Friday, July 18, 2014

Blaze of glory: Pizzeria Toro readies to re-open after fires

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Gray Brooks at Pizzeria Toro
(Indy Week photo by Justin Cook)
The stink of wet smoke may never entirely clear from Gray Brooks' head. But inside Pizzeria Toro, which closed for repairs last November after a second fire, the air is dusted with the promising scent of rebuilding.
"The biggest change was right here," says the chef and co-owner of the artisan pizzeria. He is pointing to a large, gleaming pipe that will vent smoke and heat out of the restaurant—straight up 32 feet to the roof of the building he's loved since he was a child. "This is why we were closed for so long."
Pizzeria Toro is tentatively scheduled to reopen by July 21. It might be a few days earlier, if Brooks is satisfied with test batches of dough. He promises it will not be more than a few days later if he is not.
Brooks still has not seen a final report from his insurance company, but he suspects the design of the original vent at least contributed to the fire. Building codes are vague about wood-fired ovens, he says, and the original vent zigzagged seven times before it reached the open air. Each bend created cozy pockets for creosote and ash.
Seven months after opening to popular and critical acclaim, the first fire sparked overnight in April 2013. A second, smaller fire started during dinner service in November. It was quickly controlled but forced Pizzeria Toro to close.
The Durham native started crafting upscale pizza in 1988 at Pepper's in Chapel Hill. He later moved to the Outer Banks and ran Pepper's sister operation, Pie in the Sky, in Ocracoke.
Eventually, he needed a change. A friend who lived in Seattle was looking for help with a few carpentry projects at his house. Brooks figured he would visit for a few weeks and take a look around. He wound up staying 15 years.
He planned to spend much of his time writing but soon discovered he didn't like spending hours on end by himself. "There's a connection to people that I was really addicted to," he says. "For me, being in the kitchen feeds that need."
Brooks quickly found a favorite restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Chef Tom Douglas' culinary empire. Before long, he talked his way into a kitchen job. He worked his way up through various positions and eventually was asked to take over Serious Pie, Douglas' then-new artisan pizza place.

"I was planning to open a similar thing in Seattle myself," Brooks recalls. "I had a building. I had investors. But I thought to myself, I could buy a basic car and maybe wreck it, or I could learn how to drive his really nice car. It made sense to me to stay with him."
Brooks rediscovered his passion for making great, slow-rising dough. "It's all about using your brain and the best ingredients," he says. "I was really happy there."
Still, Brooks longed for home. He imagined himself opening a pizzeria in Five Points, a part of town he always loved as a kid. His family used to eat at the Plaza Restaurant, a space now occupied by the Cupcake Bar. On either side, he recalls, was a tailor and a teacher's supply store.
He told his mother that if she ever saw a sign on the building to let him know. She did better than that. At a cocktail party, she overheard Durham architect Scott Harmon talk about updating the property. She jumped right in and staked her son's claim.
"She told him I always wanted to be part of this building," he recalls. "She asked him to wait until I could call him."
The timing could not have been better. Durham's downtown dining scene was on an upswing and artisan pizza was a new concept for the area. Brooks' reputation as a perfectionist was evident from the bottom of his thin, charred crust to the array of seasonal, locally grown ingredients that lightly topped his pizzas. The impressive antipasti and selection of Italian wines and cocktails helped, too. The buzz grew quickly, drawing lines of patrons willing to wait for a seat at the long community table.
At the height of it all, the second fire brought things to a sudden, depressing halt. Still, Brooks says insurance has enabled him and his partners to come back, and the generosity of other restaurateurs gave many of his employees a place to work in the interim.
"We had an amazing team, and nearly everyone is coming back—including Emily Barnard, who made the desserts everyone fell in love with," he says. "We'll open with what we know then get back up to speed quickly."
Several of the red- or white-sauced mainstays from the old menu will be available, including his personal favorite, anchovy with no cheese. They'll also have plenty of the popular Tuscan kale salad.
Brooks is gratified by the excitement that has been building over Pizzeria Toro's return.
"Honestly, the support from people on the street, the kind words is what kept us from falling into a dark place. It was incredible before, and it's even more meaningful to me now," he adds, pausing to shake hands with workers as they walk by. "I really believe it's going to be better than before."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Brunch in Winston-Salem: Sweet Potatoes & Mary’s Gourmet Diner

This post first appeared in Our State magazine.


