Ben Barker

Magnolia Grill (CLOSED) Durham, NC

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:

March 14, 2005


Barbara Ensrud, SFA Member

Karen and Ben Barker - Magnolia Grill - SFA Founders
I am proud to be a cook in the South because I think what we do is filled with a sense of history, a sense of pronounced regionalism in the way we cook that, even though we might do a bunch of different things or we might cook them with ethnic inflection, the broad and diverse approach to it is still very much farm driven and ingredient driven.

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