Monday, March 23, 2015

Fire in the Triangle winner Ryan Conklin honed skills in healthcare kitchens

Ryan Conklin of Rex Healthcare
(photos courtesy Got to Be NC
Competition Dining Series) 
Early in his career, Ryan Conklin used to ditch his logo-emblazoned chef's jacket before walking into a grocery store or business where the company name might be recognized.

"I didn't want people knowing I worked in a hospital kitchen," says Conklin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who landed his first executive chef job at age 24. "I was embarrassed about the food we were serving and wanted to avoid anyone stopping me to talk about it."

With a win at the recent Fire in the Triangle portion of the
Got to Be NC Competition Dining SeriesConklin is no longer concerned about the stigma of hospital food. For the past six yeares, he has served as executive chef at Raleigh's Rex Healthcare, which provides nearly 4,000 meals daily. He previously earned two gold medals, in 2010 and 2012, representing Red at the Association for Healthcare Foodservice Culinary Competition.

Conklin planned his Fire in the Triangle dishes—which featured a vast range of surprise ingredients—on his study of competitor entries that had scored best with culinary judges and paying guests. "It's not about what’s the complicated thing a chef feels like making," he says. "We focused on cooking food that would make people want to lick the bowl. I told our team, 'Every dish should make people feel like it's date night.' " 

Conklin’s winning dessert course included Uno Alla Volta
ricotta-toffee cornmeal upside down cake, ricotta semifreddo,
Meyer lemon-blueberry compote, ricotta-vanilla bean cannoli
cream, pine nut crumble and a balsamic-white peach coulis.

Good advice. With a $2,000 prize and a new handmade chef's knife in his kit, Conklin will advance to the statewide finals to be held in October.

"How cool is that?" he says of his victory over a dozen competitors, many of them well-known chefs at critically acclaimed restaurants. "Who would have thought a hospital chef would win this thing?"

Conklin has been honing his skills in healthcare kitchens for about a dozen years. In addition to cooking for appreciative patients, chefs who work in this field have more stable work schedules than colleagues who work in public restaurants, especially those who cater to the late-night crowd.

"We're all out of here after 8 p.m. We trade weekends and we're off most holidays," says Conklin, who has cultivated a staff of former chef-owners and restaurant cooks who were glad to leave the daily grind. "With what we can accomplish here, I really don't miss working in a restaurant."

Conklin believes his team—as well as talented chefs who cook at assisted living centers and other medical facilities—has a responsibility to do more than just respond to a checkmark indicating a specific dietary need.

"We think of our operation as a hotel-style kitchen within a hospital. It's how we think about food and create new items," he says. "When I first transitioned from the restaurant industry to healthcare, it was a huge culture shock to me. Things were just thrown in the steamers. There was no passion about developing dishes or flavors. No one gave any thought to presentation.

"Today," he adds, "as far as being a chef in this field, I look at it as an untapped market dripping with opportunity and potential."

Conklin blogs about his career and collaborations with other healthcare chefs at “We've become leaders in our field at Rex, and I don't take that lightly," he says. "I like to share information with people who are also committed to reinventing healthcare cuisine.”

While dedicated to thinking outside of the box, Conklin is not offended by having to produce daily batches of that most ubiquitous hospital snack: Jell-O.

"I've got to be honest, Jell-O is a very comforting food. People want it," he says. "But we don't treat it as 'just Jell-O.' When we serve it, we make sure it's the best Jell-O you've ever had."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When in North Carolina, eat as the locals eat

Bob Garner, author of "Foods That Make You Say Mmm-Mmm," will speak at 7pm Wednesday, March 18, during a meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public.

Even with the different options available from east to west and back again, Bob Garner has learned that man cannot live by North Carolina barbecue alone.
Since he wrote his first book in 1996, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, Garner has become one of the state's best known bbq experts. He's written extensively on the passions of those who choose vinegar or tomato sauce - or vice versa - and featured hard working, traditional pit masters in countless WUNC television programs.

