Behind the Line with Chris Stinnett

Published Wed, Sep 26, 2012 01:12 PM
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Chris Stinnett, part owner of the Durham Restaurant Group. Photo by Beth Mandel

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

Billed with building up the Bull City’s downtown resto renaissance, top Triangle toque Chris Stinnett dishes a range of top fodder via a trio of the city’s best bite spots: French fusion Rue Cler (and in-house Pop’s Bakery); Italian trattoria Pop’s (now on West Main); and popular pizza spot, Pop’s Backdoor South in Hope Valley Square.

And foodies (and fans) have taken note — from the local VarmintBites blog shout-out as sexiest chef, to landing a nod in the New York Times’ selection of Durham in the Top 41 go-tos globally in 2011. Snatching spot 35 (no small feat in a global fight), Durham’s draw is its culinary chops: “A downtown turnaround means food worth the trip,” tags the NYT, and at the center of that resurgence sits Rue Cler — one of the first upscale sup spots to venture into downtown Durham in October of 2006, paving the path for a then-devoid city center to become the internationally renowned culinary hotbed it is today.

Self-taught, Stinnett credits his passion to victual visionaries Ben Barker (of Magnolia Grill fame) and Scott Howell (owner/chef of Nana’s), and considers himself lucky to have learned under such top chefs: “They made me who I am — there are things I learned from both of them I still use today.” But the Texas-native, who spent his youth between North Carolina and Florida, has never been short on talent, or curiosity. “My grandfather was a butcher, so I grew up in that lifestyle with him. I would always hang out in the kitchen with him,” he muses.

At 19, he skipped country to work at a dive owned by his uncle in Chuuk, Micronesia, dubbed Truk Stop. “That’s where I started really cooking for people,” he said.

Back in the Bull City at 21, followed by three years under Barker, and two with Howell, the rising star landed at Pop’s, a joint venture that Barker and Howell had opened years before — until he later purchased the hot spot himself (with John Vandergrift in 2003). And the rest ... well, that’s just hunger-sating and city-changing history.


What’s it like manning the kitchen of two of downtown Durham’s hottest restos (Pop’s and Rue Cler), and ‘pie’ paragon Pop’s Backdoor Pizza South in Hope Valley Square?

There is never a dull day, I can say that. I have been very fortunate to have not only a great business partner in John Vandergrift, but a great staff behind us, and that always makes things easier.

Rue Cler has been billed with the upstart of downtown’s revitalization and foodie revolution. That had to be risky business, albeit brilliant vision. How’d you know?

We took a real chance with Rue Cler. What we saw with downtown and what the owner of the building, John Warsaila, saw was the same thing — downtown was coming back. It paid off, and we have been really happy and love to see all the progress going on in downtown.

You stay committed to being an intricate part of the ongoing revitalization. How so?

The best way we stay involved is by giving back to the community as much as we can. Downtown will continue to grow if we all work with the community and keep doing things to get people down here.

You put a tremendous emphasis on keeping it local. How does that impact your prowess as a chef and the quality of the fare at your restaurants?

You have to keep it local in Durham, which is a great thing. People are spoiled here; they know what good food is and what tastes fresh. You can’t come to Durham and open a restaurant and not use all these great farms and the farmers market; well, you can, but you probably won’t make it. The support and business we get from the community wanting to eat at places where they might have a connection with the farm, or bought from them at the farmers market, is invaluable.

As awards go (beyond that global “NYT” recognition), your name was also once thrown around as one of the Triangle’s sexiest chefs (on VarmintBites blog). Flattering?

Ha, I get more shit about that. That was 40 pounds ago and a lot less gray hair, but anytime someone throws your name out there for something like that, it’s flattering.

French and Italian, check. Any Mexican to look forward to?

I think I am done opening restaurants for a little while ... but if the right deal came up, I have always wanted to go towards the fresh noodle shop or sushi.

Ohh, sushi. Say more.

Ok. Whew. I love Sushi and fresh noodles. Downtown doesn't have that yet. We need a deli-style noodle shop where you can go buy a pound of fresh noodles and have a bite to eat.

If you followed your nose around town, where would you sniff out the best eats?

Hmm. I had a great dinner at Nana’s a few weeks ago, and I can say if I ever wanted to go somewhere and know it was going to be good and have service on point, that would be my first choice. With three kids, most of my eating these days comes from food trucks at the market or a quick hot dog from King’s. Chirba Chirba is hands down my favorite truck, and if I am going to eat sushi, I’m hitting Kurama for lunch.

What chef has served as your muse?

You know I owe my love for food to Ben Barker. I was fortunate to work for both him and Scott Howell and seeing both those guys’ passion for food and their restaurants was inspiring. I consider myself very lucky to have had both those guys in my life; I’m a better cook because of it.

If you were limited to one ingredient, what would it be and why?

Butter, because it makes everything taste better. Heavy cream is a close second. (Hence the 40 pounds I need to lose).

Ha! It hardly hurts that sexiest chef reputation. So, any advice for upcoming chefs?

Go somewhere and work. Start at the bottom and soak up as much knowledge as possible. Move around a little and see as many styles as possible. I [have always] taken at least one thing from somebody I have worked with or for. You can learn something from everybody, good and bad — it all makes you better at your craft.

And the awesome thing about this area is the huge talent pool of young chefs. You could work for a couple of these guys and what you would learn in four years would blow away culinary school. Don't get me wrong, culinary school is a good thing, we even have a great one here at the American Tobacco complex. But, there is something to be said for on-the-job training. I would say go work somewhere for a year before you go to school though. See what you like and what you don't like and then decide.

If you’re not cooking, what are you most likely doing?

The greatest job in the world… being a dad! I have three wonderful kids that will make the crappiest day go away with a big hug and a kiss.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years, if I am still calling out orders at Pop's or Rue Cler watching Durham continue to grow, I will be a happy man.

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