In the past decade, Winston-Salem’s downtown Arts District awoke from a long slumber to become a vibrant swath of galleries, shops, bars and restaurants. But come Sunday morning, it’s so quiet that you can almost hear an egg crack.

While most business are dark, the hungry are seeking brunch in Winston-Salem. They flock to Trade Street for the kind of down-home, hearty and indulgent fare you can only justify once a week. But oh, it’s so worth it.

The line forms early on the sidewalk outside of Sweet Potatoes, the first restaurant to open in the once desolate district in 2003. Friends and like-minded strangers pass the time comparing notes on intended orders. When co-owner Vivián Joyner ushers them in at 10:30 a.m., it feels like a homecoming.

A few blocks down at Mary’s Gourmet Diner, which opens at 10, diners are already slathering biscuits with apple butter and enjoying their second cup of Krankies coffee. You can easily spot the first-timers by the expression of joyful shock when their generous orders arrive.

 “We don’t want anyone to go away hungry,” says owner Mary Haglund in grand understatement. Haglund says they cook 15 dozen cases of locally-raised eggs each week. That’s more than 2,100 eggs. And they start each day making biscuits from 10 pounds of flour; on weekends, they fix as many as four batches to keep pace with demand.

Popular “build your own” brunch omelets feature four locally-raised eggs and a choice of at least three add-ins – from a list of nearly 40 options – plus a choice of bread. Most dishes come with a side, such as a deep bowl of creamy grits with jalapeno pimento cheese, a mountain of hash browns or stack of apple-smoked crisp bacon. Tempeh, tofu and a true garden variety of vegetarian choices also abound.

While the weekday menu offers smaller and lower-priced versions of house specialties, the brunch-size portions are awe inspiring. Be sure to arrive hungry to if you plan to take on the Crispy Madame – ham and Swiss on grilled sourdough topped with white cheese sauce and a fried egg – or the signature Apple Butter Baby, a discovered-by-accident delight that tucks scrambled eggs, smoked sausage and house-made apple butter between slices of wheat toast.

Inspired by seasonal ingredients, Haglund often offers daily specials. On a recent visit, she riffed on the rich sausage gravy she ladles over biscuits to create a luscious alternative with plump shitake mushrooms. Southern food writer Nathalie Dupree, in town for Salute! The North Carolina Wine Celebration, declared it delicious.

Plump shitake mushrooms provide an appealing twist
on classic sausage gravy at Mary's Diner.
Not surprisingly, sweet potatoes figure prominently in the offerings at Sweet Potatoes, which plows through about 300 pounds of locally-grown tubers each week. There’s the towering stack of sweet potato pancakes (topped with fried chicken tenders, apple marmalade and ginger butter), the Un-French Toast made with sweet potato bread pudding and, of course, flaky sweet potato biscuits.

Not in the mood for sweet potatoes? Try the Uptown Oyster.
Not in the mood for North Carolina’s No. 1 crop? Indulge in the Uptown Oyster, a twist on traditional Benedict that tops Texas toast with gigantic fried oysters, bacon, scrambled eggs and country ham bordelaise. Perhaps the Creole-sauced fish and grits is more your speed? If you arrive after 12 noon, act like an in-the-know local and order the It’s a Sunday Thing! The plate-filling dish features half a buttermilk-brined fried chicken, spicy greens and, of course, a biscuit.

“It’s Sunday in the South. Got to have fried chicken,” jokes Vivián Joyner, who runs the front of the house – often carrying babies to give appreciative mothers a chance to enjoy their meal – while partner Stephanie Tyson cooks in the kitchen. “I’ve tried a lot of fried chicken. Let me tell you: Nobody makes fried chicken like Stephanie.”

Sweet Potatoes only started serving brunch a few years ago to satisfy customers who begged for it. Regulars barely glance at the menu, nodding their orders with the familiarity of one signaling a trusted barkeep. Newbies stressed out over what to order often find comfort from the concierge-like advice of servers, all of whom share a devout passion for food.

