by Felicia Gressette
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Four generations are gathered this bright morning at Jason and Lauren Smith’s home near Hymettus Woods for a Smith family ritual – an informal Christmas brunch. Like the family itself, the celebration has evolved over the years, and now that Jason and Lauren have young children, parents and grandparents come to them.
The big kitchen island holds fare that reflects both the family’s Southern roots and Jason’s successful career as a chef and restaurateur. Best known as the chef-proprietor of 18 Seaboard, one of Raleigh’s first farm-to-table restaurants, he also owns Cantina 18 in Cameron Village and the new Harvest 18 in Durham. All three reflect his passion for serving artfully prepared, locally sourced food in a comfortable, upscale setting.
He brings that same sensibility to Christmas brunch. Grits cakes, topped with shrimp, a poached egg and spicy hollandaise. An updated oyster casserole. Grapefruit and avocado salad. A charcuterie board featuring chunks of homemade sausage, grilled okra, pickled onions and salt-cured pork loin. A salad of locally grown lettuces, watermelon radishes and white acre peas. A crumb cake laden with pomegranates and dolloped with whipped cream and candied orange peel.
To start the festivities, Lauren has invented a cranberry-mint mojito with ginger beer (“I can’t cook, but I can make a cocktail,” she says and smiles) to be followed by Mumm’s rosé. It’s a happy, relaxed occasion.
“There’s always food on this counter on Christmas morning,” says Lauren, 35. “We all gather here because Jason’s a better cook.”
Jason’s maternal grandparents, C.A. and Hilda Lloyd, have come from their home in Rolesville. C.A. is a retired firefighter and the family jokester and storyteller. Hilda, says Jason, is “a Southern lady’s Southern lady.” Jason’s stylish mother, Carolyn Williams, came early to help and pads barefoot through the kitchen as preparations are made. Jason’s father, Steve Smith, who started the brunch tradition, has arrived with his wife, Rachel. Sutton Smith, all of 6, is decked out in her green Christmas dress and favorite boots. Little brother Lawson, 2, sports a holiday bow tie.
Throughout the morning, Lauren and Jason gracefully juggle drink preparation, finishing touches, multiple conversations. “It’s one of those modern-day families,” says Jason, 40.
The couple wouldn’t have it any other way. They met at an Oscar-night trivia contest at the Village Draft House in Cameron Village in 2005, went out for sushi a couple of nights later and never looked back. They were married in 2009.
Says Jason: “It was an awesome sequence. Opened a restaurant, bought a house, had Sutton, started the planning for Cantina 18, and got married. That’s pretty cool. We did it our way, and still do it to this day.”
Here and there
Jason grew up in Wilmington, moving there as a little boy with his mother after his parents divorced. But he remained connected to Raleigh through regular weekend visits with his father and grandparents. His grandmothers’ cooking grounded him in traditional Southern flavors. Traveling with his dad piqued his interest, too.
“Every other weekend, my father came, hell or high water, to Wilmington, to pick me up,” Jason says. “This was before I-40 was there, so we’d take 421. We’d stop at these roadside places in Eastern North Carolina. … I was exploring, looking at menus. I’d want to know what their specialty was.”
Years later, he’d name his restaurant company 421 Taco – a nod to those trips with Steve and to his concept for Cantina 18, “a Southern chef’s dressed-up tacos.”
After he graduated from high school – “It was more like they let me out. They released me.” – he briefly attended Brevard College and decided it was not for him. This, he says, was a disappointment to his parents, who strongly favored higher education. All these years later, there’s nothing but pride in Jason from them both. “He’s a man who loves his work, and that’s a joy to witness,” says Steve Smith.
After Brevard, Jason came to Raleigh and got a job at the venerable 42nd Street Oyster Bar – “started out on the fryer, cranking hush puppies.” He liked cooking, interacting with others and working in a busy, tightly run restaurant.
He’d find that again at the famous Magnolia Grill in Durham, where he worked several years for award-winning chefs Ben and Karen Barker in what he calls a life-changing experience. “The organization and discipline there are exactly what I needed at that point in my life. … It gave me the confidence, the palate, the organization to be buying from so many different producers.”
Jason continued his restaurant education when he worked for New York hospitality guru Danny Meyer, best known for Union Square Café. It was “high end but unpretentious,” Jason says, and that’s the model he follows at his own restaurants: “We are hospitality-driven. The most important thing in business is how you feel. That’s a Danny Meyer No. 1.”
He detoured from Union Square to Antarctica for seven months (cooking for 1,300 on a National Science Foundation endeavor) then touched down at Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern for a bit. Then he headed south, to Charleston, where he cooked with chef Bob Carter at Charleston’s Peninsula Grill. This confirmed Jason’s belief that a restaurant could be “high-end foodie and approachable. … I don’t want it to be an intellectual test to come here.”
By then, it was 2005 and Jason was 30 and ready to come home to Raleigh. He thought he’d either open his own restaurant, putting all he’d learned about cooking and hospitality into practice, or find something else to do. He took a job as the opening chef for Vivace and worked on his plan. Then he met Lauren, found an investor and a location, and things took off.