In his new book, Foods That Make You Say Mmm-Mmm (Blair Publishing), Garner takes readers along for a journey that stretches from the coast to the mountains - with plenty of pit stops in-between to fill up on local specialties.
"I decided to focus on foods that really are special to North Carolina, as opposed to things that are loved throughout the South," Garner says. "We all eat a lot of mac and cheese and chicken and dumplings, and wash it down with sweet tea. But there is a kind of cabbage collard grown here that is limited to the coastal plain. It's so good that has its own festival in the little town of Ayden, which calls itself the Collard Capital of the World. Now that is truly special."

The pale yellow leaves of the cabbage collard and sweeter and more tender than its stiff, dark-leaved cousin. It's also more precious giving its limited growing season. "I do get a little sad when you can't get them anymore," Garner says, "but then all the spring and summer produce arrives. In North Carolina, there is always something to look forward to."
Garner strived to introduce readers to some traditional foods that are less well-known outside of their native habitat. Ocracoke Fig Cake, which is generally available up and down the Outer Banks when figs are plentiful, is one such example.

"It's perfect for the winter holidays," Garner says of the cake, which uses a jar of fig jam for its rich flavor and distinctive texture.  
"I don't think most people know about that, but they should," he says with a trace of the familiar "mmm-mmm" he uses to accentuate foods he adores.
And while many North Carolinians are familiar with Brunswick stew, Garner would like to see them boldly try some Neuse River fish stew.
"It's a very localized fish made in no more than four counties along the Neuse," he says. "Unless you live there or know people - or are a food historian or a really clued-in foodie - you've probably never tried it."
Garner includes a recipe for Authentic Eastern North Carolina Fish Stew in the book. He warns that it's an ugly bowlful of often boney rockfish, layered with potatoes and onions, and topped with eyeball-like poached eggs slipped in at the last minute. The stew is not to be stirred while cooking - typically outdoors, or in a sheltered garage if it's too cold and windy - to ensure that fish stays in large chunks.
"It's been going on for years and years, but it's a little known dish outside of the immediate area," Garner says, noting that some renegades doctor their stew with crushed saltines . "There are only a couple of places where you can get it commercially, like Ken's Grille on Hwy. 70 in LaGrange.  But only on Fridays."

Another fish Garner originally thought to leave out but couldn't resist in charcoal mullet. Once dismissed as bait fish, sustainable oily mullet - especially jumping mullet - has become popular inland thanks to providers who rush fresh catch from the coast to grateful local consumers.
"Charcoal mullet is food for the common people, a thing locals always ate when others wouldn't," he says. "There's a lesson here. If you eat what the locals eat, you're going to eat well."



Friday, February 27, 2015

Carolina Crossroads to celebrate 90th year with Commemorative Chef's Dinner

Carolina Crossroads Executive Chef James Clark. For information
about the Commemorative Chef's Dinner or to make reservations,
call 919-918-2735 or email
When Executive Chef James Clark took over the kitchen at the Carolina Crossroads three years ago, he surprised some regulars by replacing the upscale fish long featured in signature dishes with lesser-known sustainable species. It took courage then to print words like grunt and jolthead porgy on the famously elegant menu, but now it's the norm.
Over its 90 years of operation - the restaurant began service when the Carolina Inn opened on Dec. 30, 1924 - each executive chef has had made his mark on an institution that has seen its share of academic all stars, blushing brides and assorted word class dignitaries. Their efforts will be celebrated at 6:30pm Saturday during the Commemorative Chef's Dinner.
The four course meal with wine pairings will reflect the contributions of Clark and two of his predecessors, Brian Stapleton and Jimmy Reale. All three are expected to cook side by side to produce the meticulously researched meal.
"We have been looking at a lot of the menus that dated back to the 1950s," Clark says. "It has been fun to see the food they did during this time. We have had some laughs on the prices in those days, but what's been the most fun is taking the old ideas and doing some more updated versions of those dishes. 

For example, a popular dish from the 1960s was a Jellied Madrilène, a cold consommé with Tomato. That has morphed into  Celery Tomato Gelee Garnished with Crawfish Salad, one of the nibbles that will be passed before the meal formally begins.  