Whatever you choose, and no matter how stuffed you think you’ll be, do not skip appetizers. The fried green tomato and okra combo is a classic, and you’ve got to be strong to resist the Three-Cheese Macaroni and Country Ham Soufflé. The Freshly Fried Pork Rind Basket is insanely delicious, perhaps the best rendition you’ll taste this side of Oaxaca.

In the unlikely event you have leftovers,
be sure to get a take-out container.
“A Latin American woman who was here a few weeks ago for a conference ordered it,” Joyner recalls. “She told us that her poppy made them for her when she was a little kid and she hadn’t tasted anything like it since. She meant her grandfather, and she had tears in her eyes.
“We hear that about our biscuits and fried chicken, too,” Joyner adds. “It means so much to us to know that our food really means something so special to people.”

Remarkably, Sweet Potatoes has made this big impact in a very small space. The restaurant has just 13 tables and a small bar with a total of 50 seats. With no room to expand – it is sandwiched between two well-established businesses – it will remain a decidedly intimate space.

Mary’s Gourmet Diner first opened 14 years ago in a different, much smaller location as Breakfast Of Course. It converted a shuttered, former bank on Trade Street into its funky, art-filled space in 2010. Two years ago, Haglund added a large, canopied outdoor patio, increasing capacity to about 150 seats.

Despite this difference, Mary’s Gourmet Diner and Sweet Potatoes have a great deal in common. Both are women-owned businesses that contribute significantly to the growing success of their diverse community. And both feature chefs who are working on new cookbooks projected for 2015-16 release.

Joyner says Tyson is hard at work on her second book, which will focus on soul food. Her first, Well, Shut My Mouth! spotlights recipes from the restaurant, including its legendary biscuits.

Mary Haglund (left) and Nathalie Dupree, via Instagram
“Soul food is comfort food, and that’s something Stephanie really understands. She’s doing a lot of research now, and I get to have the privilege of tasting recipes,” Joyner says with a laugh. “So far, I’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy.”

Haglund’s project, a combination cookbook and memoir, will be her first. The working title is Mary Had a Little Restaurant.

“I’m just a housewife that wanted to run a restaurant,” Haglund says, downplaying her culinary skills. “I’ve been so fortunate to have their experience of watching my dream come true. I can’t wait to see what comes next.”


Mary’s Gourmet Diner

723 Trade St. NW, Winston-Salem
Open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday,
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday

529 North Trade St., Winston-Salem

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
For information about other things to see and do, contact Visit Winston-Salem at 336-728-4200 (toll-free, 866-728-4200) or Its office is located at 200 Brookstown Ave., Winston-Salem, and are open 8:30am to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Successful pastry chef started as a line cook

This post first appeared in Indy Week.
Amber Boone at Harvest 18
(Indy Week photo by Jeremy M. Lange)
As the chef-owner of three successful Triangle restaurants— 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18 in Raleigh, and now Harvest 18 in Durham—Jason Smith believes in the importance of using locally grown ingredients in his kitchen.
Recently, however, Smith took this passion for terroir further by making special arrangements to cultivate local talent, too. He realized that his dedicated young line cook at Cantina 18 would have to go elsewhere to complete a required co-op job through the Wake Tech culinary arts program, so he created a challenging new position for her as pastry chef at Harvest 18 (8128 Renaissance Parkway, Suite 114, Durham, 919-316-1818,
"I really did not want to lose her," Smith says of Amber Boone, who joined his restaurant group two years as an intern while attending school full time. "I see her as part of the family, much in the way most of my people have stayed with me and grown in their careers. I see her as having a very bright future."
Twenty years ago, Smith was in a similar spot, working at Magnolia Grill alongside Chef Ben Barker, whose mentorship helped to launch many successful chefs. Smith is ensuring that Boone works in nearly every aspect of the business, from checking in deliveries and putting away goods to learning how the front of the house operates.
"I started at the bottom and am working my way up," says Boone, who hopes to eventually open her own bakery. "I learn something every day here."
Boone didn't cook much at home when she was young but was attracted to the industry by an uncle who owns a seafood restaurant in Savannah. "I really like the organization of the restaurant environment. It makes sense to me," she says. "Really, I didn't think much about baking until I was in the culinary program. I had to take general baking and I discovered that I really love it."
Boone changed the kitchen routine in her first weeks. She claimed a larger prep space for her evening work station, which gives her ample room to creatively plate her tempting treats, including a clever twist on a Dreamsicle—bright-tasting navel orange gelée topped with a creamy vanilla panna cotta and served in a canning jar. Summer brings an upside-down cake with naturally sweet Sungold tomatoes replacing old-school pineapple.
Though it only opened in March in a shopping center behind Southpoint Mall, Harvest 18 already is outselling Smith's flagship, the upscale 18 Seaboard, on dessert orders.
"I see Amber's desserts as bringing Harvest 18 to a new level," Smith says. "Customers can expect all kinds of seasonal items they won't find anywhere else; things that are more health conscious, too."
Boone has whipped up several new offerings in recent weeks. Early peaches have been the star attraction in a bread pudding made with scraps from Neomonde Bakery; Meyer lemon from Plant City, Fla., has been turned into a zesty cookie bar and topped with plump blueberries from Michigan's famed Rocky Point Farm.
Not tempted? How about rich, housemade chocolate ice cream smashed between a pair of cookies spiked with Raleigh-roasted Larry's Beans coffee beans?
Boone says access to a vast array of ingredients provides endless inspiration.
"Sometimes I'll get a text message when [Smith] is at the farmer's market, so I start thinking right away what I can do with whatever looks great that day," she says. "I don't have time to be intimidated. I'm doing my best to use my training, and the trust they're showing me, to come up with things that people will really enjoy."

