Where the wild folks are

You know, I daydream all the time about being fancy and going to balls and galas, and stuff like the Oscars.  Gowns, hair styles, and shoes trickle through my mind like French champagne.

Despite the fantasies, though, that is not my life.  High society just isn’t for me.  Being around the beautiful people makes me feel like I’ve got a pebble in my shoe, or crumbs in my sheets.

This is why whenever Chef James Clark, executive chef at UNC’s Carolina Inn invites me to hang out with him and his staff, I don’t hesitate.  I get amazing food, and instead of hobnobbing with gentry, I get to spend time with, and learn from, the kitchen crew.

Last Saturday night was a dinner to commemorate the Inn’s 90th anniversary.  Chef James, along with two previous executive chefs collaborated in the planning of a meal that celebrated local bounty, the hotel, and its history.

The three food dudes. From left to right: Chef James Clark, Chef Jimmy Real, Chef Brian Stapleton.

Brian Stapleton, chef at the Carolina from 1998-2006, now Vice President of Food & Beverage for Aramark Parks and Destinations, prepared the first course of sorghum brined shrimp with celery root black truffle puree, and red grapefruit salad.  It was bright, fun, and delicious.

Next was the brain child of Chef Jimmy Reale, Carolina Inn exec from 2007-2012, now the man at the Chapel Hill Country Club.  His offering was NC bison short ribs over grits, with Brussel sprouts and butternut squash, topped with crumbled Hillsborough Company chevre.  The combination worked perfectly.

Then came the punch course; not a drink, but rather an old term for a palate cleanser.  Pastry Chef Sara Thomas prepared a tart, flavorful tangerine-lime sherbet.

My friend and current executive chef James Clark cooked the succulent last course.  Duck breast, acorn spoon bread, pickled pears, and delicious roasted wild mushrooms.  Drizzled on top of the duck was smoked honey.  And yes, it was as awesome as you’d imagine smoked honey to be.

For dessert Chef Sara made a chocolate hazelnut salted caramel cake.  It was cake of which dreams are made.

I wanted to bring to you a recipe from this meal.  I decided on Chef Jimmy’s vegetables, and he was kind enough to give me permission to share.


Frizzled sprouts

1 pound Brussel sprouts, cleaned and sliced as thinly as possible

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.  Spread sprouts out onto rimmed baking sheet.  Season and drizzle with olive oil.  Bake for 15 minutes, toss and bake 15 more minutes or until browned and crispy on the edges.  Serves 4.

Roasted butternut squash

2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into ½-3/4 inch cubes

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 350.  Blanch squash in heavily salted, boiling water until almost tender, but still quite crunchy.  Drain and spread out on rimmed baking sheet.  Toss with salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Stir, toss in parsley, and bake for 10 more minutes, or until tender and slightly caramelized.  Serves 4.

The genius of these chefs lie in the taking of homey Southern ingredients, combining them in new and inventive ways, and turning them into world-class cuisine.  They elevate food to the very best it can be.

Restaurant people are tough, strange, and funny.  They’re also remarkably kind and generous.  They’re sort of like the cake Chef Sara made; dark and intimidating on the outside, and sweet and gooey in the middle.


Carolina’s executive sou, Chef Bill.

And that’s why I love ‘em.

Thanks for your time.

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