The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday January 31st

Local restaurant owners nominated for renowned culinary awards

Headshot of Sean Lilly Wilson. Photo courtesy of Sean Lilly Wilson.
Buy Photos Headshot of Sean Lilly Wilson. Photo courtesy of Sean Lilly Wilson.

The James Beard Foundation nominated two local restaurant owners last week as semifinalists for its 2018 Restaurant and Chef Awards. 

Sean Lilly Wilson of Durham was nominated in the category of Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional and Gabe Barker of Carrboro was nominated as a Rising Star Chef of the Year.

The James Beard Foundation supports and celebrates chefs and other culinary leaders around the country. Their annual Restaurant and Chef Awards identify exceptional chefs who have made exciting strides in the world of food and drink. The semifinalists are nominated each February, the finalists in March and the winners are revealed in May.

Wilson is the owner and founder of Fullsteam Brewery, which designs distinctly Southern, agriculturally inspired beer. 

“It’s about using local grains, sweet potatoes and other ingredients that really make you think of the culture of the South,” Wilson said. “I surround myself with people who are passionate about foraging, about farms and about community.”

Wilson and his team at Fullsteam Brewery combine their love of beer with a passion for social activism. The profits of a recent project, an elderberry and purple potato beer called Purple State, went to helping end gerrymandering in North Carolina.

“We are trying to brew for the diverse, mixed community that is North Carolina,” Wilson said.

Gabe Barker is the owner of Pizzeria Mercato, an innovative restaurant that fuses the two popular styles of Neapolitan and New York pizza.

“I grew up in (my parents’) restaurant,” Barker said. “I’ve always loved food because it’s so important to us. As a kid I associated food with family and being able to connect with my father.”

Barker only decided he wanted to become a chef after he had already graduated from college with a history degree. 

“My parents laughed at me, at first,” Barker said. “Because they knew what kind of life it was and how difficult it could be. But they supported me enough to help me find work outside of North Carolina, in a restaurant in San Francisco.”

While in California, Barker decided to start working with pizza in new, unconventional ways. He saw that some chefs were going against the grain of making woodfired pizza and using gas ovens to make their product. Barker took this idea back to NC and made it his own at Pizzeria Mercato.

In the future, Barker hopes to branch out and add his personal flavor to different cultural cuisines. 

“I miss that diversity of food that I saw in San Francisco, and it would be exciting to me to work with Mexican or Asian dishes,” Barker said. 

He also cited his desire to focus on one project at a time.

“I don’t have any interest in a restaurant empire," Barker said. "I want to focus and do everything to the best of my ability, not spread myself too thin.”


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