in front of that pot in a commercial kitchen. It’s good.
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