Ben Barker

Bacon at the Beach

Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill on vacation with CHOW

By Emily Matchar

Haute Southern fusion cuisine may be de rigueur these days (fried green tomato BLTs or chorizo-studded mac ’n’ cheese, anyone?), but in 1986, when husband-and-wife team Ben and Karen Barker opened Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, the couple were pioneers.

Chef Ben and Pastry Chef Karen, sweethearts who met on the first day of class at the Culinary Institute of America, specialize in seasonally oriented, slightly irreverent dishes—like fois gras–topped grits soufflé and Vidalia onion chowder with Texas Pete aioli, followed by, say, dessert waffles crowned with local goat cheese and honey-thyme ice cream. Crowds and critics have been eating it up for 21 years now, packing the unassuming brick building, once a corner grocery store.

Magnolia Grill was named number 11 in Gourmet’s Top 50 Restaurants listing last year and in 2001, and was nominated for a 2007 Outstanding Restaurant award by the James Beard Foundation. Ben is a past winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southeast award, and Karen is the winner of several pastry chef awards from Bon Appétit and the James Beard Foundation.

CHOW caught up with Ben on the couple’s annual beach vacation. They cut the entire staff loose, lock up the restaurant, and head for the North Carolina coast for a week of fishing, relaxing, and, of course, a little cooking.

What are you doing right now? [Funky gospel music plays in the background]

Frying some bacon for some BLTs.

So you’re enjoying a little R&R? How often does that happen?

We close the restaurant twice a year and [take] as many other opportunities as we [can] devise [usually after the summer American Dance Festival in Durham and again at Christmas and New Year’s]. It just makes it easier for the entire staff. Everybody comes back kind of refreshed and jazzed.

What’s going to be on the menu when you get back—any favorite Southern summer dishes?

I don’t even really start thinking about it until Friday or Saturday. I’ll call some of the farmers and see what’s going on, and then I’ll start thinking about stuff. We often roast [chicken] breasts on a [grill] cage and serve it with cornbread panzanella and cucumbers and tomatoes and summer beans, tossed in a funky homemade Thousand Island with sweet pepper relish. A lightly Southern nod to bread salad.

Also, socca—a chickpea pancake that’s typical [of] Provence, with confit of shrimp and crabmeat. It’s really kind of nutty, with cumin- and saffron-inflected vinaigrette. It just feels like summer.

You’re a bit off the beaten path, being in Durham, North Carolina, yet you’ve won plenty of awards. What did you think of making Gourmet’s Top 50 Restaurants list?

That’s the second time they’ve done that restaurant ranking. Both times they prefaced their little blip about us with, “Well, it’s a weird place with strange lighting, and don’t expect much in the way of ambiance, but the food’s pretty good.” That’s really what we’ve always been about, is the food. There’s some freakin’ great restaurants on that list.

The Beard nomination for best restaurant was kind of weird. We said, “We didn’t know they had truck stops in the mix!” [Laughs] That’s even more gratifying.

You change most of your menu every day; what’s one thing that will always stay the same?

The only thing that stays on the menu all the time is the twice-baked grits soufflé. It’s very specifically Southern, and it can be done in any season of the year. It’s a good way to get folks who think they don’t like grits to become enamored.

What do you like to eat when you get home after a long day at the restaurant?

There are very few human beings on the planet that are as lucky as I am. I walk in the door, and the best pastry chef in America has made me something for dinner: roast chicken, blue cheese, bacon, and tomatoes tossed with salad. Something that goes with wine, regardless.

What’s your relationship like with your employees—are you a good boss? Or are you like Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen?

I think it’s inherently part of who we are as Americans that we don’t tend to think of service as an admirable pursuit, and I think that’s disappointing. We’ve seen some extraordinary individuals. The average tenure here is anywhere from 5 to 10 years. If I were a really shitty boss [I’d] have trouble keeping people.

A lot of restaurants go under after a few years, or the chef gets bored and decides to expand or, say, start his own line of cookware. Are you tired of cooking and running the same restaurant after all these years?

What are you implying? [Laughs] Sometimes you say, “Well, I’d like to do something different.” Part of what we do is go to the beach and think about what we could do different. It’s pretty gratifying what we do—whoa, there’s porpoises cruising out there!

You almost become integral to the way people mark time in their lives: 21st birthdays and 20th anniversaries. You almost appreciate their mundane predictability. They’re what justify your existence, in a way. We’re going to keep running this joint.

You’ve been working out of the same Durham bungalow since you opened. Any major kitchen disasters?

We haven’t had any disasters of late. It’s a somewhat well-organized form of chaos. Knock on wood. It could be in flames as we speak.

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