Every region has some chefs who stand above the rest, culinary geniuses and innovators who astonish the taste buds and have turned cooking into art.
The Triangle is no different.
Our gastronomic elites are distinguishing themselves by embracing our unique sense of place—Southern, local, cosmopolitan—and filtering it through their own philosophies, backgrounds, and experiences into beautifully composed dishes.
These ten chefs—James Beard Award winners, empire builders, repeat Best Of nominees—have not only mastered their craft, but they’ve also fostered a community beyond their restaurants. They give their time to local organizations, tackle industry-wide issues such as sustainability and substance abuse, and shape the evolving narrative of Southern food—which is no small reason we have such a dynamic and exciting food scene.
As both diners and citizens, we’re all the better for it.
Since opening Acme in 1998, Kevin Callaghan has been churning out “damn good food” with honest yet creative Southern dishes inspired by ingredients from local farms and artisans. Callaghan’s plates also reflect the Southern foodways he grew up with in his native Charlotte: pecan-crusted fried chicken paired with butter beans, cornbread made with Lindley Mills cornmeal, and spring risotto with sweet peas and Chapel Hill Creamery cheese. Callaghan’s annual Salt & Smoke Festival is one of the area’s most sought after fall events; partygoers feast on whole hog barbecue using pasture-raised, local hogs sourced through Firsthand Foods and oysters from Virginia’s Shooting Point Oyster. All proceeds from Acme’s Chocolate & Charity dessert, a box of three chocolate truffles, benefits the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation, a nonprofit that supports teens with cancer at UNC Hospital.
All-around badass Ashley Christensen, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2014 and is a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef in 2019, is locally revered as the impresario of some of Raleigh’s most popular eateries. It all started with Poole’s Diner, where you’ll find reimagined takes on classic diner comfort classics, such as the legendary macaroni au gratin. Her fine-dining spot Death & Taxes is her ode to the technique of wood-fired cooking, from ember-cooked vegetables to grilled steaks. Beasley’s Chicken + Honey is a casual spot for fried chicken biscuits and mason jar cocktails, Chuck’s is her burger-and-shake joint, and Fox Liquor Bar, below Beasley’s, is a subterranean craft cocktail den. Soon, she’ll get into the pizza game with Pooleside Pies. The “Don’t Forget Kindness” tagline printed on all her restaurant windows serves as a keen reminder of the inclusive culture she’s fostered for her staff and diners alike.
Scott Crawford, a five-time James Beard Award semifinalist, is the chef-owner of Crawford and Son, a sleek American restaurant in Raleigh’s Person Street neighborhood that exudes equal parts cool and comfort. That’s true of the menu too, where Crawford imbues his impeccable technique into beautifully plated dishes that wow while maintaining approachability, as in the chicken confit paired with white beans and rosemary jus. Crawford will soon expand his restaurant footprint next door with Jolie, a French bistro, and to Cary, with steakhouse Crawford Brothers. Crawford, who’s been vocal about his own sobriety journey, also founded the Raleigh chapter of Ben’s Friends, an organization that helps hospitality workers battling substance abuse.
Whether it’s stuffing tamales with braised collard greens at Jose & Sons or riffing on ceviche prepared with N.C.-caught fish at The Cortez, chef Oscar Diaz has a knack for blending his Mexican heritage and multicultural Chicago upbringing with local ingredients. The Mexican- Southern mashup almost defies definition—what do you call barbacoa braised in local Crank Arm Brewing beer?—but his singular style landed him in a 2018 feature in Time magazine’s special “American South” issue and a James Beard Award semifinalist nod in 2019.
Located in Raleigh’s Hayes-Barton neighborhood, Southern farm-to-table restaurant Mandolin is a literal outlier from the DTR restaurant scene, but its hidden-gem status reflects the understated qualities of chef-owner Sean Fowler, too. Take his signature chicken and waffles, a deceptively simple dish of buttermilk fried chicken, braised collards, and buckwheat waffles topped with a bacon mushroom emulsion and a truffle honey drizzle, which belies his fine-dining technique (he honed his craft at New York City’s Le Bernardin) and penchant for local ingredients, many of which he grows on his own farm. Local, sustainable ingredients—and access to them—is one of Fowler’s biggest causes: he serves on the board of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, whose programs connect families to nutritious food, and joined the state PTA’s Reimagining School Meals initiative to increase awareness of and funding for school meals.
The three-time James Beard Award semifinalist has earned acclaim for Garland, her downtown Raleigh restaurant where she combines Southern ingredients with Asian influences and her Indian heritage. Think pakora, fritters of julienned farmers market vegetables with chutneys, corn cakes with field peas, and pan-seared N.C. catch in an aromatic broth swimming with local vegetables. The food is deeply flavorful, vibrant, and a pleasure to eat, but it also stirs conversation about what these kinds of cross-cultural influences bring to Southern food. Take, for instance, giant shell-on shrimp, coated in green coconut chutney and served with thinly sliced okra and charred onions; it’s prepared in the style of Indian coastal-style black pepper shrimp but calls to mind peel-and-eat shrimp, with vegetables you’d find on a meat-and-three plate. Kumar has brought her talents and voice to the Brown in the South Supper Series, a collaborative dinner series featuring chefs of Indian descent who call the South home, benefiting the Southern Foodways Alliance
Mike Lee has built an empire of popular downtown Durham eateries rooted in Korean and Japanese cuisines, including M Sushi, where Lee and his team precisely cut every piece of super-fresh fish according to its individual texture; M Kokko, which specializes in Korean fried chicken; and M Tempura, which is dedicated to the Japanese art of lightly battered and fried food. The presentation is so seamless, the flavors and textures so pronounced, that it’s almost impossible to fathom the attention to detail Lee puts into each piece of sushi, every chicken wing, every lightly fried scallop. Lee’s prolific contributions have made an indelible mark on Durham’s restaurant scene; next, he plans to open a nonprofit restaurant in downtown Durham—a fast-casual, healthy Asian-style bento-box concept—whose proceeds will benefit local organizations.
