North Carolina native Ben Barker met his Brooklyn born wife Karen on their first day of class at the Culinary Institute of America … they’ve been cooking together ever since. After stints at La Residence and the Fearrington House in Chapel Hill, NC, they opened the Magnolia Grill in 1986. Located in an unassuming converted grocery store in Durham, the Grill’s casual atmosphere is the perfect backdrop for Barker’s bold Southern-inflected cooking. The restaurant’s motto is Not Afraid of Flavor as is the title of the Barker’s cookbook published by the University of North Carolina Press. Karen’s dessert book, Sweet Stuff, followed in 2004. While not strictly Southern, Magnolia Grill’s cuisine displays a Southern sensibility – making creative use of regional ingredients with an emphasis on seasonality and local sourcing.
After twenty-five years, the Barker’s goal remains to be viewed as an extraordinary neighborhood restaurant that provides a venue for folks to gather together around a common table. In recognition of these efforts, Ben has been named as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs and was the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Southeast in 2000. Karen was selected as Bon Appétit ’s 1999 Best Pastry Chef and in 2003 was the recipient of the James Beard Awards Outstanding Pastry Chef Award. Magnolia Grill has repeatedly been selected as one of America’s Best 50 Restaurants by Gourmet
The Barkers have participated in many charity fundraisers throughout the country benefiting organizations such as Meals on Wheels, The James Beard Foundation, Magic Moments and Make a Wish Foundation. They have also been featured as part of such guest chef programs as “Cuisines of the Sun”, La Varenne at Greenbriar and the “International Food and Wine Festival” at Epcot. Their articles and recipes have been published in Bon Appétit, Southern Living, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, and Traditional Home magazines and the New York Times.
As both founding and active members of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Ben and Karen seek to preserve the traditions, cuisine and culture of the South. When away from the restaurant, they love to garden, sit on their screen porch listening to the blues, and spend as much time as possible at the NC coast.
At the end of May 2012, the Barkers closed Magnolia Grill after nearly 26 years of operation to pursue more personal time with each other, their parents, children and grandchildren. They now devote their days to travel, eating, cooking and depleting their wine cellar; working in the garden, fishing at Topsail Beach in North Carolina, and (imminently) cultivating a canine relationship or two.