Have Apron, Will Travel: Local Chefs Take on the Globe

As Triangle chefs grow in notoriety, they’re taking the show on the road — and their foodie fans
are happy to follow.
by Trudy Haywood Saunders  

Photograph by Richard Gruica

Last summer, I took a 40-minute ride from Missoula, Montana, along a road shadowed with ponderosa and lodgepole pines, into the Garnet Mountain Range to get to The Resort at Paws Up. This remote, family-friendly glamping destination, situated within a 37,000-acre working cattle ranch, boasts horseback riding on mountain trails, rafting on the Blackfoot River, archery lessons and even UTV rides to an abandoned ghost town.

But what I was really there for was the food. Raleigh’s Scott Crawford, the five-time James Beard Award semifinalist behind restaurants Crawford & Son, Jolie and Crawford Cookshop, was a featured chef for the Montana Master Chefs event, an annual event held each September since 2006.

Some of the country’s most sought-after chefs are invited to attend, representing different areas of the country or themes. Last year, the event focused on North Carolina chefs. Alongside Crawford were William Dissen of The Market Place in Asheville, Dean Neff of Seabird in Wilmington and Annie Pettry, an Asheville native currently at Decca in Louisville, Kentucky.

Over two days, 75 guests got to taste their specialties. Among the items on the menu: Crawford’s coal-roasted beef ribs with garlic-kanzuri glaze, Pettry’s BBQ’d heirloom carrots, Dissen’s grilled tiger prawns with lemon-chili butter, and Neff’s smoked yellowfin tuna with shaved turnip and carrot slaw.

It used to be that friends asked each other, Where did you go on vacation?, but now the next question is often, What did you eat on vacation? “I like to go to places that have a foodie scene,” says Rich Burt, a fellow guest who’s been to several of these events. “It’s always fun to discover new chefs, restaurants and wineries.”

As our local chefs earn more and more accolades, the demand to invite them outside of the area has increased — and so have their fans’ desires to tap these chefs’ expertise to turn a vacation into a culinary experience.

Photograph by Jessica Crawford

Wandering Appetites

Part of the reason that the resort was able to draw so many Triangle chefs to the area is that its fine dining restaurant, Pomp, is headed up by chef Bret Edlund and his wife, Krystle Swenson, a James Beard award-nominated pastry chef, both of whom previously worked with Crawford in Raleigh.

The two were recruited to Paws Up in 2021 and suggested Crawford when they began planning this year’s event. “I was attracted to the event because of their reputation, my relationship with Bret and Krystle, and the beauty of that region,” Crawford says. “These culinary trips give chefs the opportunity to get out of their normal routines, spend time with other chefs and be inspired by the collaboration.”

Photograph by Jessica Crawford

Upscale resorts and destinations throughout the country and beyond are welcoming Raleigh chefs. Cheetie Kumar, a five-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef: Southeast, who recently opened Ajja in Five Points, has also taken her chef’s apron on the road. “I love to travel,” Kumar says. “I feel fortunate to have been invited to take part in so many great events around the country.”

Her first out-of-state event was the Southern Foodways Alliance Femme Fatale dinner in 2015, with fellow Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, in Louisville, Kentucky. Since then, Kumar has participated in several food and wine events including the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.

She has also participated in multiple culinary events at the famed Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. “Working in other places, surrounded by talented chefs, offers a peek into their creative process,” Kumar says. “The ingredients and techniques they use always become part of the luggage home.”

Christensen agrees that the benefits of participating in culinary events make it well worth the effort. She has visited France, Scotland, Uruguay and other countries with other chefs to travel together as they cook, eat and learn. “There’s something to learn everywhere, whether you’re 2 miles or 2,000 miles from home,” Christensen says.

“I give the blue ribbon to Japan for fully blowing my mind by way of food and hospitality at every turn.” She credits her experiences in Uruguay for the wood-fire cooking technique that she employs at her Raleigh restaurant, Death & Taxes, and a trip to Naples as inspiration for Poole’side Pies: “It’s really cool to dine with other restaurant folks and talk through shared challenges, all while learning and being inspired by the space you’re sitting in.”

Photograph by Richard Gruica

Taste Leaders

While resorts are using chefs to draw guests, chefs are also leading guests on culinary adventures themselves. “I want people to have a truly unique immersion in the food, wine and traditions of the places we visit and access to places they wouldn’t have on their own,” says Doreen Colondres, a chef and author who is the wine educator at Vitis House, a professional wine school in Raleigh.

Colondres has led culinary tours through Spain and Italy, where she encourages her guests to mingle with locals. In the wine regions of Ribera and Rueda, in Spain, Colondres’ groups sampled wines at vineyards, participated in an olive oil tasting and experienced a wine harvest.

Colondres recalls one stop in southern Italy, where they met a chef known for his pizza. “We went from understanding how he produced the flour, to understanding how to make buffalo mozzarella, to tasting eight different pizzas in his restaurant,” Colondres says. Sandra Hill, a Raleigh resident who traveled with Colondres, especially enjoyed “tasting country food and wine in bodegas.”

Colondres is now planning tours to Scotland — for whiskey tastings, of course — and Bordeaux, France.
Raleigh chef Florence Melin, who started Le Gourmet Getaway in 2022, led a guided trip to her native Paris and Brittany, France, with a group of 12 last June.

“We focus on understanding where the food comes from, meeting growers and farmers and cooking with amazing chefs,” Melin says. “I loved seeing the positive impact on travelers, as well as on the local farmers, growers and guides.”

Photograph by Richard Gruica

Chef Ricky Moore, owner of Durham’s Saltbox Seafood Joint and winner of the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef Southeast, led a tour in Croatia in October in partnership with Richard Gruica, a former chef who now specializes in culinary-centric tours. The weeklong escape began in Zagreb and continued along the Adriatic coast before concluding on the vineyard-covered peninsula of Istria.

The two led a group of 25 travelers to meet with chefs, farmers and wine producers, “forming a familial-like bond in the process,” says Moore. One of his favorite stops was at a goat farm near Istria — in “the middle of nowhere.” “We had beautiful goat cheese, yogurt from the goats. We had stewed goat and homemade bread from the hearth,” Moore says. “Everything came from the goat and I thought that was meaningful.”

The tours can be just as good for the chefs as they are for the foodies. “Chefs need outlets,” says Moore. “It renews you, refreshes you.” Moore is, in fact, already planning a reunion dinner here in North Carolina with his group, where he plans to prepare Croatian-inspired cuisine with ingredients they experienced there. He’s already got another culinary tour in the works, with Lima, Peru, a likely destination.

Photograph by Richard Gruica

Returning the Welcome

Just as local chefs are willing to fly out, the relationships they’ve built have drawn big-name chefs to Raleigh. Christensen is a host of the Triangle Wine and Food Festival, which benefits the Frankie Lemmon School, to which she has attracted chefs Jason Stanhope, Nancy Silverton and Billy Durney.

“I believe there is a currency among chefs and restaurant folks,” Christensen says. “I joyfully accepted an invitation to cook with Emeril Lagasse at his event in NOLA, and he then was thrilled to come and cook in Raleigh for a great cause.”

The word has gotten out — Raleigh clearly has something special to offer — and the demand for both Raleigh chefs to travel to both near and exotic locales, and for Raleighites to explore with them, is only increasing.

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.