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Not Afraid of New York

February 21, 2001|RUSS PARSONS

Someday it might be interesting to do an analysis of chef-written cookbooks and which cities they come from. And then we could move on to difficult questions, like such as whether professional wrestling is fixed. No analysis is necessary. Almost any cookbook reader can give you the answer right off the top of his head: New York. That's where most of the major publishing houses and food magazines are. That's where the Food Network is. And when it comes time decide to dig around for a new author, it's those chefs-Mario Batali, Alfred Portale, Bobby Flay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten- -who come most readily to mind.

Nothing against those guys, but it is unfortunate that other cities seem to be relegated to a couple of chef cookbooks each, almost always by the same usual suspects. In Chicago, you get Charlie Trotter. In the Bay Area, it's Alice Waters. In Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck. So you can imagine how hard it was for Ben and Karen Barker to publish "Not Afraid of Flavor" (University of North Carolina Press, $29.95). They live in Durham, N.C., for gosh sakes.

That's why you've probably never heard of them, despite the fact they've been around since the mid-'80s, and Ben has been named among the 10 best chefs in the nation and was voted best chef in the Southeast by the Beard Foundation. One measure of their obscurity-to the world outside the Research Triangle-is that "Not Afraid" was published by a college press-usually more often associated with titles like "North Carolina's Hurricane History" and "The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover" than with collections of fancy recipes. But what a wonderful book they have here.

The Barkers run Magnolia Grill in Durham, one of those New Southern places where they plumb local ingredients and cooking traditions and then present polished versions of them in elegant settings. For some restaurants, this means nothing more than doing different things with grits. For the Barkers, it involves much more. (The noted North Carolina author Reynolds Price enthusiastically-yet carefully-describes Magnolia Grill as "the best source of public cooking, not merely in the Triangle area, or the Tarheel state, but in fact in the whole United States.")

As presented in this book, their food walks that difficult tightrope between inventive and natural. Brown Sugar Pear Poundcake, Striped Bass With Oyster Stew, Molasses Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Fried Green Tomato Sandwich on Buttermilk Bread With Arugula, Country Bacon and Black Pepper Aioli. Oh, boy. Handsomely bound, printed on art-quality heavy paper and liberally sprinkled with nicely photographed "mood" pieces by Anne Hawthorne, this is as good a chef cookbook as has been published in the last several years, even in New York City.

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