On Sweet Potatoes, with Chefs Ben & Karen Barker, Magnolia Grill


If I have any culinary regrets, one would be moving to the Triangle too late to eat at Ben and Karen Barker’s legendary Magnolia Grill before they closed their doors forevermore. Fortunately an award-winning cookbook survived to tell the tale, along with legions of satisfied diners and several notable protegees, Vivian among them. The Barkers belong to that first generation of chefs who laid the groundwork for what we now call the “farm-to-table movement.” They were cooking seasonally and allowing produce to drive their menus while the current crop of Brooklyn hipsters obsessed with the "trend" were still in their plastic nappies and not yet living in Brooklyn. 

The pair met on the first day of culinary school and vowed to start a restaurant together. Ben, a native North Carolinian, convinced Brooklynite Karen to move to NC's Triangle area, first cooking and baking together in the kitchens of La Residence (Bill Neal’s claim to fame), then succeeding Edna Lewis at the Fearrington House near Pittsboro. In 1986, the Barkers opened Magnolia Grill, which became a fixture in the Triangle dining scene and a culinary school of sorts for the rising tide of Southern-inspired chefs that have now made North Carolina famous. Their acclaim just begins at the long list of awards they have received, including the James Beard "Best Chef of the Southeaast" for Ben, and Bon Appetit's "Best Pastry Chef" for Karen.

If you ever have the honor of meeting Karen and Ben: make sure you do so over food. The Barkers recount meals in such delicious, painfully-exacting detail that it physically hurts when their powerful descriptions fail to conjure food out of thin air. Unfortunately for this interviewer, laughter abounded but the food was, regretfully, absent.  

I’m kind of nervous about this interview because Vivian said to me “Ben and Karen are my mentors. These are people I look up to and who have informed much of how I approach food and cooking.” 
Ben: It’s really nice that she says that. It’s funny because she came to the restaurant several times but she’s such a stinker that she wouldn’t identify herself. So we had never seen her in our restaurant, but we did communicate as she was developing a Southern Foodways Alliance relationship. We feel very possessive and parental about her rapid, but well-curated growth as a chef and as a restaurant operator. We feel really fond of Ben and Vivian and have taken some point of pride in their success, and the fact that they they’ve had the balls to do it. 

Karen: People thought we were kind of crazy way back in the day when we opened in Durham, because Durham was – 

B: They didn’t think we were “kinda crazy”. They thought that we WERE crazy. 

K: (laughing) Yeah, so we sort of feel somewhat akin to where Vivian and Ben are at in terms of trying to do something wonderful in a place where it hadn’t really been done before. 

Another thing you two have in common with Vivian and Ben is that you are a couple and business partners. That is one aspect of your story that I found compelling.  You met at culinary school and it all started there.  

B: We went through that culinary program with a dedicated sense of where we wanted to go. We had fairly clear feelings about our relationship from the outset, which is not always true, and so as a consequence, we pursued our culinary education with a goal towards having a restaurant together, extracting all the facets of it that would be most valuable to us in that pursuit, including doing our externship together in order to find out if we could really handle working side-by-side, day-in and day-out. 

K: We really respect what the other person does. And what we each did was a bit different. I took care of the financials and the pastries. Ben did the meals and the wine and directed the front of the house. So we didn’t overlap in duties very much. Although we did hold board meetings a lot. At home. 

B: Yeah. Board meetings in the bathroom (laughing). 

Your names come up a lot in the context of being at the forefront of whatever you want to call it – New Southern Cuisine – or specifically this connection to ingredients and seasonality. When you think about your start and recognize that you were on that forefront, what led you there? What was brewing in your hearts and your heads to bring you to that point and move you in that direction? 

K: I came from a family where food was incredibly important. Freshness was really important, seasonality was important. The whole concept of all that – it’s not new. It’s really pretty old.  I lived in Brooklyn so it wasn’t the farm mentality, which I think Ben had a little more of, because some of his family were subsistence farmers. Your aunt and uncle – 

B: and my grandfather and my great grandfather...

K: And the love of food, that making it central in your lives – that’s just the way our families ate. And for me, coming down here, it really started when we worked at La Residence in Chapel Hill, which was my first job after culinary school.  Back in the day, they ran a daily changing menu based on whatever was freshest. At the time, Bill Neal was doing things on the East Coast just like Alice Waters was doing on the West Coast, back in the late 70s and early 80s. That sort of put us on that track of utilizing what was best and freshest. A lot of it had to do with the Carrboro farmer’s market. It was there gathering speed at the time, starting to develop. And that also – it’s that symbiotic relationship between chefs and farmers.  

Since closing Magnolia’s doors, how much cooking do you do? 

B: We cook everyday that we don’t go out. And we mostly stay home. From a chef’s perspective, sometimes we do chefy food at home. Sometimes we do food that’s not that complex. Sometimes we do dinners that have no protein direction. But we do cook everyday and I still cook towards wine. 

K: That’s important to us. 

B: So I almost always work in the direction of “how can I make this dish wine-friendly or wine appropriate?” or “What wine would I want to make this go with?” But we eat really well, maybe too well.” (laughter) 

(drooling) Sounds fabulous. 

