The morning air was cool. A breeze ruffled the grassy meadow. The sun peeked brightly through overhead clouds. Springtime came late to Hillsborough this year, yet provided a perfect backdrop for an alfresco lunch at the farm where the region s leading chefs showcased their craft.
Using only locally sourced ingredients, the team prepared dishes while the farm s goats and chickens foraged, keeping one eye on the crew. Stylists, photographers and foodies converged around borrowed chairs and a table set with handmade Italian VIETRI pottery. The wrought iron and crystal chandelier was hung from a sweetgum branch, lit and the feast was arranged.
The menu - a collaboration led by Eric Gephart, culinary instructor by day and professional chef and owner of Gephart Catering, along with Matt Fox of LaPlace by night - underscored the eclectic blend of food styles found in downtown Hillsborough. The chefs enticed colleagues Claudia Salvadore Tolan of Antonia s Italian Eatery, Mick and Kate Carroll of Radius Pizzeria and Matthew Shepherd of Matthew s Chocolates to prepare their signature dishes.
While Hillsborough has long been known for its historic elegance, literary traditions and scenic beauty, it has quickly emerged as a dining destination with an extraordinary variety of options all within three blocks of the town s center and minutes driving from hubs in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
This town s culinary scene has attracted chefs and restaurateurs who appreciate the value of sharing resources and the importance of building relationships with their customers, and among themselves as well.
The relationship between all the restaurants in Hillsborough is supportive and celebrative, says Kate Carroll of Radius, which she co-owns with her husband Mick. We are all proud to be part of this community and we re proud of each restaurant s and food shop offerings.
From the rolling hills to the sprawling meadows, Hillsborough is surrounded by numerous farms -- from which local restaurants take full advantage. Radius sources most of its food products from Walker Farm, Hurtgen Meadows Farm, Fickle Creek Farm, Roland Walters, Rogers Cattle Co. and Firsthand Foods, all within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant that takes its name from this symbiotic trend.
For this table-to-farm spread, the Carrolls augmented their signature wood fired pizza and prepared a stunning salad of grilled North Carolina swordfish steak on a bed of mixed greens with orange and grapefruit segments married together by bright citrus vinaigrette.
The Cyclist pizza also made an appearance. This pizza is composed with an onion marmalade base with grilled, hand-pulled chicken, mushrooms, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses and finished with chopped green onions.
Chefs Fox and Gephart, lead culinary instructor at The Chef s Academy in nearby Morrisville and Hillsborough native, talked about the synergy of the town s restaurant owners.
The better one restaurant does, the better everyone does, Gephart says.
It s a unique restaurant environment in Hillsborough where restaurant owners and chefs partner toward a common goal. There are true stories of out-of-town guests dining at one restaurant who are sent to Matthew s Chocolates, the late night artisan chocolate shop known for its truffles and cakes, for dessert.
Claudia Salvadore Tolan, owner/manager of Antonia s Italian Eatery, says, It s about people enjoying what they are doing and that parlays to the restaurant atmosphere and to the public.
Antonia s is a casual but elegant restaurant serving authentic Italian food, making almost all of its pasta in-house using Hillsborough s Latta Farm eggs, water, locally milled flour, and Homeland Creamery for milk, cream, butter and other dairy products.
At the farm, Antonia s served Verdure alla Griglia, or antipasta, a platter of grilled vegetables -- roasted red peppers, eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, onions and tomatoes -- marinated in extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, mint and garlic. The tomatoes were roasted with rosemary, thyme and fresh oregano and the red onions were baked with olive oil and house-made mozzarella cheese.
We work with Ashley Parker from Parker Farm and Vineyard that provides us weekly with most of our vegetables: arugula, spinach, mixed greens, Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, broccoli rabe, sweet potatoes, fingerling potatoes and anything else that comes in season like eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, Tolan says.
Her signature pasta, spaghetti ai Gamberi, or imported Italian spaghetti with shrimp, was dressed in olive oil, garlic, parsley and a touch of red pepper. The dishes were light and fresh, simple.
Chef Gephart brought his wild culinary game to the table with a roasted pheasant and rabbit risotto with natural jus, a hearty accompaniment to his tempura-crusted whole North Carolina red snapper drizzled with a sweet and spicy Asian glaze. The fish, served on a bed of Moroccan couscous, was a house favorite for many at his former Wrightsville Beach restaurant, Buoy 32 Bistro.
LaPlace s Fox showcased some of the Louisiana cookery s house-made meats from the newest restaurant on the block to open this spring. Imagine shrimp sausage with tarragon, duck sausage with sage, fresh green onion sausage, smokey Andouille with a kick of spice and a bacon cured in Steen s cane syrup.
His oysters on the half shell are shucked by order and are slightly sweet and briny.
We are trying to be very authentic with the Cajun and creole theme, Fox says. We re unapologetically Cajun, we re not trying to reinvent the wheel, just do it in an authentic way.
Authentic is keynote of the Hillsborough food scene that is notably eclectic -- the aroma of wood-fired pizza fills the air, the texture of delicate house-made pasta graces the palate, the creamy blend of a shrimp remoulade begs for seconds, and heavenly chocolates complete the meal.
Everyone is aware that it s not about competition, says Carroll. It s about creating a cohesive, diverse, delicious selection of food for our community and the surrounding areas.
Pancuito s Aaron Vandermark may have put the town on the epicurean map with his consistent James Beard Foundation semi-final kudos, but it is the shared affection among fellow chefs and restaurateurs that set the stage day after day, night after night, drawing the town s residents and visitors to table. Their names resonate with impeccable dining experiences. Hillsborough is la place -- the place -- where you might dine in town or at the farm, anywhere within a 50-mile radius of the town s limits to sample freshly sourced produce, dairy and meat, prepared from scratch, cooked to order and artfully presented, with or without goats and chickens watching.
Creating Under the Hillsborough Sun
Produced by Pat Bradford and Marimar McNaughton
Hillsborough, North Carolina, Culinary Team
Eric Gephart, Professional Chef & Catering/Lead Instructor at The Chefs Academy, Morrisville
Kate and Mick Carroll, Radius Pizzeria
Matt Fox, LaPlace
Claudia Salvadore Tolan, Antonia s Italian Eatery
Matthew Shepherd, Matthew s Chocolates
Bellezza, Incanto, Lastra, Puccinelli pottery and glassware, Martellato flatware, Pardi linens
Stylist: Jenifer Padilla, VIETRI Design Director
Heather Kaliff, VIETRI Social Media and Communications Coordinator
Anne Campbell Robbins, VIETRI National Sales Representative
Ellen Thompson, VIETRI Public Relations Manager
Fiore Fine Flowers, Wilmington
Early 1900s pegged white pine topped wooden farm table, Fetch Antiques and Interiors, Hillsborough
Metal reproduction 1920s bistro chairs, Fetch Antiques and Interiors, Hillsborough
1940s bronze, brass and crystal chandelier, Fetch Antiques and Interiors, Hillsborough
Wooden chairs, Eric Gephart
Galvanized Italian olive bucket and fresh cherry blossom branches, Fetch Antiques and Interiors, Hillsborough
Iron Horse Farm and Events, Hillsborough
Lodging and Accommodations
Tom Roberts, The Inn at Teardrops, Hillsborough
Schatzie Crowther, Ayr Mount
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens