After they closed the much-loved Magnolia Grill in 2012, chefs Ben and Karen Barker said they’d only return to the daily grind of working in a restaurant if their son, Gabe, returned from cooking in California to open his own eatery here.
With 27-year-old Gabe back in town, the family is working together on the launch of an artisan pizzeria in Carrboro. Pizzeria Mercato will open before the new year, if all goes as planned. It’s now under construction just steps from the acclaimed farmers’ market Gabe first visited as a baby.
The little boy who used to nap in the Magnolia kitchen while his mother baked swoonworthy desserts went west to learn his craft after graduating from Chapel Hill High and then UNC-Greensboro, where he earned a degree in history. Unlike his parents, who met on the first day of class at the Culinary Institute of America, he opted for on-the-job culinary training. Far from local curiosity about his talents, he honed his skills in four top kitchens, including the celebrated Pizzeria Delfina.
As its name suggests, Pizzeria Mercato will draw on the farmers’ market – as well as other local growers and producers – for ingredients that will add flavor to pizza Gabe will cook in a gas-fired, brick-lined deck oven. His robust menu also will feature antipasti, soups and fritti, as well as homestyle entrees like roast chicken and baked ziti. Well, homestyle if you grew up in the Barker home.
“If I can help create memorable experiences in the same way my parents did through the Magnolia Grill,” Gabe says, “I will be ecstatic.”
Were you the picky child who only ate pizza, or did you have an adventurous palate informed by having James Beard award-winning chefs as parents?
My parents always made it a point that I try everything once. If
it didn’t suit me, then I wouldn’t be forced to eat more. With parents who were often working long days, I remember making myself tuna melt sandwiches and Kraft macaroni and cheese from a very early age. The former continues to be a favorite go-to lunch of mine, although I have developed a more adult version that often includes some sort of pickled vegetable in it.
You put a lot of distance between yourself and your family to develop your skills. What made the West Coast attractive?
It was always a goal of mine to live outside of North Carolina, preferably in a more metropolitan city, for some period of time. San Francisco is a dynamic city both in aesthetic beauty and cultural vivaciousness. Interestingly enough, there were a handful of guys I went to high school with who lived there at the same time. On my days off, we would often get together and cook large family-style meals; it was gratifying to have a family like that 3,000 miles from home.
I spent my last three years cooking for the Delfina Restaurant Group. This was by far the most influential job during my time in California. The owners, Anne and Craig Stoll, reminded me a lot of my parents as independent chef/owners. They operated their restaurants with incredibly high standards and a dedication to excellence that I found to be inspiring. Their approach to cooking was making use of the highest quality ingredients and transforming them with more traditional Italian technique. I worked my way from being a line cook there to a role as a sous chef for the last year and a half.
Did you always aspire to run a pizzeria?
I have always loved pizza, and it became a goal to learn the skills of cooking it. Thankfully, I was able to work for one of the best pizzerias in San Francisco. As my time at Pizzeria Delfina progressed, I really began to see how passionate I was about that style of food as well as the fast/casual, yet informed service that we provided. Also, it had always been a goal to one day be able to spend time cooking with my mom and dad. Having this opportunity come about so early in my professional career is truly fortunate.
Did watching your parents run Magnolia Grill prepare you for this role?
As a kid, I never quite understood how much hard work it takes to operate a restaurant the caliber of the Magnolia Grill. The time spent in kitchens in San Francisco really opened my eyes as to what exactly they had accomplished. My mom tells me that as a baby I would sit in a bassinet on her pastry table while she worked; I literally grew up in the restaurant. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend very much time cooking in the kitchen when the Grill was open. I have always loved food but didn’t quite know that’s where my own passion would lead me.
Will diners familiar with your folks’ work recognize any menu items or see their influence in your style?
It is undeniable that I grew up with chef parents known for their assertive, punchy flavors that were palate stimulating. I’m hoping to accomplish that same bold flavor profile. That combined with the technique I learned during my time working at Delfina, which focused on simple preparation that let the quality ingredients speak for themselves, will hopefully create a fun and diverse menu. Not exactly Magnolia Grill 2.0, but we will bring the same love and integrity to the food that my parents brought to theirs.