Last year, when Ben and Karen Barker hosted a private party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their restaurant, Magnolia Grill, Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm brought them a gift. Something he had framed.
Within that frame lies a history of top-tier restaurants in this area—and the South—and the true meaning of "farm to table." There are three receipts from the first purchases the Barkers made for the restaurants where they worked, starting at La Residence in Chapel Hill in 1984. There's one from Fearrington House, where the Barkers were briefly, before opening their own place in Durham in November 1986. That place is Magnolia Grill.
Even if you never ate at Magnolia Grill—where, earlier this year, a plate of cornmeal-crusted Carolina triggerfish in lemon and leek pesto sauce on creamy baby butterbean and hominy succotash with shrimp, bacon and confit tomatoes would have cost you $26.50—you have had many opportunities to taste its influence. You still can, even though the Barkers closed Magnolia Grill last month. Fullsteam Brewery, Toast Paninoteca, Scratch Bakery are owned by Magnolia Grill alumni. And the Barkers helped Counter Culture Coffee create its top-selling Magnolia Grill Blend.
These alumni carry on Ben and Karen Barker's legacy: excellence and a relentless commitment to local ingredients.
Phoebe Lawless, who owns Scratch, worked at Magnolia Grill for about seven years, first as an assistant baker and later as head pastry chef. When she applied, she had only heard about Magnolia Grill through some friends. What she saw there was eye-opening, she said.
"I saw someone who was just as devoted to the quality of the food as to the organization and the professionalism of the kitchen. I'd never seen that before," she said. "I'm not saying that I've been able to duplicate all of those, but there's a lot of organization skills that I witnessed that I took with me, and I really cherish as much as I do any baking education that I got from there. They're equal, and just as important to the success of owning my own business."
Lawless had worked in other restaurant kitchens, but none were like that of Magnolia Grill. "It was a total night-and-day difference in the organization of the staff as well as the cleanliness of the walk-in [refrigerator] and how it was monitored six times a day," she said. "And I really, really loved that environment. It made it really easy to do your job, because you didn't have to ... put out fires in six different directions, which had been my experience in other much more disorganized kitchens."
She credits the Barkers for many things, including introducing her to the concept of using local, seasonal ingredients to build a menu and to the nuances of Southern food. They hired passionate, creative people who taught and learned from one other, as well as the two in charge.
"It was just an atmosphere that was conducive to learning and experience and dialogue that I hadn't been in before," Lawless said. "They fostered that. They created that environment, so I guess I do owe that to them. Whereas the other places I had worked, the majority of people in the kitchen, or management, or owners, it was more just ... just a job."
The Barkers are the first two of only three North Carolina chefs to win chef awards from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. The third is Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill. Reusing, who never worked at Magnolia Grill, said its influence on how we eat today "can't be overstated."
"Karen and Ben supported small farms here long before anyone talked about local, either here or nationally, and their early relationships with farmers helped lay the groundwork for the thriving markets we have now," Reusing wrote in an email. "Their approach to cooking, at the same time sophisticated and deeply personal, allowed people here to experience eating and dining out in a totally new way. Of course they also nurtured a family of cooks and servers that have gone on to become some of the best, smartest food people around."
Hitt and his wife, Betsy, have farmed in Graham since 1981. They've sold vegetables and flowers at the Carrboro Farmers Market since 1986. They've sold to the Barkers for even longer—28 years.
"Betsy and I both think their greatest impact is ... quietly leading the way to using local product, and really sort of being adamant about it in the way they did stuff," Hitt said. "And setting a bar, a level of quality, that a lot of folks said was a pain in the ass. If you ever talked to anyone who delivered to the Grill ... all the delivery drivers always dreaded going there, because Ben ... wanted X quality, and if you had promised him X quality and it wasn't, you'd hear about it. So it really helped our business to where it had to be, for everybody. Not just for him, for everybody."
Now, Hitt said, he sells to several Magnolia Grill alumni and feels the same commitment to quality from them. "We sell to Bret [Jennings] at Elaine's, we sell to Scott [Howell] at Nana's, we sell to Seth [Kingsbury] at Pazzo," he said. "They all do it to different degrees and in different ways, but that's where they learned it."
Both Hitt and Lawless mentioned the late Bill Neal, who preceded the Barkers at La Residence, and later opened Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill. He died in 1991.
"We arrived in a kitchen from which Bill Neal had recently departed, leaving a crew of wonderful disciples intent on preserving his legacy," the Barkers wrote in the preface to their cookbook, Not Afraid of Flavor, published in 2000. "With little experience in the fine dining arena we learned Bill's recipes, his food sensibilities and most important, his absolute integrity in all aspects of food preparation, sourcing of ingredients and cultivating of the supplier relationship."
Hitt, one of those early suppliers, said the Barkers picked up the torch of local food and kept it burning even after Neal died. "Bill Neal was Alice Waters, at least of the East Coast," Hitt said. "He sort of got Ben and those guys thinking that way. Ben helped carry it on, and Bill Smith [of Crook's Corner] too."
The Barkers were part of that first wave across the South who embraced seasonality and regionalism, along with other chefs in other states, Lawless said. "I think Bill Neal preceded them, and I think he set the tone," Lawless said. "He's the first one who started getting recognition for this area."
Counter Culture founder and president Brett Smith travels all over the country and the world. He said he hears only good things about Magnolia Grill from other chefs. "They all have the utmost respect for Ben and Karen, and it makes you appreciate how good they are and how lucky we were to have the Magnolia Grill right here in Durham," he said.
You can still buy Magnolia Grill Blend from the Counter Culture website and at Whole Foods. "It's been a great blend, and we've really enjoyed working with Ben and Karen," Smith said. "It has such universal appeal, and we think people want to keep enjoying it."
Even without Magnolia Grill, the Triangle has a food scene that rivals any in the country: farmers markets, food trucks and nationally acclaimed restaurants. We have our pick of breads, cheeses, jams, beers, sauces, donuts, ice cream, sausages and more—all made locally by passionate people who live in our neighborhoods and who sourced their ingredients nearby. In fact, we might take our "farm to table" culture for granted.
For the Barkers and the Hitts, "farm to table" wasn't a marketing slogan or a cool new trend. It was an exchange of ideas.
For example, the Hitts are always trying to grow the perfect tomato. They asked the Barkers to help them find it. "We will arrive at a point, and then we literally either brought the entire kitchen staff out to the farm and did a blind taste-testing, and they said 'This is the one'... or we'll just give bags of tomatoes to Ben and Karen and say, 'Go home and try this and come back and tell us what you think.' It's that sort of little nitty-gritty detail-y stuff that fine-tunes any business that we'll miss."
Magnolia Grill was never Peregrine Farm's biggest account, "by any stretch," Hitt said. He and Betsy are good friends with the Barkers—they've traveled to Italy and Spain together—and still have access to those talented palates, but things will be different.
"It's that loss of the camaraderie, and [the opportunity] to bounce ideas off of each other, both ways," He said. "We'll still be able to do that, but it'll be different. When you run businesses that are both that hands-on and that intense, you sort of develop that ... understanding about how each other's days go. So it'll be different in that way."