Here is the rest of the menu:
  • Passed Items:  Pickled Salmon and Sour Cream on Rye; Crispy Oyster with Leek Country Ham Reduction and Artichoke Relish; and Cured Duck Foie Gras with Macerated Raisins and Brioche
  • First course:  Sea Salt and Sorghum Brined Shrimp served with Celery Root Black Truffle Puree and Chervil Ruby Red Grapefruit Salad
  • Second Course:  Braised North Carolina Bison Short Rib Ragout, Old Mill of Guilford Creamy Grits, Walker Farms Butternut Squash, Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Hillsborough Company Chevre
  • Third Course:  Tea Spiced Muscovy Duck Breast served with Acorn Spoon Bread, Confit Mushrooms along with Pear Watercress Emulsion and Smoked Honey
  • Dessert:  Chocolate and Salted Caramel Hazelnut Torte and Chocolate Frangelico Ganache 

Undated vintage photo of Carolina Crossroads (above) and
the dining room today (below). Photos courtesy Carolina Inn.
Artifacts from the Carolina Inn's storied history are featured in a display that stretches from the lobby down the North and East Halls past the restaurant entrance. It was built in 1924 by UNC alumnus John Spring Hill and designed by award-winning architect Arthur C. Nash, who also designed other campus landmarks. According to its website, Hill donated the hotel to UNC in 1935 with the stipulation that all profits were to be used to support the university's library system.
This article first appeared in Indy Week.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Durham's role in civil rights struggle documented in 'Counter Histories '

This weather-delayed event has been rescheduled for 7pm April 7.
Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina is proud to present "Counter Histories: Durham's Royal Ice Cream Sit-Ins" at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill.

Royal Ice Cream, Durham, is focus of
a documentary short in "Counter Histories,"
a project of the Southern Foodways Alliance
Because of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in that forced Woolworth's to set aside its policy of racial discrimination in the South, most people know that North Carolina figures prominently in the civil-rights timeline.

Fewer are aware, however, that Durham also played a pivotal role. Three years earlier, a group of eight African-Americans decided to challenge the segregation policy that limited them to buying treats at Royal Ice Cream's back door while white customers were welcomed to sit inside.

"We weren't sure what would happen, but we knew it needed to happen," recalls Virginia Williams, who shares her recollections in one of five documentary shorts that compose 
Counter Histories, a project of the Southern Foodways Alliance. "We knew it was time to test the establishment."

Williams will join Kate Medley, Durham photojournalist and producer of Counter Histories, at the rescheduled April 7 meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (
CHOPNC). Jesse Paddock of Carrboro, who directed the Durham feature, also will participate in the event at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Medley says the focus on youth-led protests at segregated lunch counters was envisioned as a fitting way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act, which President Johnson signed just before Independence Day in 1964. The act made segregation in public places illegal.

The other films document events in
Jackson, Mississippi; Rock Hill, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee and Cambridge, Maryland.

Medley produced the piece on Jackson, her hometown, where many still feel the scars of the especially brutal incident. "A lot of the racial tensions still are pretty raw," she says. "It's not something people want to talk about."

Frank Blackwell photo of the brutal sit-in
at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Miss.
Two weeks after the May 1963 sit-in at the local Woolworth's lunch counter, which commanded national media attention, NAACP field agent Medgar Evers was shot in the head after parking in his own driveway. His assassination galvanized national interest in racial discrimination in the South, leading to adoption of the Civil Rights Act.

"One of the underlying goals of the project was not to just tell a story of yesterday and stop the conversation there," says Medley, who discussed the film on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in the context of youth leadership, with students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham. The school has a
permanent display
featuring part of the lunch counter at the old Durham Woolworth's, where a sit-in occurred one week after the more famous one in Greensboro.

"I asked, 'Can you imagine being among these people?' We're still facing a multitude of civil rights issues, but these young people are empowered to make change," Medley adds. "We were insistent in our mission that these films are very forward-thinking and relevant to 2014, 2015, tomorrow. We wanted the ideas to be relevant to what's happening in our world today."

