Celebrity Chef Carpetbaggers Come to Town

In Eat, October 2019 by Max TrujilloLeave a Comment

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Based on Raleigh’s booming economy, growing population and love of, and support for, the food and beverage industry, it makes sense that outsiders would set up shop in the City of Oaks—not unlike yours truly, who moved here from California six years ago for a better life. Raleigh offers new opportunity on a relatively undeveloped canvas.

So, naturally, here come the celebrity chef carpetbaggers! What exactly is a carpetbagger, you may ask? It’s something of a derogatory word, so I write this with a tongue-in-cheek touch of irony. Essentially, the term “carpetbagger” refers to a Northerner who moved down here to make money off of the rebuilding South post Civil War, an era known as Reconstruction.

Here in the Triangle, we’re not rebuilding, but rather, creating a thriving restaurant scene. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to get outside help. As I pondered the city’s ongoing development, it dawned on me that Raleigh hasn’t had a ‘Celebrity Chef’ join our ranks. We’ve got home-grown talent like Ashley Christensen, Vivian Howard in Kinston and chefs like Scott Crawford and Cheetie Kumar who, though not from Raleigh originally, really made their names here.

The Celebrity Chef is what’s coming next, from reality cooking show talent to big-city chefs expanding their empires. Katsuji Tanabe from Bravo’s “Top Chef” is opening a restaurant in Raleigh, and Atlanta’s Ford Fry is opening one in Cary. Both are already big names.

Back in Los Angeles, I worked for one of the most famous chefs of our time, Wolfgang Puck. Say what you will about his frozen pizzas and canned soups—which are better than most—he defined the Celebrity Chef persona on the West Coast. Puck forced the hands of other chefs to constantly get better if they were going to compete with his talent and marketing genius.

So what’s good about this and what’s bad?

First, the positives.

These out-of-town talents didn’t become successful without being really damn amazing in the kitchen. That means we’ll see a push for even higher quality dining experiences. And think about the variety and selection. Instead of a handful of options, our city’s restaurant scene will look like Christmas morning under the family tree.

We’re already seeing Raleighites embrace locations from larger restaurant companies. Think about the Dillon: you have Barcelona Wine Bar, O-Ku Sushi and the Oak Steakhouse. Capital Grille in North Hills is always buzzing. Granted, for every Shake Shack that opens, you get a failed Wahlburgers. Yikes.

Which leads me to the bad.

Get ready for prices to go up, lines to get longer, 100 percent having to make reservations and needing to take an Über, because good luck finding a parking spot. Sadly, these are some of the aspects I loathed about living in a big city. There’s also the real threat that Raleigh’s charm as a mid-sized, largely non-corporate Southern city could get lost along the way. So it’s our duty to remind outsiders of Raleigh’s spirit, part of the reason why they moved here in the first place. We have to keep supporting businesses that are locally owned. But we can still be welcoming and have fun exploring and trying new things. A little bit of them and little bit of us can make it better for all. They’re coming, it’s inevitable. But it doesn’t mean Raleigh will change for the worse. I mean, you’re reading a rant written by, like, a totally chill West Coast carpetbagger, bruh…there’s room here for everyone.

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