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Hail to the Chefs

Seven mouths of the South who elevate regional fare with true grits


Seven chefs. Five restaurants. Five states. A heap of driving. And one speeding ticket (curse those Savannah traffic cops).

I've spent my recent weekends trekking to the restaurants of some of the Southeast's finest practitioners of its native regional cuisines. Of course, that could include barbecue pit masters who cook out of remote rural shacks, or local speakeasies where the owner has been making biscuits by hand for 20 years.

But I took the high-end road.

I sought out pre-eminent chefs of the Southeast (excluding New Orleans, which is a subject unto itself) not just because I wanted to see if their food was worth the commotion — I pretty much trusted it was. I cast off for these dining destinations because I longed to taste the sense of place engendered in their food. While chefs in New York or Chicago may be celebrated for their sense of invention or outlandishness, most of the South prizes local cooks who honor their roots and do the region proud. Southerners — and we can be generous and include seasoned transplants in that group, particularly since I'm one of them — luxuriate in fried green tomatoes or mac-n-cheese treated with some well-earned respect.

Obviously, these chefs also take appreciated creative liberties. "It's good not to be strictly Southern," Ben Barker told me at his Durham, NC restaurant, Magnolia Grill. "Our guests enjoy the worldly sensibility." Surveying Barker's full dining room as I ate octopus salame with green olive guacamole alongside his deconstructed Brunswick stew, I could see he made a seductive argument.

Cosmopolitan embellishments aside, a pride and passion for indigenous ingredients and classic dishes provide the starch in the backbone that each of the chefs display in their compelling menus.

Ready for a road trip? I'd gladly take to the highways again to dine at the tables of these caretakers of Southern culinary traditions. Just help me keep an eye out for the boys in blue next time.


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