They opened 18 Seaboard in May 2006, as one of the first tenants at Seaboard Station. The restaurant’s combination of Southern hospitality and local ingredients in contemporary preparations has made it popular not only with regulars but also with special-occasion and business patrons. They added Cantina 18 in 2009 and branched out to Durham in April with Harvest 18.
The couple see their success as an opportunity to give back. Over the years, Jason has become well known for his willingness to embrace charitable and civic efforts; he’s now a member of the N.C. Symphony board, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce board, and the Junior League of Raleigh’s community advisory board, among others. He and Lauren both support SAFEChild.
Three restaurants and a young family make for a busy life and a constant juggling act. He can do that, Jason says, because his managers, chefs, cooks and servers are also part of the restaurant family. He’s proud that many have been with him for years and that others have moved on to follow their dreams.
Since the beginning, Jason has bought as much as possible from growers, fishermen and suppliers based in the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina. Now, almost everything is local.
His late grandmother Smith, who maintained a very large kitchen garden at her home near Poole and Sunnybrook roads, would be proud.
Then and now
Jason likes to tell stories about his grandparents and his memories of childhood time spent with them – Sunday dinners, home-grown produce, biscuits and all. Of the Smiths, he recalls, “It was rural. It was the South in a farm house, where the man of the house was a machinist and the woman of the house was the organist at the church.” He’d also visit his mother’s parents, the Lloyds, at their home in Raleigh. The holidays could be complicated.
“The divorced life, you had to figure out Christmas,” says Jason. “My two very set-in-their-ways Southern grandmas both wanted to have Christmas lunch. As my grandmother Smith aged out of doing that meal, my father decided to start doing a Christmas brunch.”
Steve Smith, who is a criminal defense attorney, still hosts brunch, but on Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas, so everyone can be with Sutton and Lawson at Jason and Lauren’s house for Christmas itself. When the children are older, Jason says, he and Lauren may want a formal meal more reminiscent of their own childhoods. They’ll just have to see.
As Steve says, “The important thing is families getting together, not where.”
On this dry-run for Christmas morning, Jason’s putting final touches on the food. Everyone else is on the patio in the wooded back yard, enjoying Lauren’s mojitos and the charcuterie platter. Sutton and her grandmother Carolyn enjoy the weather and admire the decorations. The bells at a nearby church chime the noon hour.
That’s the signal to come indoors, fill plates from the spread on the island and gather for another family ritual – each person naming a peak or pit experience of the day.
Hilda Lloyd speaks for them all when she says, “My peak of the day is being together.”
Shrimp and Grits Eggs Benedict
Here’s how Jason Smith puts this brunch dish together. Use your favorite recipes for the components.
Cook grits a day before and spread in a well-greased shallow baking dish. Refrigerate, then cut circles or squares that you’ll grill or sauté for serving.
Make your favorite hollandaise, season it with your favorite spice blend and keep warm until serving time.
Saute shrimp in a little olive oil or butter with herbs of your choice. Arrange on grits cakes.
Poach eggs and place atop shrimp.
Dollop with hollandaise and serve.
Steve Smith’s Traditional Oyster Casserole
This recipe is from the mother of an old friend who grew up on the Pamlico River. Says Steve: “There are two ways to mess this recipe up. One is to overcook it. The other is to try to improve it.”
Butter the baking dish. Drain the oysters (two pints) of most of their liquid. Make a layer of oysters in the dish. Add a layer of saltine cracker crumbs. Dot with cubes of butter. Pour over a little half and half. Repeat. Do not add salt or pepper. Bake in a 475-degree oven until it bubbles. Take out of the oven and eat it real hot.
Jason Smith’s New Oyster Casserole
Jason’s version of this Southern holiday classic is inspired by his dad’s version but uses panko breadcrumbs and a custard.
3 cups panko bread crumbs, toasted til golden brown
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Zest of 2 lemons
3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
about 1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
4 dozen N.C. oysters, shucked from the shell and drained well
Dash of Texas Pete hot sauce
Heat oven to 375
Spread breadcrumbs on a shallow baking sheet and toast until golden brown. Let cool.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, milk, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, herbs and Texas Pete with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Fold in oysters and breadcrumbs and pour into a buttered shallow casserole dish. Bake about 20 minutes until golden brown. Serves 6 to 8.
Pomegranate Seed Crumb Cake
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 cup sour cream
1 cup vegetable oil
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
Julienned peel of 1 orange, cooked in 1 cup water with 1 cup sugar until tender
Heat over to 350 degrees.
Prepare crumb topping: In a bowl mix together flour and sugars. Melt butter and add to mixture. Using your hands, mix together. It should resemble clumpy sand. Mix in pomegranate seeds.
Prepare the cake: Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and ginger into a bowl. In a large bowl combine eggs, sugar and salt, using a hand whisk or electric mixer. Add sour cream and oil and mix until the cake batter is smooth. Add flour mixture and stir until smooth with no lumps. Pour into nine-inch springform pan, then add crumb topping.
Bake at 350 degrees until done, about 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack, then carefully remove sides of pan and slice cake. Serve with whipped cream and garnish with pomegranate seeds.