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Oral Histories

The SFA oral history program documents life stories from the American South. Collecting these stories, we honor the people whose labor defines the region.

ORAL HISTORY

Ben Barker


Magnolia Grill

On the first day of school at the Culinary Institute of America, Ben met his wife-to-be Karen. After graduation (and marriage), he lured Karen south from her native Brooklyn to his native North Carolina.

Together, they took over the kitchen at La Residence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, once the province of the late Bill Neal, arguably the progenitor of New Southern cooking. In 1986, they ventured out on their own, founding Magnolia Grill, in a former health food store, on the western fringe of nearby Durham. Ben and Karen closed Magnolia Grill in 2012.

In the interim, Ben has staked a claim to delivering complicated flavors. He has shown a sure hand at layering one taste upon another. He has cultivated relationships with farmers and artisans. Along with Karen, Ben wrote Not Afraid of Flavor: Recipes from Magnolia Grill.

Among the dishes to emerge from his kitchen (and the pages of that book) – cucumber soup with buttermilk, dill, and vermouth shrimp; pan-fried pork chops on creamy shrimp hominy; rabbit confit with marinated baby artichokes – many evince grounding in Southern traditions and reliance upon Southern ingredients, but eschew provincial simplicity in favor of nuance and forthrightness.

Date of interview:
2005-03-14 00:00

Interviewer:
Barbara Ensrud, SFA Member

Photographer:

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