Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent
There are more than a few proud parents in the downtown Raleigh 'mom-n-pop' resto revolution, and chef/proprietor Jason Smith of the famed 18s (think Seaboard and Cantina) has no doubt tossed his high hat in that renaissance ring.
Now 38, the celebri-chef in his own right has trained under a cauldron of hot chefs perhaps most namely Ben Barker and Glenn Lozuke of now-defunct James Beard-winning Magnolia Grill, Danny Myer of Union Square Hospitality and brandtastic Top Chef Tom Colicchio of former Gramercy Tavern (New York) and now Craft empire fame.
Cutting out a primo spot as a behind-the-line lifer, the Seaboard sensation cut his teeth in the biz starting with his first sprightly resto job in high school, but it wasnt until his four-year stay at Magnolia a few years later that he knew he was fated for fooding.
Working his way across the kitchen and cooking his way from the Old North State through Manhattan, New Zealand, Australia and the West Coast, the toque earned his chops via top training, along the way accruing a vision for Raleighs rising resto scape and bringing it home. In 2005, anchoring the relatively new, but flourishing Glo-So District and its growing goodies (Rockford, 518 West, Hibernian, Shroom, Helios), Smith pulled out his palette and painted an otherwise defunct side of downtown a fresh food(ie) face with the addition of 18 Seaboard a few blocks east of Glenwood in Seaboard Station. Fronted by Sunflowers Cafe and embedded with Logans Seaboard Cafe and their ever-popular lunchtime fare (both open Monday through Saturday for lunch only), 18 brought the Station its first sustainable sup spot with a side of nightlife and has been definitively pleasing palates ever since, and, in the process, beginning what is arguably becoming Smiths own locavore eatery empire.
Rapid in its success, even at the height of the recession in 2008, the 18 Seaboard saw an 1800-square-foot buildout, accompanied by the fresh-fare foray of salsa-sensation Cantina 18, bookending Glenwood in an also evolving Cameron Village.
Call it the fresh face. Call it the fresh catch. Whatever it is this chef is cooking up were eating it up. And one thing is for certain: Smiths staples have been and continue to be major players. Its been quite the evolution, Smith humbly acknowledges, and were certainly proud to be a part of it.
Hungry for more? When hes not keeping it real at the 18s or rearing Generation next, this father of two and proud papa in the Raleigh resto revolution has his eyes on the horizon. Think, maybe, the next little (read: authentic) big thing.
We got the skinny with chef Smith.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Im not sure I thought I would grow up. I always liked the idea of being a fireman like my grandfather, though.
The moment you knew you wanted to don the toque? When I first worked at Magnolia Grill [Durham] and saw all the creativeness Ben Barker and his Chef de Cuisine Glenn Lozuke had.
First foodie job? The now-defunct Wicked Smile, working with Rob Ragsdale.
You've cooked alongside the likes of chefs Ben Barker [Magnolia Grill], Danny Myer [Union Square Hospitality Group], Tom Colicchio [Gramercy Tavern, Top Chef, Craft], Robert Carter [Peninsula Grill, Charleston] and so on. What stands out as the biggest impact moment or mentor? Two things. One: Ben Barker using fresh locally procured ingredients, and how much better that made the food taste; and two, seeing firsthand how Danny Myer and his staff made guests feel so special.
You single-handedly opened 18 Seaboard as your first solo venture in 2006 and watched it flourish during the height of the recession to an 1800-square-foot expansion and the addition of second resto Cantina 18. And, now, youve expanded again with a second-floor open-air mezzanine at 18 Seaboard. What's the recipe for such success? Well, Id like to say so many things. I try to be honest in what we do. I want to use the best ingredients our restaurant can afford and get a group of co-workers that want to present them in the most respectable manner and who want to push themselves to make our guests happy. Our audience has been so supportive. They invigorate me and our restaurants to get better, and my wife, who helped me tirelessly at the beginning years and helps keep our family and house in order while I am away for long stints.
Your ingredient-driven style has been described as "clean" and "elegant in its restraint." What is the philosophy behind your "passion for pure flavors"? Well, Ben and Karen Barker taught me to get the best possible ingredients you can and dont mess them up. Its that simple, except when a team of 35 is accommodating a busy night of 300 guests! But what a great problem to have! Cheers!
So you have straightforward American cuisine (with a contemporary edge) at 18 Seaboard and casual, Southwest-influenced fare at Cantina 18. What inspired the genres? It felt right at each time of deciding our fare. I love cooking like I have eaten my whole life. I constantly think of my grandmothers food, as well as the restaurants I ate at along [Highway] 421, traveling back and forth from Raleigh to Wilmington as a kid with my father. When my wife and I decided on Cantina, it was the peak of the recession, and we wanted to have fun, flavorful fare that and was very affordable. The braised meats we use there met that goal.
OK, so you're ordering for me at each - what am I getting? At Seaboard, our healthy sunburst trout from Haywood County, N.C., and at Cantina, Moore Brothers beef short rib taco with pickled Johnston County corn and chipotle aioli.
You only get one ingredient. It's... Speckled trout from Rich Inlet, N.C. that I caught!
Biggest kitchen flub? I tried to get caviar extra cold for a party and put it in the freezer and forgot about it. Frozen caviar defeats the purpose. The line cooks in the kitchen got a great chuckle, as you can imagine.
You have two young children (Sutton, 4, and Lawson, 5 mos.). If either aspires to be a chef, what one thing would you want them to know? That its so rewarding seeing happy guests, purveyors and co-workers.
Fav place to grub in town? The Players Retreat[owner] Gus [Gusler] has done an incredible job of turning that place into the great neighborhood Raleigh institution that it is.
Word is you'd like to add a third resto in 2013. Give us the deets? Nothing to report yet, but with the great support I have from my family and guests, plus the best management team I could ever imagine, its definitely time to grow!