Here are a few of my favorite things: The Thai curry mussels and fries at Kitchen. A simple scoop of strawberry ice cream from Maple View Farm. Oysters Rockefeller from Elaine’s on Franklin. The fried oyster salad from the Fearrington Granary. The steak frites from Acme. The nine-herb salad from The Siena Hotel’s Il Palio. Fried chicken from Venable. The spicy oyster mushroom curry from Jujube. The artisan cheese plate from Oakleaf. Seared scallops with lavender-hazelnut pesto from The Carolina Inn’s Crossroads Chapel Hill Restaurant.
OK, so that’s more than a few, and the really incredible part is that I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned the food trucks, the farmers’ markets, the wide array of ethnic eateries, the gourmet grocery stores, the bars serving sophisticated cocktails, and the new but swoonworthy restaurants that have opened as I’ve been writing this. Some foodies are born. Others are born again when they move to the Triangle. I’ve always appreciated a good meal. My family was even in the business for a while, owning and operating a bed-and-breakfast. But I didn’t become obsessed until moving to the Triangle in early 2009. The food scene here is just that good. It demands that you really savor what you’re experiencing. It motivates you to spread the word: “Soft-shell crabs are back at Crook’s Corner!”
(Although it is always hard for me to go to Crook’s and not order the legendary shrimp and grits.) It evokes an appreciation of its past – even folks who weren’t around in the days of Bill Neal and Ben and Karen Barker know and respect these culinary pioneers.
Our food scene is a profession, an obsession, a pastime, a conversation starter at a cocktail party.
It begins and ends with the relationships our chefs have with farmers. Here, chefs have their favorite farmer on speed dial. The farmer – more rock star than invisible supplier – brings a boxed- up surprise to a chef’s kitchen door, and the contents inspire an outside-of-the-box nightly special by sundown four hours later. Cooking with food grown near home – or as we just call it around these parts, cooking – is a given. Chefs go to great lengths to credit the farms of origin when they write up their nightly menus. Some chefs are even growing their own produce.
But the relationship would mean nothing without the consumer. This area’s population demands a stellar experience delivered to them by the industry’s finest. Triangle diners have a favorite restaurant, chef, bartender, host, server – and yes – a favorite farmer and farmers’ market.
A beautiful, ripe strawberry would not exist without the farmer. It would be squandered were it not for the chef to treat it with its deserved respect, creating a dish in which the flavors emerge bright and clean. And without a discerning diner – one educated on seasonality and open-minded about cooking methods who is willing to pay extra for a piece of fruit that hasn’t been traveling across the country in the back of a truck for a number of days – those plated efforts would be in vain.
As good as it already is, Triangle food just keeps getting better. Acclaim and awards – like Andrea Reusing’s 2011 James Beard for Best Chef: Southeast – certainly help. And as chefs from New York City and Napa Valley relocate here, they’re spreading the word.
But more than that, the interest in food is growing, as students of cuisine are becoming the ubiquitous masters of it. More of us want to farm, home brew and bake pies. More of us want to butcher pasture-raised beef. More of us are launching food product lines – from coffee to peanut butter. And driving the entire movement is the fact that more of us want to eat well, whether we define that as organic or biodynamic, rustic or upscale, calorie-conscious or gut busting.
Sometimes, we have to pinch ourselves: How did this happen? How do we deserve this? We have the gastronomical opportunities of a big city without the traffic or exorbitant cost of living. But brief, unnecessary moments of guilt quickly subside. When we taste that next perfect morsel – it’s never far away – we are overcome with a thought: Food this good deserves to be appreciated. It demands word of mouth, social media posts, online reviews.
My advice? Savor first, and Tweet later.