by Jason Frye | photography by Ben McKeown
At The Fiction Kitchen, the food’s about as Southern as it gets—but it’s no “meat and three.” At this long-standing restaurant, it’s more like meat-free and three. Chef-owner Caroline Morrison puts it this way: “Good food is just that: good food.” She speaks the truth: The menu may all be vegetarian and vegan, but above all else, The Fiction Kitchen offers plain old good food.
“The Fiction Kitchen is the brainchild of my wife, Siobhan Southern, and myself,” says Morrison. “At Fiction Kitchen, we do our best to make food that looks and sounds appealing to all kinds of diners.” Case in point: the Eastern N.C. Style BBQ Pulled “Pork,” a plant-based protein smoked and seasoned with pitch-perfect vinegar sauce, which lures hungry carnivores away from traditional barbecue just for a taste and keeps them coming back for more. That dish arose from a challenge: A native of Halifax County, Morrison grew up steeped in Eastern North Carolina foodways, but converting to a vegetarian diet in college (more on that later) left her holding an empty plate, so to speak. Like any good chef, she worked to replicate a dish that spoke to the foods of her childhood and culture of the place where she lives, while holding true to her own food philosophy. “I’d made the choice not to eat pork anymore, but I still wanted something juicy, smoky, chewy and perfectly sweet and salty to bring to family cookouts,” she says. And thus, a carnivore-converting dish was born.
The Fiction Kitchen has had their pulled “pork” on the menu for years, and it seems that the rest of the world has caught on to what vegetarian chefs of Morrison’s caliber have been doing. With a growing number of diners choosing vegetarian or vegan diets, restaurants have had to keep up. A good example: the Impossible Burger. This ground-beef substitute is on the menu here, but it’s also making appearances at food festivals, on the menus of celebrity chefs and even at Burger King (don’t laugh—if BK is willing to jump into the vegetarian market, the rest of us should pay attention). Special burgers pop up with regularity, like a carrot “bacon” BLT sandwich or an Impossible Burger topped with Vidalia onion rings and a spring onion-dill mayo.
“The popularity of the Impossible Burger shows the growing demand for more accessible vegan and vegetarian options,” she says. “At The Fiction Kitchen, most of our regular menu items are dishes you’ll find in all kinds of restaurants, just tweaked to be vegan.” Fried mock-chicken and waffles. Tacos with chipotle tinga mock-chicken or bulgogi seitan. A “cheese” plate with house-made vegan nut cheese. A fried “chicken” biscuit. These dishes shatter the myth that vegan and vegetarian food is bland, boring, unfamiliar or unappealing, and instead focuses on North Carolina produce to deliver big flavor in healthful, diet-friendly and environmentally-conscious bites.
Morrison’s turn to a vegetarian diet grew out of twin concerns for animal welfare and environmental care, and her focus on locally-sourced produce and a vegetarian-vegan menu makes good on that promise. Take The Fiction Kitchen’s Locavore Salad: Rather than plate up a standard side salad of locally-grown lettuce and a few sprouts, Morrison looks at salad as a complex and flavor-packed dish deserving of a starring role in a meal rather than an afterthought.
“To me, a good salad has several components: textures, acids, brightness, symmetry, salt and sweet. For our Locavore Salad, I usually start with the idea for the dressing and then back into the composition of the salad, adding seasonal items that will round out the dressing,” says Morrison.
The Locavore Salad makes for a colorful, filling meal, but also a jumping-off point to bring more local food, and a more healthful diet, into the home kitchen. With the bounty of North Carolina’s forest, fields and waters at our disposal—plus the State Farmers Market (see pg. 82), c0-ops, farm stands and more—it’s easy to be a locavore, even if it’s just for a meal or two.
“If people want to eat more local food, I recommend they pay a visit to the farmers market for their produce before they head to the grocery store,” says Morrison. That works when you’re cooking at home, but when you need inspiration—or just an amazing meal out—head to The Fiction Kitchen. Morrison says that creating beautiful food is easy with fresh produce at her fingertips, and it’s become her version of art. “Creating dishes is the only art I have found myself to be good at. I kept searching for some type of career where I could use my hands, my brain and creativity.” For Morrison, that means using a variety of ingredients, pulling recipes from various cuisines and more.
“Diversity in life feeds my soul and diversity in eating colors feeds my nutrition—and together they bring about a feeling of holistic health,” she says. That diversity is a pillar of Morrison’s business, ensuring that all of the community feels included, from vegans to carnivores. “That’s one of the best things about Raleigh and dining at The Fiction Kitchen,” she says. “When you look around and see all types of people—ages, races, genders and walks of life—you realize all are represented, and all are welcome.”