For chef Jake Wood and his Granny Helen, cooking is a family affair.
Photographs by f8 Photo Studios
It’s a cold, drizzly day at Helen Lawrence’s home in Apex, but she and her grandson, chef Jake Wood, are hanging out on the side porch of the historic white bungalow. In a Faberware electric fryer, pork chops, pre-inspected for crispness and coated in flour seasoning, crackle and pop as they sizzle in oil.
“I usually fry outside because it smells up my kitchen,” Lawrence, or Granny Helen as Wood calls her, explains while Wood, clad in an apron, turns the chops. “My husband was a great one for fish and it really smells up the house, so we just do it outside.”
For Wood—a fixture in the kitchens of some of Raleigh’s top restaurants, including 42nd Street Oyster Bar, Raleigh Raw, Cowfish and 18 Seaboard before, in January, he started as executive chef at Plates Neighborhood Kitchen—
Granny Helen’s influence on his career path, and in his dishes, is pervasive.
“My grandfather and her had a massive garden and I enjoyed shelling peas, and learning how to break down fish and clean blue crab and all that good stuff,” Wood says. “Looking back, those memories are what I try to bring and incorporate into what I do everyday. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Inside, in the home’s cozy kitchen, there’s a spread of Southern-style dishes—“soul food,” Granny Helen calls them—that the pair have been working on together all afternoon: there’s oysters on the half shell, a creamy parsnip and sweet potato casserole, shredded cabbage, flat, cornmeal Johnnycakes, an almost smoky-tasting pea dish topped with bacon, plus pecan pie made using nuts from a tree in Granny Helen’s front yard. The pork chops are a favorite of Wood’s, he says, as he plates one expertly, stacking it on a bed of peas and topping it with garnish, pickled veggies and cabbage. (Granny Helen forgoes the fancy plating, preferring to keep her sides separate; she’s a “plain old country girl,” she explains.)
For Granny Helen, who grew up in Chatham County, country cooking is what she knows best. Her grandfather milled sorghum and cane syrup and her family grew their own vegetables and canned them. With her husband of 64 years, Allen Lee Lawrence, who passed away in 2017, Granny Helen continued her family’s tradition of cooking with food they had grown themselves.
“I have a rose bed out there and we planted some collards last year, so we gathered garnish,” Granny Helen tells me as we take a tour of her garden. After Allen died, she didn’t cook for a year because she felt like she didn’t have a reason to. But now, she’s back in the kitchen, and the garden, again. “We used to have corn, butter beans, tomatoes. My son built raised beds and I just plant tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.”
We step into a spacious shed in the backyard, Allen’s old woodworking shop, where he built benches for the town’s parks. The shed looks different now than it did when Granny Helen’s husband was living—“he was a pack rat,” she explains—but she still uses the shed for storage. There are mason jars of green peas—Uncle George’s peas, they’re called, which, named for a mysterious Uncle George, Granny Helen and Allen picked from a friend’s garden years ago. There’s Allen’s old apple presser, which Jake spruces up each fall so he and Granny Helen can use it to mill cider with second-run apples hauled in from the mountains. And there are jars of home-brewed wine, made from heirloom muscadine grapes that grow on several vines in the yard.
“This is where my grandfather used to make all his wine, back here,” Wood explains. “But it might as well be moonshine.”
“Nobody liked it but him,” Granny Helen adds with a laugh.
“It’s pretty potent,” Wood continues. “We picked a ton of grapes off the vine and he just started experimenting.”
Back in the cozy kitchen, we sit down at a round table to eat. Wood says when he took over at Plates, he was given free rein to revise the menu, and so he incorporated several dishes inspired by his grandmother, including Granny Helen’s Fried Chicken, served with crystal cane syrup, creamed collards and brown butter hominy, one her favorite things to eat. Her jams, creamed corn, cabbages and other pickled vegetables also feature heavily, and, for the spring menu, Wood is planning to incorporate oysters and crawfish, one of his grandfather’s favorites, including brûléed oysters with pimento goat cheese topped with bacon.
“His ambition is to have his own restaurant and call it Olinger’s,” Granny Helen says, just as her daughter, Wood’s mother Nancy, and her great-granddaughter, Wood’s daughter Breanna, appear in the kitchen. Olinger is Granny Helen’s maiden name.
But first, Wood wants to make a solid run at Plates. In addition to the menu revamp, Wood and sous chef Eddie Forbis remodeled the restaurant’s dining room, painting, adding shiplap, chicken coops, farmhouse furniture and Edison light bulbs for a rustic, country feel. On the patio, Wood plans to grow herbs and edible flowers and patrons will be able to enjoy pig pickins and dining al fresco in the warm months with a glass of frosé—frozen rosé, that is.
When Olinger’s does makes its debut, Wood says, it will be a celebration of family, of Granny Helen’s cooking and of her life.
“It will be her name, her recipes attached to it,” Wood says. “There will be dishes like Uncle George’s peas, oysters Olinger, her pork chops. It’s her legacy that I want it to reconnect with and give as much life to as possible. That is a big goal of mine.”