While some may think of the newcomers as carpetbaggers, Howard is flattered by the attention. Playing with Asian flavors or adding Mediterranean accents not only helps develop the region's food culture, she says, but also honors it. "It says a lot about what people have come to appreciate about our regional cuisine here."
Howard is one of a growing number of native Southerners who traveled or lived outside the region, then returned home with fresh ideas. Trained in New York at WD-50 and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market, Howard initially tried to bring Northern dishes to the South. The response was lukewarm.
So she began embracing all the things she'd grown up on — collards, sweet corn, cucumbers, field peas — but reinterpreting them, drawing on lessons she learned in the North. Today, baby collards are flash fried like potato chips, and lima beans are slow cooked with mustard greens and sausage until they melt on your tongue. A pecan pie isn't a pecan pie at all, but something between a chocolate-chip cookie and a salty, crunchy nut bar.
"What I'm trying to do is translate my region," Howard says. "There are all these subcultures of Southern food. People are familiar with low country, with Appalachia. I'm trying to do that same thing with the cuisine of the frugal farmer in eastern North Carolina, but do it in a way that's attractive for people who live here and is interesting for people who don't."
Like Howard, 41-year-old Matt Neal first fell in love with New York and its food during a childhood visit to the legendary Second Avenue Deli. Back home, he says he and his wife Sheila finally gave up on someone coming from the city to open a deli they could eat lunch at, so they decided to do it themselves.