This article first appeared in Indy Week.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Small Italian eatery Gocciolina creates a stir in Durham

Pork with radicchio, fennel and orange salad.
Gocciolina has quickly established itself as a must visit.
Indy Week photo by Jeremy M. Lange
Intermittently, a cell phone in the chef-owner's pocket would also jangle. With an apologetic sigh, he'd glance at the screen and put it away.

"Sorry. It's been a little crazy here lately," Benjamin says, referring to Gocciolina being named 2015 Triangle Restaurant of the Year by The News & Observer. "Our phone system can only hold 50 messages. I think we're going to have to get a new one, or hire someone. Or both."

In the hot-and-cold restaurant trade, these are good problems to have. The buzz about this 45-seat eatery—55, counting the small bar—has been building since it opened last summer. Many diners showed up right away because they appreciated Benjamin's work at popular spots such as Pop's Backdoor, Nana's, Watts Grocery and, most recently, Rue Cler, Pizzeria Toro and Guglhupf.

"We probably won't see some of our loyal regulars for awhile," Benjamin says. "They might not want to deal with the crazy rush, but they'll be back. And just like before, they'll bring their friends."

Word of mouth has been important to the restaurant's success. Much of it also stems from the year Benjamin spent training in Italy, where his plans for Gocciolina were formed.

Thanks to an inheritance and his family's encouragement, Benjamin enrolled in 2007 in a program that focused on Old World ways of preparing traditional foods. The experience forever changed his approach to cooking.

"It was unbelievable. The best year of my life," says Benjamin, adding that he also trained and traveled in Spain, France and Croatia. "I'd never been exposed to so much beauty and different ways of cooking."

He briefly considered staying in Italy, but was homesick for his mother and sister, both of whom live in Durham. "It's something the Italians understand," says Benjamin, whose sister, Talitha Benjamin, recently starting working with him. "Family is everything."

While meals are not served family style at Gocciolina, the menu is designed to encourage sharing at table. There are nine nibblicious antipasti listed on the menu, including creamy marinated corona beans, meatballs with tomato sauce and parmigiano, and crispy fried eggplant with fresh tomato and gorgonzola. They're just $3 each if you order at least three. Vegetable sides range from $4 to $6.

"A lot of people come in, order a bottle of wine and share a bunch of small plates," says Benjamin, who insists that servers ensure a relaxed, hospitable vibe in the cozy dining room. "It's a fun and affordable way to spend an evening."

Main courses are budget friendly, too. Most pasta dishes are $8 or $9, with everything but spaghetti made from scratch in the large prep kitchen downstairs. A grilled steak can be had for just $9, with local pork and lamb chops topping the menu at $19 and $22, respectively. Different daily specials are posted in the dining room.

Benjamin hopes to grow the bar's offerings of Italian beers, wines and spirits, but is limited by the ABC Store system. Amaro and grappa flights are available, as are cups of stiff espresso to go with house-made panna cotta, chocolate almond torte and freshly filled cannoli.

While Benjamin tries to keep at least one table and the bar open for walk-ins, reservations are strongly encouraged as there is nowhere to wait while diners understandably linger over meals. He's already thinking about adding a raised deck to make room for more seating out back when the weather warms.

The phone rings again and Benjamin stares as its screen flashes 50 MESSAGES. He rubs his tired eyes and smiles. "I better start making more pasta for all these people."

This article first appeared in Indy Week with the headline "Buzzy and busy."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Piedmont pop-up to feature Chef Justin Burdett on Tuesday