Durham chef Ricky Moore’s Saltbox is no stranger to best-of lists—most recently, Taste of the South’s annual Taste 50 list as a must-visit place. Moore, a North Carolina native, honed his culinary chops in fine-dining kitchens around the world, but he’s really making a name for himself with his take on a coastal Carolina fish shack, where he’s shining the spotlight on sustainable, N.C.-caught seafood. It’s why you’ll see lesser-known native species such as amberjack and sheepshead on the daily menu, and whole, bone-in grilled fish like mullet and bluefish, too. His local seafood knowledge runs deep. Even sides get the chef-y touch, including hush honeys, a cornmeal-fritter-meets-zeppole creation drizzled in spiced honey that’s so good, Moore trademarked them.
Andrea Reusing is a James Beard Award-winning chef (Best Chef Southeast in 2011), owner of Chapel Hill institution Lantern, and executive chef of The Durham Hotel’s restaurant. Since opening Lantern in 2002, she’s championed local farms and sustainability, an ethos she upholds at The Durham, too. But instead of preaching, Reusing delivers her message by punching up dishes with a wallop of flavor, careful technique, and a heady dose of understated creativity—say, sweet potato soup with apple and miso or charbroiled oysters with chili oil and vermouth. She’s also an activist for many food-industry issues, serving on the board for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, which develops and promotes just, equitable farming systems, and as chair of the James Beard Foundation’s Impact Programs Advisory Committee, helping to advise on topics such as food waste reduction, sustainable meats, and childhood nutrition.
Since 2007, Angela Salamanca, the Columbian chef-owner of Centro, has celebrated her love for and interpretation of Mexican cuisine. She founded Centro with her uncle, and the restaurant, as well as Salamanca’s approach to cooking and hospitality, remains a true labor of love. One of the dishes that most embodies her style is the mole poblano, a beautiful, complex chili-chocolate sauce in which each of the twenty-plus ingredients must be treated with special care—peppers roasted, seeds and spices toasted, components blended, strained, cooked, and seasoned. Her labor of love extends to the Latin American community, too, by providing a stable, safe space for her staff of largely Mexican immigrant women to work, and hosting the annual Dia de los Muertos 5K to benefit the Brentwood Boys and Girls Club’s after-school programs, which serve a largely Latino population. Next, she’s opening Ex-Voto Cocina Nixtamal in the Durham Food Hall, where she’ll transform heirloom corn into masa and tortillas for tacos and tamales.
Five Chefs You Should Watch
The Pizza King: Teddy Diggs [Coronato]
Teddy Diggs honed his chops at upscale Italian restaurant Il Palio in Chapel Hill. Now he’s getting his own digs in Carrboro for his first solo venture, Coronato, which will specialize in cracker-thin Roman-style pizzas, fashioned in classic combinations or topped with seasonal local produce, alongside his signature pillowy focaccia, seasonal antipasti, and creative small plates such as fava bean falafel with spiced tahini yogurt.
The Seafood Maestro: Eric Montagne [Locals Oyster Bar]
Eric Montagne has long had an affinity for seafood, and while working at the now-shuttered Standard Foods, he demonstrated his ethos for using all parts of an animal, marine or otherwise. His passion, technique, and whole-animal philosophy unite at Locals Oyster Bar (located in Raleigh’s Transfer Co. Food Hall), where he serves N.C. seafood—think ceviche, grouper collar confit, and tuna prosciutto—sourced by namesake purveyor Locals Seafood.
The Pastry Whiz: Krystle Swenson [Crawford and Son]
On Crawford and Son’s menu, desserts are listed under “Save Room,” but pastry chef Krystle Swenson’s desserts plead for changing that title to “Start with Dessert.” Her technique is precise, the plating is beautiful, and desserts are often imbued with a dose of whimsy. Take the posset, an English-style custard garnished with citrus segments and tarragon tapioca pearls, or the coconut layer cake with paw paw sherbert.
The Bread Nerd: Andrew Ullom [Union Special]
After working as Ashley Christensen’s executive pastry chef for seven years, baker and chef Andrew Ullom, along with his wife, Jess, will soon open Union Special, a bakery-cafe in Raleigh’s Gateway Shopping Center. Ullom experiments with fermentation and local ingredients for his freshly baked goods, such as buttermilk croissants, Geechie Boy Mill blue cornmeal cookies, and sprouted grain loaves.
The Creative Genius: Jake Wood [Plates Neighborhood Kitchen]
At Plates Neighborhood Kitchen, Jake Wood has free reign to let his creativity fly with a menu of clever small plates inspired by his Southern roots and local ingredients. To wit, redneck caviar service pairs Marshallberg ossetra caviar served with crispy chicken skins and sorghum crème fraîche, while Granny Helen’s fried chicken does a two-step with brown butter hominy and creamed collards.