Staff photo by Shawn Rocco
It's a testament to chefs Karen and Ben Barker of Durham's Magnolia Grill (pictured above) that more than 30 chefs called me back within 72 hours last week in between lunch and dinner services. There were so many lovely quotes and anecdotes that folks shared that I thought I would post a few here that didn't make the print edition.
To read the story, go HERE. If you want to see the "family tree" that our illustrator Tim Lee drew with everyone's photos, scroll down to Related Content on the right and click on the pdf.
Gail Hobbs-Page, cheesemaker/owner, Caromont Farms, Esmont, Va.
"They taught me how to cook. They really made an imprint on my philosophy of food. I can't say that without tearing up."
When Hobbs-Page was deciding whether to become a cheesemaker, she came to Durham to have dinner with the Barkers. She brought cheese for them to taste. After tasting the cheese, she says Ben Barker told her, "Gail Hobbs, I think you ought to do it."
Sonja Finn, chef/owner, Dinette, Pittsburgh, Pa.
"I remember being really impressed that he knew exactly how many strawberries were in the walk-in [cooler]."
"I learned about being anal as hell. He is the most anal chef I've ever worked for."
To illustrate the point, Ferguson shared the story of the fig incident." One day, Ben Barker walks into his walk-in cooler and noticed that one black mission figs in a flat of 24 is missing. Ferguson says Barker comes out of that cooler screaming: "Who ate one of these figs?" Ferguson recalls that Barker was so worked up over the incident that he drafted a letter for the employees to sign swearing they hadn't eaten that fig. Within 15 minutes, Ben Barker had a tearful confession from a female line cook.
But being so protective of his ingredients, Ferguson said, "That's how he's been in business for so long."
Amanda Kingsbury who co-owns Pazzo! in Chapel Hill with her husband, Seth.
Magnolia Grill is responsible for at least one marriage. "We literally met in the kitchen," said Amanda Kingsbury about her husband, Seth, who is the chef at the couple's restaurant, Pazzo!
James Dutra, who now works with Billy and Kelli Cotter at Toast in Durham.
Dutra worked at Magnolia Grill for eight years. He is in the process of buying a house in Oxford that he plans to renovate into a restaurant. What he learned from Ben Barker was "the attention to detail that you need to be successful."
Referring to his own restaurant, Dutra says, "If I can be half that attentive, then I think we'll be OK."
Kelli and Billy Cotter of Toast
Kelli Cotter says, "It is clear to everybody that this is their love. This is their passion." Kelli Cotter worked as a waitress at Magnolia Grill for seven years. When she and her husband opened their restaurant, she says, "I had no blinders on," referring to the time, energy and commitment it takes to own a restaurant based on the Barkers' example.
Geoffrey Slate, chef, Pensacola Country Club, formerly chef/owner of Icon in Birmingham, Ala.
Slate says chefs can put a ton of components on a plate but the flavor may not work together. "Ben's genius," Slate says, "is the ability to put many components on a plate and it still makes sense."
The other lesson from Barker that Slate still teaches his employees is the difference between using an ingredient to season and using an ingredient to flavor. For example, you would add a little Tabasco to season some soup, which would add some heat and acid. Or you could add a lot of Tabasco, so the soup takes on the distinctive flavor of Tabasco.
Bret Jennings, chef/owner, Elaine's on Franklin, Chapel Hill
Jennings did two stints in the Magnolia Grill kitchen. "The first time I worked at Magnolia Grill was like culinary school for me," Jennings says.
"He's the most intelligent chef I've ever worked for. The man never ever takes shortcuts."
Phoebe Lawless, chef/owner, soon-to-open Scratch Bakery in Durham. She currently sells at the Durham Farmers Market.
About her time at Magnolia Grill: "I learned how to bake."
"He really taught me how to distinguish good produce from not acceptable produce, not Grill standards."
"Ben is especially amazing organizationally. He's on top of everything. Having that as a model is really great."
Jason Smith, chef/owner, 18 Seaboard, Cantina 18, both in Raleigh
About Ben Barker, Smith says, "He's a conductor, conducting an orchestra before an audience paying big dollars. You can't have a bad night. That restaurant doesn't have a bad night. They are competing on a national level."
Joey Abitabilo, chef, Shelter Harbor Golf Club, Charlestown, R.I.
In that kitchen, Abitabilo says, "Nothing ever happened without Ben noticing it."
Several alumni referenced how methodical Ben Barker is about inspecting fish that his purveyors delivered. Abitabilo says Ben Barker inspected the firmness, redness of the gills and clarity of the eyes on each fish to make sure it was as fresh as possible. If any didn't meet his standards, Ben Barker wouldn't accept them as part of the delivery, even if that meant not serving fish that night. Abitabilo explained Barker was training his fish purveyor to bring him only the best of the best. "You would rather apologize for food customers don't eat, as opposed to food they did eat."