Durham builds reputation as food mecca
When Damion Moore got fed up with the volatility at the telecommunications company where he worked in Research Triangle Park, he decided to cook for a living.
Now he is the chef, owner and namesake of Dame’s Chicken and Waffles on Main Street, where it is hard to get a seat without a considerable wait most nights of the week.
Moore is one of a host of Durham chefs whose entrepreneurial approach to food has found a significant audience. Over the course of the last decade, Durham’s food scene has blossomed, gaining recognition from The New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine as a go-to destination for foodies.
“It’s exploded,” Moore said. “Durham is prospering. It’s a thriving city, downtown life is coming on board, we’re getting acknowledged nationally as a foodie town. Confidence breeds more confidence.... It’s great for the city and great for the state.”
Claudia Kemmet-Cooper, founder and owner of Guglhupf Bakery, Patisserie and Cafe, dabbled with a career in Germany-U.S. trade relations after her family moved from Germany to Washington, D.C.
She opened her bakery in 1998, a time when she said downtown Durham was “dead.” Numerous chefs shared similar views of downtown Durham in the early 1990s, but all agreed that Durham as a whole is developing.
One of the first noteworthy entrants in the Durham restaurant scene was Magnolia Grill, which opened in 1986 and closed its doors this May. Many chefs who worked with Magnolia’s chef-owners Karen and Ben Barker went on to open their own restaurants, said Jim Anile, chef and owner of Revolution, an upscale contemporary global restaurant in downtown Durham.
“Great chefs before us like Ben Barker at Magnolia Grill have carved the way for us,” said Shane Ingram, chef and owner of Four Square restaurant.
Ingram, who has worked with renowned chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter and has experience working all over the country, opened Four Square with his wife in 1999. He said Durham’s farming community is one of the best assets for the restaurant industry.
“[The farmers] genuinely care about their products and the community, too,” he said. “Every single time I buy, they’ll make sure the chickens have had a good life.”
He noted that in addition to the quality of local farms, Durham’s restaurant industry continues to develop thanks to the clientele.
“People in the Triangle know fine dining and understand it,” Ingram said. “When great restaurants arrive, they support them, and it’s because of their support that more keep opening.”
The intrepid nature of these customers fuels the food scene, Kemmet-Cooper said.
“[The clientele is] very adventurous,” she said. “They’re well-traveled, educated, not afraid of Korean food or Ethiopian food. You name it, they’ll try it.”
Sam Poley, director of marketing and communications at the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau and founder of Only Burger, said Durham’s entrepreneurial spirit can be traced back to its origins as a Native American trading post, to after the Civil War when Washington Duke walked back to his family home and began selling tobacco to make a living, through the development of the Duke family fortune.
“That authenticity is organic to Durham,” Poley said. “It’s an old thread.... It’s sort of indebted to people who work with their hands [and] want quality for their investment.”
Durham was a vibrant city until the latter half of the 20th century, Poley said, when the blue collar economy transitioned into a white collar one. Durham was a “ghost town” when Poley moved to the city in 1992. The restaurant scene has flourished along with the city’s revitalization since then.
This culinary renaissance was fueled in part by the increased availability of locally sourced ingredients and the growth of the Durham Farmers Market, Kemmet-Cooper said.
Even after the growth of the last decade, Anile said Durham is not done progressing yet.
“Nothing is stagnant, ideas aren’t stagnant, the process is always looking upward,” he said. “You’re always combing new ideas and old ideas and traditions and influence and expectations from all over the board.”
The intrigue of Durham has made Kemmet-Cooper more than happy to stay put.
“It just walks to a different beat,” she said. “It has just enough grunge to make it right.... I don’t want to be in Chapel Hill. I don’t want to be in Cary.... In North Carolina, I really wouldn’t go anywhere else.”