Raleigh’s first batch of celebrity chefs has arrived.
No one would dispute that the mayor of the Flavortown that is Raleigh is Ashley Christensen, homegrown heroine and the nation’s reigning James Beard award-winner for outstanding chef.
But heavy is the head that wears the crown of Flavortown: AC put us on the map. Our secret is out, in other words.
In the next year or so, no fewer than three celebrity chefs will open new concepts in the Raleigh area. There’s Top Chef’s Katsuji Tanabe’s as-yet nameless wood-fire grill coming soon to City Market. There’s Ford Fry’s elevated Tex Mex restaurant, Superica, opening in Cary. And, Raleigh Magazine is pleased to be the first to announce, in North Raleigh, Kenny Gilbert—another Top Chef alum—will open a wood-fire grill and kitchen-slash-Southern comfort style smokehouse, Cut and Gather, in the Wakefield neighborhood by the end of the year.
“The vacancy sign went ‘on’ in Raleigh,” says Max Trujillo, a dining industry veteran, host of the NC Food & Beverage podcast and frequent Raleigh Magazine contributor. What started, he explains, with the rise of the craft beer industry in North Carolina—with Midwest and West Coast breweries New Belgium and Sierra Nevada opening production facilities in the state—has now extended to the food scene.
“This is the evolution of [what the beer industry started],” Trujillo continues. “From the outside looking in, the food industry here has evolved from being in a symbiotic relationship to other industries—tech, real estate—to being a draw on its own, the reason people come to town. We can’t fly under the radar any longer.”
Each of the incoming celebrity chefs has their own reason as to “why Raleigh.” For Tanabe, he’s eager to get his young family out of Los Angeles.
“It’s a very douche-y city,” says the Japanese-Mexican Top Chef fan favorite, laughing, as we stroll around the perimeter of Moore Square. His restaurant will marry flavors from both cultures, but don’t call it fusion, he advises; call it dinner. The personable chef is excited to plant roots in a place where friendships happen organically and spontaneously. “You drive everywhere in LA,” Tanabe continues. “There’s no conversations. You don’t go to a bar and talk to a stranger.”
As well as offering an opportunity to escape the douchey-ness, the Triangle impressed Tanabe with its food culture—he raves about the bagels at Transfer Company’s Benchwarmer’s, about the shrimp at Local’s Seafood—and its friendliness.
“Few places in America have a real cuisine,” Tanabe says. “The Carolinas have barbecue, watermelon, shrimp, amazing fish. The Farmer’s Market felt like [the markets in] Mexico. They have all the produce just laying there and you’re talking to the guy who grows these peaches, the lady who grew these herbs.”
That sense of welcoming to a newcomer extends from folks across the local food scene, Tanabe explains.
“Lately, all the friends I’ve been making is because I go to restaurants, meet bartenders, servers, managers,” he says. “I’m from the idea to embrace each other. Safety in numbers. The more bars, restaurants you open, the better.”
It’s a philosophy chefs Gilbert and Fry are likely to agree with. Unlike Tanabe, neither is personally relocating to Raleigh. But both are venturing outside of markets they’re already familiar with, and successful in, with new concepts to take a chance on the Triangle.
Gilbert, who has cooked Oprah Winfrey’s Thanksgiving dinners for the past four years and owns two restaurants in Florida, is famous for his down-home takes on everything from pizza to nachos, salads to superfoods. His menus feature barbecue and other smoked meats as well as side dishes inspired by his Florida-born mother’s southern cooking. For Raleigh, Gilbert envisions a venue that’s homey and inviting, “like walking into your Grandma’s house and getting a warm hug,” he says. Family-style dining and fellowship will be emphasized: “Being able to bring out a platter of food to share amongst loved ones, to me, is what it’s all about.”
The 46-year-old Gilbert’s lengthy resume includes maintaining a AAA Five Diamond kitchen as chef de cuisine of Salt, the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island’s fine dining restaurant, at just 23 years old. His successor to that position was none other than Scott Crawford, and Crawford’s success at Herons and the Umstead, and then with Crawford and Son and now Jolie, Gilbert says, factored into his decision to open Cut and Gather here.
“We’ve been friends for the last several years,” Gilbert says of Crawford. “He’s a family guy. I knew he wouldn’t be planting roots with his family if people there didn’t appreciate good food and that he’d be able to help educate them on food.”
It may be a growing local food world here in the Triangle, but it’s still a small one: as it happens, Crawford’s next concept, a steakhouse, is slated to open in the same Cary shopping center, Fenton, as Fry’s Superica.
Fry, a Houston native with a restaurant empire that spans cities across the Southeast, including Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte, says he has a mission to bring the kind of Tex-Mex he grew up eating in Houston to the region at large.
“People call it elevated Tex-Mex but I look at it as super casual,” Fry says of Superica, which has existing locations in Atlanta, Houston and Nashville. Offerings, including tortillas and salsa, are all homemade and food is cooked on a wood burning grill. “It’s got kind of an Austin, Texas vibe, with classics, and some modern Tex-Mex, margaritas.”
Fry’s draw to the area?
“I love putting restaurants in cities I really like to go,” Fry says. He travelled to the Triangle often with his son who, before leaving to play college tennis at Auburn, played in tennis tournaments around the Triangle. “This was one I thought was super cool, it had great food. Cary was a good opportunity.”
And that in itself could be the crux of it, says Trujillo; chefs, and other industry people in general, just really like Raleigh. And, dare we say it, they like it more than the larger markets where the talent is already concentrated.
“There’s the argument that, to open another restaurant in a well-established city could potentially be more difficult, more challenging, more expensive than to set up shop in a place like this,” Trujillo says. “There is more opportunity here, for a better price.” And while it may mean higher prices for diners, it will also mean higher quality food, more creativity and more variety.
“The diner wins because there are higher expectations, the bar will be set higher,” Trujillo says. “That’s not to say local chefs are any less talented but they’ll be competing more, on a larger scale. Having celebrity chefs here, with their huge social media presences, makes our area more noticed. So they’ll continue to come. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”