Former Magnolia Grill chefs Ben and Karen Barker are accustomed to being recognized by in-the-know foodistas, especially in and around Durham. They have laid low since last May, when they unexpectedly closed the restaurant they had operated for nearly 26 years. But the stares have intensified since A Southern Season in Chapel Hill posted a Feb. 7 cooking class with the Barkers. It has sold out.
"I got an email from former customers who wanted us to know they were hungry," Ben says with a laugh as he sips coffee and rubs elbows with his wife in the couple's kitchen. "They read about the class and wanted to know if anything was in the works, if maybe we'd open another restaurant. The answer is no. N-O."
The Barkers, who will mark their 31st wedding anniversary on Valentine's Day, have the content appearance many retirees assume after giving up the grind of their old routine. They take satisfaction in simple pleasures like getting lost in the Sunday New York Times and admiring the vast woods that make their home feel like a vacation retreat.
"Ben's become a bird nerd," Karen says, noting he's bought a few guinea hens that wander about and often bring home friends.
"It is pretty magnificent to be 12 minutes from Chapel Hill-Carrboro but to feel like you're in this supremely rural environment," Ben adds. "We've never really taken the time to enjoy it."
Karen smiles as she watches their wily 4-month-old puppy, Willis, who resembles a mini Bo Obama, loudly gnaw on a chewie. "I know it sounds sappy, but it's been all those things we envisioned when we decided to step back," she says. "It's nice to be able to visit with friends until midnight, go out on a Saturday night and see our grandkids more."
Ben says he was deeply affected when a close friend, younger than they are, experienced health issues in the past year. "It was a signal that we should take advantage of time," he says. "Our folks are all living and we're glad to have time to spend with family. We got to have the day before and after Thanksgiving off for the first time in 30 years."
One of their favorite "discoveries" is a leisurely visit to peruse seasonal offerings at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, where previously they made only brisk stops to claim boxes of pre-ordered supplies. "We walk around, talk with friends and bring home one head of cauliflower and a few chili peppers," Karen says. "You know, like normal people."
The Barkers still cook almost daily, but, as they say nearly in unison, they use smaller pots. As with the iconic restaurant sign, which now lounges in their woods, they've mostly set aside the rich, complex meals featured on the Magnolia Grill menu in favor of more vegetables and grains.
"The restaurant business requires consistency, and you have to pay attention to your audience," Ben says. "Now, we're the audience. We cook what we want to eat."
Cooking more simply, and with protein as "an adjunct" and not the focus, has been a deliberate choice for Ben, who is genetically predisposed to diabetes. It also reflects the reality of no longer having the services of a highly trained prep staff.
The bliss of cooking for pleasure has proven to be inspiring. Ben describes a recent dinner of butter beans and chanterelles harvested last summer from their woods with swoon-inducing detail: the earthy depth of the mushrooms and the creamy, toothsome appeal of the beans.
"You can step away, think about the process for several days and then come back to it," he says of his new cooking routine. "Oh, and there's no telephone involved. No delivery check-in. It's really quite wonderful."
After a 32-day road trip last summer that included stops at 19 cities—only two of which they'd ever visited—the Barkers are content to stay close to home and focus on writing and recipe development. Karen has a feature on rolled cakes scheduled for spring publication in Fine Cooking.
They also want to step up their teaching schedule. "Teaching was always one of the best aspects of being in the business," Karen says. "As restaurant people, we've trained a lot of staff. It's enjoyable to teach people who really want to learn."
They expect to see some loyal Magnolia Grill customers at their upcoming class. They remain grateful for the support, which Ben says let them maintain high standards in the final weeks.
"We could have done more tables, squeezed in more people, but we didn't want to kill everybody," he says. "We wanted to get it over with, but we wanted to do it right."
The only way they'd consider returning to the Triangle restaurant scene would be if their son, Gabe, decided to launch a business here. He currently cooks at Per Diem in San Francisco.
"He's got a position of real responsibility and he's learning a lot," Ben says. "We'd help if he wanted us to, but honestly, right now we're more interested in traveling.
"We'd like to spend a whole week at our beach house, which we've never done in the 14 years we've owned it," says Ben, who enjoys seeing Karen stand in the surf and fish. "We did the math one day and figured that, in a 30-year restaurant career that averaged 50-60 hours a week, we both should be about 80 by now. I think it's time to just kick back a little bit."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Life goes on."