B: It’s an absolute joy. I go still go to the Carrboro market twice a week and that still drives how we think about what we are doing. It’s fundamentally about the nature of our philosophy as professionals even though we are now lay people. 

K: And now we have the time. 

B: That is a really critical aspect. The extraordinary sense of being able to prepare something at leisure, or to do something in stages over the course of the day or over days, in order to generate a pleasing and complex result that doesn’t torture you in the articulation. It’s been really great. I love cooking as much as I’ve ever loved it. 

K: I think what we’ve done even more lately is make pasta rather than buy pasta, bake bread instead of buy bread. A little more preserving and pickling; confiting. 

Is there dessert everyday? 

K: No there is not dessert everyday (laughing). I wouldn’t mind dessert every day but we’re trying to keep the calorie count down. It’s my way of managing the calories because I have a horrible sweet tooth. I would definitely eat it everyday. I bake something if we are having friends over. There’s fresh fruit around. There’s usually ice cream in the freezer, if we feel the need. 

How has your approach to desserts changed now that you are at home? 

K: It’s a little less sweet focused. There’s a little more savory baking going on. Crackers and making pizza at least every other week. Dessert-wise, it tends to be not quite as component-oriented. At the restaurant, my desserts weren’t incredibly complex, but there were often several components to that plate; they were plated desserts versus a nice cake or a really nice fruit pie. 

That offers a nice segue into the sweet potato portion of the interview. The sweet potato has this beautiful way of crossing the boundary between the sweet and the savory. How do you navigate that boundary? What is it about this ingredient that allows you to do that? 

B: It’s a remarkable ingredient. People might say the “lowly or the humble sweet potato,” and not really view it as an anchor in cuisine. I was reminded by Randall Kenan at the SFA symposium, who referred to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the book, the protagonist goes to Harlem, sees this sweet potato salesman and it evokes in him this wonderful place in history. That made me think about how the sweet potato is kind of like an underpinning vegetable. It’s not really a showpiece, but it weaves its way all the way through our cooking. It feels so Southern. So North Carolinian. On my kinfolk’s farm they raised sweet potatoes. They cured them in a cellar of the tobacco barn, so you had to go out there to bring them into the house. I don’t remember eating them a lot. They were in sweet potato pie, sweet potato pudding, which evolved for me at the restaurant as sweet potato spoon bread. The other side of my family did the thing with too much brown sugar and marshmallows on top for Thanksgiving. But we used them all the time at the restaurant because I felt like it was one of those iconic vegetables that said “This is the South.” I felt like it was important to employ it, without it ever being contrived.  Often we would do sweet potato gnocchi. We’d do sweet potato corn bread. Sweet potato hash with duck confit and fried eggs. My table partner last night reminded me that I used to do a grated sweet potato, which we’d flash fry with roasted poblano chilies and use it as base for fish. I didn’t even remember that, but he remembered eating it at the restaurant. Working to try and include that vegetable was part of the identity of the restaurant. Now at home, it gets roasted, or it gets chunked and goes into kale salads or risotto. It’s always in our cupboard. 

K: We generally keep them around. And it’s funny because having grown up in New York, I wasn’t exposed to quintessential Southern ingredients, but sweet potatoes was one that I remember my family eating pretty regularly. Straight-up, baked sweet potato; salt and pepper. And to this day, that’s a great lunch.  I think when you were saying pie, that’s how my mind works. A sweet potato pie. 

B: Are we having a sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving? 

K: We are probably having a combo sweet potato and pecan pie. 

B: 'Cause that would make my father very happy. 

K: It’s almost Thanksgiving and people automatically think sweet potato. But I wish people thought more broadly then November-December, because they are delicious at any point in the year. 

Could you elaborate on that? How would you extend the season for people? 

K: I tend to use them instead of pumpkin or instead of squash. I’m not a big pumpkin fan in desserts. I would much rather have sweet potato. It’s more voluptuous. One would not call sweet potato a sexy ingredient, but its got kind of a creaminess and density to it. The mouthfeel to me is a whole lot more fun than pumpkin. So I would much prefer to have a sweet potato pie than a pumpkin pie. Or substituting sweet potato as flavoring in cheesecake is really delicious. A sweet potato bourbon cheesecake. We did a fun riff at the restaurant with frozen ice cream cake that was a sweet potato-based ice cream cake with a gingersnap crust that had a toasted marshmallow topping.  So just utilizing flavors that marry well with it like nuts and spices, traditional pie spices, maple, liquor. 

What kinds of liquor? 

K: Bourbon. Rum. Brandy (laughing). You can go the orange route and soak it in Grand Marnier. It’s pretty versatile. 

B: It’s texture is so wonderful. One of the most popular soups we did was a sweet potato soup. Sweet potato takes to spice so well, and by spice I mean both heat and the brown-spice spectrum. It affords a kind of platform where it’s always there, it’s always the defining element of it, but you know you can accent it in so many different ways. It really presents a complex palette to work with . . . The humble sweet potato. 

