You can't throw a stone—or a blueberry, or a chestnut, or a kumquat—without hitting a farm or farmers market in North Carolina. From the Raleigh area down east to Kinston, there are farms of every type: cattle to corn. In the larger cities and villages around the capital, every town (practically every neighborhood, it seems) has their own market that locals not only use regularly, but take pride in. Urban farms have sprouted up on vacant corner lots and rural farms are being revitalized as demand endlessly increases.
Chefs are finding this supportive, exuberant farm culture attractive. And they’re moving to North Carolina for the opportunities they can nurture and grow in an environment where the food culture is flourishing from the grass roots up.
For some chefs, coming to cook in Carolina is actually a return to their roots. In 2005, Chef Vivian Howard left New York City in the dust to open Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, only a 15 minute drive from where she was born in Deep Run. Since the restaurant’s opening, Kinston’s reputation has gone from dead-end to a destination town for food and drink in North Carolina. Howard has helped to revive a defunct farm community, reinvent downtown, and reinvigorate local appetites.
Chef Ricky Moore came home to Carolina after a two-decade career that saw him cooking in some of the most important restaurants in the country. Now he's serving deep-fried soul through the small window of his Saltbox Seafood Joint. The authenticity that trendy young urban chefs are searching for in their souls and kitchens is served in a cardboard dish in Durham.
Chefs and co-proprietors Justin and Katie Meddis of Rose's Meat Market and Sweet Shop returned to the Carolinas from San Francisco and are sharing their expertise, modern techniques, and holistic sourcing practices with the people of Durham. They’re digging up old regional recipes as well, such as the Carolina Red Hots and Potato Sausage from Justin’s extensive charcuterie program. On the sweet side, Katie has loyal patrons coming from all over the state for everything from her ice creams to her chocolate rochers at this innovative American shop.
People are also lining up for pie in Durham. Walking through the doors of Chef Phoebe Lawless's Scratch is like walking into a pie fantasy—Buttermilk Sugar Pie, Corn Chess Pie, Tomato Pie, Peach Cream Pie. What started as a farmers market lark has become a sensation and an institution in Central Carolina.
There’s also a beer and chocolate boom happening in Raleigh and the surrounding areas. Escazú Artisan Chocolates is putting out some the best cacao products we’ve tasted. And just across town in Raleigh, Videri has opened up its entire facility for Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory type tours. Videri is collaborating with Deep River brewers in Clayton to brew chocolate stouts. From Clayton and westward to Hillsborough, we visited seven rapidly expanding brewers—evidence of North Carolina’s rise to national craft brewing powerhouse.
Not to be out done by his brewing counterparts, Sommelier Maximilian Kast of Fearrington House in idyllic Fearrington Village, 30 miles south of Hillsborough in Pittsboro, is pouring suave, elegant, luxurious pairings to match Chef Colin Bedford’s at times robust, at times artfully restrained dishes.
A 20 minute drive north from Pittsboro, in tiny Carrboro, is where you'll find Barman Dean James (yes, that’s his real name) pouring and mixing cocktails with an attention to detail and craft that doesn’t border obsession, but defines it. And James is also defining a cocktail culture where previously there was none, making residents of the region lucky benefactors of his obsession.
Call it the New South, or Neo Soul, Carolina Regional, Contemporary Carolina Cuisine, or Modern Southern, it’s all made possible by a historically imbedded farm culture that ounce was failing and now flourishes in the hands of chefs with skill, vision, and respect for where the people and the food come from. In North Carolina it’s about honoring traditional recipes and food ways but also rediscovery and reinvention. It’s about seeing a blank spot on the food scene and expertly, colorfully filling it in. It’s about being supported by an enthusiastic, interested, and educated community that is still willing to learn, and channeling that excitement into a singular vision.