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TerraVita Food & Drink Event announces 2014 schedule; tickets on sale July 20

The fifth annual TerraVita Food & Drink Event today announced a blockbuster schedule for its Oct. 9-11 run. Among its highlights will be the North Carolina premiere of the second season of A Chef's Life, the award-winning PBS series featuring Vivian Howard of Kinston's Chef and the Farmer restaurant.

Tickets for all festival events go on sale July 20 through the TerraVita website

The event is larger and spread among more locations this year. A limited number of three-day passes ($425 each) will provide access to bonus non-tickets events and parties, including: 
  • an afternoon event at [ONE] restaurant in Chapel Hill with Chefs Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan and two additional North Carolina chefs – Vivian Howard from Chef and Farmer in Kinston and Scott Crawford of Standard Foods and Nash Tavern in Raleigh
  • a hands-on bread baking class led by Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery and author of A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker 
  • and a special TerraVita After Party at The Black House at Straw Valley in Durham with Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer and Chef Adam Rose
The Southern Harvest Dinner on Oct. 9, will bring together chefs and producers from across the Southeast for an outdoor feast at Southern Season in Chapel Hill. The meal will be prepared by Weathervane Chef Spencer Carter and Chef Kevin Johnson from The Grocery in Charleston, S.C., in collaboration with Border Spring Farms’ Craig Rogers. Rogers' grass-fed lamb will be featured in a casual dinner paired with craft beers, sustainable wines and live music. Tickets are $85 each.

Following the dinner will be the North Carolina premiere of A Chef's Life. Vivian Howard will be joined by the directors, producers, staff and stars of the show, which recently was awarded a Peabody Award. It also had been nominated for honors by the James Beard Foundation.
Ashley Christensen
The Sustainable Classroom, which sets TerraVita apart from so many other food and drink festivals, will be held on Oct. 10. the program features concurrent culinary workshops, food and beverage tasting, demonstrations and topic-expert panel discussions. Among the presenters will be Raleigh Chef Ashley Christensen, who was named 2104 Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation.  Participants may choose to attend up to three 75-minute sessions, which will start at 9:30am. Each ticket costs $60 and includes 3 classes.
Also on Oct. 10 will be The Carolina Table: East Meets West, TerraVita’s celebration of the rich culinary scene from NC’s coast to mountains. The family-style seated dinner will be prepared by Chef Scott Crawford of the soon-to-open Standard Foods and Nash Tavern in Raleigh, Ben Adams of Piedmont in Durham, Matthew Dawes of The Bull and Beggar in Asheville. Other chefs will be announced later. Guests will dine with local food artisans whose cheeses, meats, artisan breads, brews and spirits will be highlighted in each dish. tickets are $100 each.