Chef Justin Burdett
Piedmont will set aside its menu on Tuesday when it becomes a pop-up to showcase the talents of Chef Justin Burdett.
Most recently of the acclaimed Ruka's Table in Highlands, N.C., which closed in January, Burdett is renowned for a dynamic style that deploys technique-driven modern cuisine inspired by Southern traditions. No less than The Lee Brothers of Charleston recently tweeted days on his (and our) behalf: "Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Tweeps! Don't miss @justin­_burdett in a 1-night-only appearance @PiedmontDurham!!!"
"We first encountered Justin Burdett’s cooking when he was Steven Satterfield’s chef de cuisine at Miller Union, and were impressed with how well he channeled Steven's focus on clean flavors and refined technique while showcasing ingredients from the southern garden," wrote Ted Lee when contacted by email. "When Justin moved on to become executive chef at Ruka’s Table, he took the chops he earned at Miller Union to his own place, where he could be unbound, playful, even a little bit wild. He has a finely honed sense of where artistry on the plate and craveable comfort food meet."
Jamie DeMent, owner of Piedmont and Coon Rock Farm, is equally excited about having one Food & Wine's Top 10 chefs in the Southeast in the house.
"He's known for such adventurous Southern cooking - and has a sincere respect for what's growing locally and in season - both of which are paramount for us at Piedmont," DeMent says. "Anything we can do to share the best of what's happening in North Carolina and further this sort of food conversation is important to us and to our customers."
The four-course, $45 per person menu will be offered throughout the dinner service. Burdett is in charge of appetizer through main course, with Piedmont Chef Ben Adams providing dessert:
·         Beet and radish salad with buttermilk, arugula and olive oil
·         Poached clams with celery, sunchoke, almond and lemon
·         Charred pork loin with mustard greens, Anson Mills Jimmy Red grits, sweet peas and roasted onion
·         Chocolate cremaux, celey root ice cream, crispy parsnip and hazelnut
Crawford Leavoy, Piedmont general manager and beverage director, will offer wine pairings upon request. For information or reservations, call 919-683-1213.
A version of this post first appeared in Indy Week.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Daniel Benjamin provides extraordinary, everyday indulgences at lucettegrace

