Most people who work in a bar or restaurant know the secret to sanity: Treat Mondays as your weekends.
On a recent Monday evening, a calm row of homes on Parker Street eased into the workweek, the familiar flickering from television screens peeking through their curtained windows. One particular house, doors and windows agape, bustled with a slew of young service industry professionals recognizable from the downtown Raleigh scene.
I saunter in and am immediately drawn to a bar gussied up with fancy liquors, elusive bitters and brilliantly colored homemade berry syrups. Above it, a hand-scrawled chalkboard menu distracts me. I read "Ramen bowl. Steamed buns. Pork. Duck." and inadvertently, but pleasantly, raise an eyebrow.
I try to beeline to the back porch. I'm on a mission here to discover the Woking Machine, an intriguing makeshift cooking vessel.
But I'm boxed in by someone asking me if I like pisco, a very particular South American grape brandy. An off-duty bartender shakes, pours and hands me a rouge-colored cocktail that my cheeks would eventually match. The night later proved so decadent, even Dionysus would have blushed.
I take a grateful gulp and steadily move past him toward the kitchen. I overhear Matthew Bettinger, one of the housemates and bar manager at C. Grace, describe his "4 a.m. panic" over a broth possibly gone awry.
"How long had that been rolling? About 15 hours," he tells a friend, before turning to me. "In the middle of the night, we're practically brooding at each other over who fucked it up."
He leads me to the backyard, and there it is. A repurposed washing machine, gutted and spray-painted black, carves out the corner of the small deck. In it, a turkey fryer propped up on a custom-made, plywood shelf faces an open back and an attached propane tank. A huge wok usually sits atop, absorbing the high heat and scalding everything just so.
Bettinger and Ford Dodd, another housemate and cook at Wilmoore Cafe and Mandolin, take full advantage of this machine. Obsessive about their cooking—Bettinger's into ramen; Dodd, among many things, has become a bread connoisseur—they wanted something physically higher, and hotter, than a normal stove. Lewis Norton, bartender at Foundation, built the machine for his housemates along with Beren Houck, another C. Grace bartender. Norton, who studied engineering, is working on making the dials connect with the propane tank for a fully functioning stove.
Bettinger meticulously squirts drops of hot sauce into rows of tiny bowls for a cast of characters that has assembled on the porch. They munch on his flash-fried green beans, spiced with numbing Thai chilis. Zach Neuman, award-winning barista and coffee director at Café Helios, wanders into the kitchen for more. Matthew Taggart, a Louisiana transplant and line cook, rolls out Dodd's dough and steams up Chinese-style buns before hacking through a whole roasted Peking duck and slicing strips of glistening, sizzling pork belly.
Among the guests is a core group of friends and colleagues that refer to each other as "this family," and they gather around the Woking Machine for almost every major holiday (many times ditching their blood relatives early) and on nights off. Evidence of a low-country clam boil mishap hangs on the wall in the form of a tattered colander. The fernet finally arrives with Anthony Guerra, chef and pizza maker at Bella Mia, who taunts us with a big bottle through the open kitchen window.
Downtown Raleigh's scene is electric, amped by celebrated chefs and visionary entrepreneurs. It's so charged, so promising, that Bon Appetit recently ran a feature titled "One Rowdy Night in Carolina," featuring the culinary movers and shakers of the Triangle. The story exuded the work-hard, play-hard vibe of the creative class that has been steadily building our growing reputation of gastronomic excellence.
Restaurants with distinctive niches have settled in nicely within the past few years in the capital city. With this has come an ever-growing clientele honing their very specific tastes for everything from fried chicken and biscuits and barbecue to Lebanese stuffed grape leaves and Japanese sashimi boats to craft cocktails in nuanced flavors.
Beneath it all is an undercurrent of folks helping it tick, charged with just as much ambition as the famous chefs and bar owners. Cooks whisking sauces on the line, baristas swirling crema atop espresso and bartenders slinging your favorite nightcap are working double shifts, at all hours, to make the city happy. And they do it with adrenalin-pumped devotion to their craft.
"Sometimes that weighs heavy on me as someone who has a master's degree, who went to school to be somebody. I have $70,000 worth in school loans," says Laura White as she sips her ramen. She currently bartends at Foundation to help pay her loans. "There's something I feel that is essential and necessary about this interaction. The fact that more and more craft cocktail bars and fancy restaurants are opening ... there's something to be said for creating a market and then driving a clientele and almost forcing them to want more. We're creating the future of Raleigh, and I kind of love that it's being done over a Woking Machine—a fucking washing machine with a turkey fryer in it—and good drinks and good food."
"I get a kick out of seeing someone enjoy themselves as much as I do," Bettinger says. "Life's hard and I am lucky enough to have found something I care about and live a life where I spend most of my time focused on that."
His ramen bowl warms the body, and I know I'll never find this on any take-out menu. He says it is probably the eighth rendition of the broth, a slow boil of peppercorns, pork bones, sake and more.
Kim Hammer, owner of bittycakes bakery, which supplies Café Helios, waltzes in with her gutter sundae. One gutter is permanently nailed to the deck and used as a trough of ice. The other, Hammer has decadently layered with homemade hardened cake crumbs, strawberry compote from Lil Farm berries she regularly picks, vanilla bean ice cream, real whipped cream and dark chocolate sauce. We dig in with shared bar spoons.
Hammer speaks of this family as if it were her own. She walks around downtown with Guerra after last call, scoping out vacant buildings with business pitches racing through their minds. She deliberates ideas with Neuman and life with everyone else.
"Some people don't want to talk about alcohol, butter and strawberries for 40 minutes," she says. "But we do. I can be my authentic self with this family."