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Franklin Street restaurants feed growing food tourism industry

If the James Beard Foundation Awards are the Oscars of food prizes, then two Franklin Street chefs are on the red carpet.

The nomination of two local chefs this week highlights the growing food tourism industry in Chapel Hill, said Patty Griffin, communications director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitor’s Bureau.

“Good chefs attract other good chefs,” Griffin said.

Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern, and Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner are in the running for the Best Chef: Southeast award. There are three other nominees in that division, which includes six states.

Cook like the pros: Honeysuckle Sorbet

Recipe courtesy of Bill Smith

4 cups honeysuckle flowers, no leaves or stems
5 1/3 cups cool water
1 1/3 cups water
2 cups of sugar
A few drops of lemon juice
A speck of cinnamon

1. Gather 4 cups of honeysuckle flowers without the leaves or stems so that they are packed but not smashed.
2. Place the flowers in a glass or stainless steel container and cover with the cool water. Weight it with a plate. Let them stand overnight.
3. Make a syrup by boiling the sugar and water until all the sugar is dissolved, and it begins to look slightly thick. Add a few drops of lemon juice and let the syrup cool.
4. Strain the honeysuckle infusion, gently pressing the blossoms.
5. Combine the two liquids, adding the merest dusting of cinnamon, and churn in an ice cream maker.

It’s the latest in a sequence of events in recent years that have highlighted the Chapel Hill food tourism market.

“The streets are bustling with foodies,” said Leigh Eckle, who expanded her Raleigh-based Triangle Food Tour to Chapel Hill last year.

“People are eating outside. I don’t see that as much in Raleigh.”

Smith, who started his cooking career unexpectedly by taking a kitchen job in Chapel Hill, said that he has remained in the town because of the great restaurants, theatres and music scene.

“Every once and a while I think about leaving, but it’s never serious,” he said.

Cathy Jones, co-owner of Perry-winkle Farm, supplies Crook’s Corner and many other local restaurants and said she expects the farm to benefit from Reusing and Smith’s recognition.

“People are really into fresh and organic foods,” she said.

Deidre Cotterill, guest experience facilitator for the Franklin Hotel, said she noticed more of an emphasis on local food for the hotel’s guests.

“When you travel, you want to taste the local flavor of the community,” Griffin said.

Carrboro resident Udo Reisinger took Eckle’s food tour in the last month and said it reintroduced him to local food.

“You see how high quality local food is,” he said.

The local food market got more attention when the bureau contracted Moreton Neal, the food editor of Raleigh’s Metro Magazine, to write a book reviewing some of the county’s best restaurants, called “Chapel Hill Food Lover’s Guide with Carrboro and Hillsborough.”

It was released in December.

“It’s a good look not only at the foodies who put this area on the map, but also some of the characters who are well known,” said Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the visitor’s bureau.

Entries for Crook’s Corner and Lantern may have to be edited if the chefs win the James Beard Foundation awards, which will be announced May 3 in New York.

Crook’s Corner was also named a semi-finalist for an outstanding restaurant award.

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Smith, who was a nominee last year, finds the honor and recognition from his peers flattering. He said he hopes he and the restaurant don’t change.

“We are what we are,” Smith said. “It’s maybe a danger when you get recognition to try and change who you are.”

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