Pastry Chef Daniel Benjamin
(Indy Week photos by Justin Cook)
Daniel Benjamin grew up in a small town in Indiana where the fanciest dessert was an éclair from Dunkin' Donuts. It was huge, crusted with chocolate and stuffed with processed kreme. It reeked with the unmistakable taste of regret.
It's from this unlikely beginning that Raleigh is now blessed with a bona fide pâtissier for the people. For seven years he never repeated a showstopper dessert at the elegant Herons at The Umstead Hotel, where every imaginable tool and ingredient was at his disposal. Now, Benjamin bakes jewel box delicacies in a spare downtown Raleigh kitchen that was once a five and dime.
He wants customers to view lucettegrace, a pairing of his young daughters' middle names, as a place to enjoy an everyday indulgence. Perhaps a petite éclair made from choux pastry dough, topped with a piping of rich mousse and garnished with a wafer of dark chocolate and a crinkle of gold leaf. Maybe a crunchy tart shell whose creamy lemon curd filling is hidden by a bruleéd tower of meringue. And if not one of several exotic flavors of meltingly tender macarons, maybe a grown-up chocolate chip cookie that will make you forget all about sugary-sweet Toll House.
"I loved cooking at Herons, but hated that people viewed beautiful desserts as part of a once-a-year celebration dinner, maybe a wedding anniversary or job promotion," says Benjamin, who starts his day at lucettegrace around 4 a.m. and rarely leaves before dusk. "Here, for no more than a craft beer or an ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, you can enjoy something special just because you want it. Just because you deserve it."
The Pistachio Raspberry Rose Eclair,
the Nanner Budino, the When Peru Met Sicily
and the Ardeche at lucettegrace
Indeed, most individual-size treats at lucettegrace range in price from $2.25 to $6. Local coffee, tea, sipping chocolate and sipping caramel are welcome accompaniments. Benjamin also offers an array of breakfast temptations, including the popular Dixie Cannonball, a warm drop biscuit with hoop cheddar, local sausage, scallions and a scoop of sausage gravy.
Lunch service, ranging from $6 to $8, includes savory soups, salads and sandwiches.
After a year of extreme-makeover renovation, Benjamin opened lucettegrace in November—perhaps the cruelest month for a new food business—in a location on South Salisbury Street, an area familiar to scofflaws and bailbondsmen. Soon, however, he'll count two superstar chefs as neighbors. Within weeks, Ashley Christensen is expected to open Death & Taxes a few doors down. Scott Crawford, former executive chef at Herons, will follow with Nash Tavern next year.
"I keep hearing about how this is the place to be, and I believe it will happen," Benjamin says. "Some days we're really busy and everyone who comes in is happy to be here. Other days, I swear I half expect to see tumbleweeds roll by."
Uneven sales can hurt a small business that counts on customers to leave nothing but crumbs at the end of the day. Benjamin paces the baking carefully so that fresh temptations are always available. Cases are emptied each night and filled with eye-popping delights each morning.
"I don't like doing things the same way twice, which is a very big contradiction to the pastry brain," he says. "One day I'll make a lemon meringue tart, the next day I'll make one with caramel, bits of candied orange and cocoa nibs from Escazu. A lot of it depends on what's seasonal, but mostly it's a quest to make things better, cleaner, more delicious."
Benjamin's work ethic has its roots in his family's independent hardware business. He and his twin brother started working at the store after half-day kindergarten, when they were given feather dusters and directed to tidy up. He cut keys and worked a variety of roles at the store as he grew up, but as soon as he could drive he talked his way into the kitchen of the local country club.
Fifteen years ago, at age 19, he landed in New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. It was his dream to meet legendary baker François Payard, who had been profiled in a magazine Benjamin devoured years before called Pastry Art & Design.
Benjamin soon made a humble pilgrimmage to Payard's patisserie only to discover it was closed on Sundays. He was blown away by the window displays and left in stunned silence. "I thought to myself, 'I could never work here. I'd mess things up.'"
A few months later, with some experience as an apprentice at a small Brooklyn bakery, Benjamin summoned the courage to return to Payard's door step. This time, he walked in—and left with a job. It was the first of many prestigious assignments that built layers of experience in top bakeries and restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., before he was named pastry chef at Herons.
As he advanced from one great kitchen to another, however, he always focused on one day opening his own contemporary patisserie.
"I was lucky to discover early on that I loved to cook. I would watch Graham Kerr on TV and ask my mom to get the ingredients so I could re-create what he made," Benjamin recalls. "A chef's knife felt natural in my hand. When I discovered a piping bag, that was even better.
"And now," he adds with a sigh, his voice weary from a long day of baking and chatting with well-indulged customers, "to have my own place? It's just the best."

"This is a very simple recipe to make, the most difficult task is buying the molds which are becoming fairly easy to find, at least the silicone ones," Benjamin says. "The only other difficult task is fighting the urge to not over stir the mixture and make it perfectly smooth."
Canneles - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK                                                                                            

3 cups milk
1/2 vanilla bean
7 1/2 oz. butter (melted)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup pastry flour
1 egg yolk
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. dark rum
nice pinch of salt
  1. Split the vanilla bean and place it in a saucepan with the milk, butter, and salt. Gently melt and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  2. In a mixing bowl combine the sugar and flour and set aside.
  3. In a small cup, combine the eggs and egg yolk. Gently break up with a fork; don't whisk.
  4. Using a spoon, add the eggs to the sugar/flour mixture. Stir gently just to combine. Don't vigorously whip or try and make perfectly smooth.
  5. Once the milk has cooled enough that it won't scramble the eggs, gently stir the milk into the sugar/flour mixture. Again, stir just to combine.
  6. Add the dark rum, stirring just to combine.
  7. Allow the mix to rest overnight. Remove the mix from the refrigerator and allow to warm a bit (at least an hour) before baking.
  8. When ready to bake, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare your molds according to manufacturer's directions. Gently stir the canneles mixture to re-incorporate any butter that separated to the top.
  9. Pour the mixture into the molds leaving about ¼ inch of space. Place molds in the oven, lower oven to 375 degrees and bake until canneles are dark brown all over. Time will vary due to oven, molds and size of molds. Allow to cool. Store at room temperature uncovered, and eat while fresh.
This article first appeared in Indy Week with the headline "Pâtissier for the people."