TerraVita wraps up on Oct. 11 with the Grand Tasting on the Green. Chef demonstrations will be spotlighted for the first time, alongside tastings from 45 exceptional chefs and artisans from across North Carolina. More than 100 sustainably-produced beverages from around the globe will be served, including organic coffee, biodynamic, organically-grown and natural wines, local microbrews and distilleries. Guests also will enjoy cookbook signings and interaction with chefs, artisans and beverage producers from across the state. The all-inclusive ticket is $75; designated driver tickets are available for $60.
For more information please visit or email For updates, follow @TerraVitaFoodie on Twitter and Instagram, TerraVita Food & Drink Festival on Pinterest, and TerraVita Food & Wine Event on Facebook.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Inspired by global travel, a new look at Southern ingredients

Brys Stephens, author of The New Southern Table, will sign copies of his book from 12 noon to 3pm Friday, July 11, at Savory Spice Shop in Lafayette Village, 8470 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh. For information, call 919-900-8291.

“… and it's that if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.” – Dorothy Gale, Kansas

Brys Stephens
Sometimes you have travel far from home to realize that the things you grew up with, the things you took for granted, are more important than you could have imagined.

That happened to Brys Stephens, a food writer who makes his home on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston.  Thanks to his family’s business, which had international interests, Stephens was still a boy when he became a world traveler. Over the years, as he visited farm stands and ate at restaurants around the globe, he couldn’t help but notice how the foods of the American South figured prominently in the cuisines of other countries.

I grew up with great soul food, a lot of African American influences,” says Stephens, author of The New Southern Table (Fair Winds Press, $21.99). “I enjoyed all those classic Southern things, but at the same time I was traveling and seeing different landscapes. The bottom line for me is that what grows together goes together. I think it gave me an ingredient focus in my cooking.”

Stephens’ book is subtitled “Classic Ingredients Revisited.” His goal is not to re-invent fried chicken and biscuits so much as to shows how classic Southern ingredients – okra, sweet potatoes, rice and peanuts, among others – can be used in new ways.

“It’s almost like a jazz riff,” he says. “Look at Edward Lee in Louisville, using kimchi and country ham. India does a red beans and rice dish that looks almost like ours, but they use entirely different spices. That's exciting to me.”

Stephens wants folks who already adore local crops to be emboldened by his recipes, which incorporate the particular spice profiles and techniques favored in places as distinct as Europe and Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean Islands. Not surprisingly, many of these countries have hot growing seasons and, importantly, were part of the slave trade route that carried new foods along with enslaved people.

Stephens says that fusing culinary traditions reflects the changing nature of the South, where immigrants are finding success operating Korean barbecue joints next door to old school smoke shops.

Some recipes completely transform ingredients from how they are commonly consumed in the South. While many of us ate fresh-cut wedges of juicy watermelon over the July 4th holiday, Stephens shows how Sicilians turn watermelon into a jellied pudding studded with pistachios.

“It’s fun and surprising,” he says. “I hope people will feel the same excitement about using familiar ingredients in new ways.”

On Friday at Savory Spice Shop, where he will signs copies of his book, Stephens is expected to offer samples of his Butterbean Hummus, in which he substitutes baby lima beans for chickpeas. While it keeps the sesame tahini popular in Middle Eastern recipes, it recalls the more Southern-inspired Butterbean Pate created by The Lee Brothers of Charleston, who are cited as a strong influence.

The New Southern Table has that hallmark quality of all truly great Southern cookbooks: It makes us want to get into the kitchen and cook sweet potatoes the first day we flip it open!” say Ted and Matt Lee in a book jacket comment.

Butterbean Hummus
Reprinted with permission of the author from The New Southern Table.

4 tablespoons (60g) sesame tahini
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste, divided
1 clove garlic, minced, divided
2½ cups (425g) cooked lima beans
1 tablespoon (15g) nonfat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon (15g) lima bean cooking liquid of water
Kosher salt
Olive oil for drizzling (optional)

In a small bowl, mix together the tahini with one half of the lemon juice and one half of the garlic to lighten the tahini’s texture. Combine the tahini mixture, the remaining lemon juice, garlic, lima beans, yogurt and lima bean cooking water in a food processor, and blend until smooth. Season with to taste with salt, and then blend again to incorporate. Drizzle with olive oil, if desired.

Yield: 2-3 cups (490-740g).