Smoky Mountain Easter
For Scott Howell, who did go home again, the spirit of Easter dinner begins and ends in Morristown, Tennessee—but not without fortuitous detours to New York, Italy and France. Howell is a Southern boy, and for his family, Easter always meant piling into their car in Asheville, North Carolina, and twisting up over the Smokies and across the state line to his grandmother's house in Morristown. He can still hear the sputter of corn-bread batter hitting her skillet of hissing-hot bacon drippings. "That skillet is older than I am," says Howell, who is 37. "I named my restaurant for Nana because she gave me my love for food."
Nana's, Howell's eight-year-old restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, is a tribute to that love. One dining room is as red as barbecue sauce, the other is the color of cornmeal, and the menu is an innovative blend of Italy and the American South, with a few French accents. Some people will drive a hundred miles just to eat at Nana's, and Faye Dunaway, Robert Rauschenberg and members of the Saudi royal family have found their way there.
As much as Howell enjoyed being in the kitchen with his grandmother as a child, he didn't discover he liked to cook until college, and then quite by accident. A marketing major at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, he worked part-time, purely for the money, as a line cook at a swank resort nearby. But there was a life-altering bonus. Howell learned he had a feel for food. The day after his last marketing test at Appalachian, he was on the early-morning plane to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park. "I didn't even wait to see if I graduated," Howell says. (He did.)
At the CIA, Howell would go to class all day, then cut fish at night to prepare for the next day's instruction. Weekends he commuted to Manhattan to work at the restaurant San Domenico NY. After graduation, he apprenticed at the original San Domenico, in Imola, Italy, and then, barely back in New York, landed a job with the wildly talented David Bouley at the French-inflected Bouley. These experiences forever changed Howell's style of cooking. By using techniques he had learned in Italy and New York, Howell says, "I wanted to make Southern food a little cleaner, a little more refined."
He made his move back to the South in 1990. The man who eased his re-entry was chef Ben Barker, who gave him a job at Magnolia Grill in Durham. Barker shared his vast knowledge of local ingredients and their sources: heirloom vegetables, fine artisanal cheeses, the best fish from Carolina waters. For Howell, Barker's influence was "huge." But without Nana (now 84 and still going strong), there would undoubtedly have been no Italy, no Bouley, no Barker, no Nana's.
While both Howell's and his grandmother's Easter menus begin with the same Southern favorites, their treatments of them are miles, and years, apart. She would glaze a cured packing-house ham with brown sugar, then stud it with cloves. He chooses a fresh ham and glosses it with a barbecue sauce that's halfway between the tomato-based standard of western North Carolina and the vinegar-and-chili-based one of eastern North Carolina. "To make it," he says, "I'm taking a technique I learned from Bouley and doing a barbecue sauce I really think he would like." That technique—gastrique—involves caramelizing an ingredient (in this case, onions, garlic and dried chilis) and deglazing the pan with something acidic. Howell says he uses "just straight old cheap white vinegar, and I gun a lot of it in there and let it really develop."
In Howell's hands, two Southern staples—sweet potatoes and collard greens—both emerge as gratins. "The sweet potato is definitely out of my youth," he says, "but tucking the prunes in the middle is something we used to do at Bouley—with Idaho potatoes." For the collards, which Howell characterizes as "Southernized Italian," he tops the greens with crumbs of Parmesan cheese, and then, as the French might do, bakes them in a gratin dish.
Like all perfectionist chefs, Howell constantly reinvents even his most popular recipes. The silky chicken liver mousse on his Easter menu, for example, is a slight reinterpretation of one that his restaurant regulars swoon over. The not-too-sweet carrot cake layered with lemon mascarpone cream evolved from a gingery pumpkin cake, a best-seller last Thanksgiving.
While Howell no longer makes it home for Easter every year, there are two recipes that will always, always appear on his table: Nana's corn bread and the biscuits that his stepmother brought to the table when he was in college. "They are unbelievable," he says. Whenever he's planning an Easter trip home, he tells his family, "You can have whatever else you want, but those biscuits and that corn bread have got to be there."