Other than Karen’s sweet potato pecan pie, are there going to be other sweet potato elements on the table at Thanksgiving? 

B: I wanna do that sweet potato spoon bread because it’s based on a Bill Neal spoon bread recipe that has pureed sweet potato added into the base of it. It’s really a great vehicle, particularly for people who may think that they might not love sweet potatoes. I also do – and I don’t know if it will appear or not – but a succotash that has sweet potato in it. It adds another textural element to it. 

K: We’ve done a maple and chili roasted sweet potato as a side. So we change it up a little bit every year. 

So if you are building a traditional meat-plus-three, and sweet potato is one of them, what other items that would be on that plate? 

K: I always see pork in some form or another, if you are going to have that protein element. Greens go really well beside sweet potatoes. 

B: I do an interesting version of apple sauce where I cook down onions in bacon fat and then add the apples to it, cook them until they just start to fall apart, and then just give it a spoon crush, so it’s just sort of coarsely textured. The smokiness of the bacon along with the onion gives it a much more savory quality that I really like. And in that way, you’re not having too much sweetness if your sweet potatoes have a sweet profile. It’s important to have textural contrast, but also contrast between sweet, salty, acid, bitter, all of those things. That’s what makes a complete plate to me. I have powerful memories of going to a meat-and-three near my grandfather’s business and seeing how people put together that assembly. Some people are all starch. Some people are all veg. Some people are all farty veg. It’s interesting, but a balanced meat-and-three to me has color, texture, bitter, salty, sweet. 

K: It’s like a mini Thanksgiving meal. 

Along that same vein, in the spirit of chicken and dumplings, collards and cornbread, these quintessential Southern combinations, finish this phrase: sweet potatoes and  . . . ? 

K: Probably pecans. I like the contrast of toasty, nutty crunch– 

B: Isn’t that Vivian’s thing? 

K: Actually – oh my God! The Blackberry Farm

B: Vivian made the best sweet potato dish I think we’ve ever had. She made sorghum-glazed sweet potatoes with pecans... 

K: ...which was incredibly good. 

B: She served it as one of the sides at the Fellow’s Luncheon at Blackberry Farm. Has she printed that recipe? 

K: I don’t know, but I want it! (laughter) 

B: I don’t know that I have an immediate connection to sweet potato. There might be some people, if you go back far enough, that would say sweet potato and possum. Because that’s the traditional accompaniment. I am not someone who grew up eating possum, but I did have some game meats – rabbit and squirrel – and sweet potatoes often appeared in that context at the restaurant.  So I’d eat them more in a game context. 

How do you feel about the size of sweet potatoes? Because Ms. Scarlett, Vivian’s mom, is convinced that the small ones are sweeter. 

B: My general sense of it is that variety drives sweetness. Beauregards and Covingtons are the two principle varieties that are grown commercially. Green sweet potatoes, the newly harvested ones, are not sweet. That’s why you cure them, to let the starch convert to sugar. And that takes anywhere from two to four weeks to achieve. I do know that the bigger ones tend to be more fibrous. But beyond that, I’m not convinced that – I would never argue with Vivian’s mother on the show.(hearty laughter) 

The difference between yams and sweet potatoes - do you have a handle on it? 

K: The true yam is not a sweet potato. It’s the Central American, Carribbean tuber, which is starchier... 

B: ...it tends to be more predominately used in savory cooking...

K: ...color wise different...

B: ...tends to be paler. But most of what is grown here is the sweet potato. They believe that Native Americans were growing sweet potatoes and Columbus took them back on his fourth return. They were introduced into European circles and became really popular primarily in the 16 Century. Mainly as an aphrodisiac. Henry the VIII was a big fan of them. 

That would explain a lot. (raucous laughter) 

B: The yam, you almost never encounter. Unless they are specifically designated as a yam, you are not going to see one, you’re mainly going to see sweet potatoes. I buy what’s at the market. What we’ve been buying lately looks like a garnet yam, which is a great example of marketing terminology. They are cultivated from a Korean variety. Dark red skin, deep red interior, and became really popular in California because they were high yielding, long lasting. K: They are dense and they are creamy.  

I actually brought you the sweet potato I grew up eating because I was really excited about sharing them with you. One of the most fascinating things about working on this show is that there are all these crazy connections between Korean cuisine and Southern cuisine, and a lot of that is ingredient-driven. I don’t know the name of the variety, but we call it gogumah, which actually means “sweet potato.” The inside is yellow and the flavor is nutty and reminds me almost of chestnuts. 

K: That looks like the sweet potato that Andrea was using [Andrea Reusing, chef of Lantern] . 

Are you familiar with that sweet potato? K: I’m not, but when you say it’s yellow on the inside, Andrea Reusing on the Tasting Table did a duck dish that had sweet potato as an accompaniment. But I don’t recall the variety. 

B: It’s Hayman, I think.  I know exactly where this Korean sweet potato is gonna go. We’re going to have ricotta gnocchi with roasted sweet potato. 

K: We’ll roast it up in there.  It’s perfect. 

Learn more about NC Sweet Potatoes