Ben Barker was born in 1953 and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in what is known as the Triangle. As a teenager, he worked in local restaurants before going on to college, and graduating in 1981 from the Culinary Institute, where he met pastry chef and future wife, Karen.
In 1982, they both went to work at Restaurant La Residence in Chapel Hill for two years, then moved on in 1984 to succeed Chef Edna Lewis at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro, North Carolina to establish “The Cuisine of the New South”.
In 1986, Chef Ben Barker and his wife Karen, converted a health food grocery store into the Magnolia Grill, and the honors began. He was a nominee at the second annual James Beard Awards show in 1992 (as well as 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999) at the same time Great Chefs was nominated for their television show. Chef Barker received the award in 2000. Three years after Chef Ben won the award, Chef Karen won the JBF Outstanding Pastry Chef award in 2003 after being nominated in 2001 and 2002.
Ten years later in August 1996, Great Chefs showed up at the door of the Magnolia Grill while they were producing Great Chefs of the South for the Discovery Channel. Chef Ben Barker prepared a Wild and Exotic Mushroom Salad on Marinated Tomatoes with Warm Sherry-Bacon Vinaigrette as an appetizer (episode # 8), and a Pan-Fried Mountain Rainbow Trout with Green Tomato and Lime Butter Salsa on Sweet Potato, Artichoke and Crayfish Hash (episode #30). Don’t ask us why Chef Karen didn’t prepare any desserts, since we were always short on pastry!
As the awards kept raining down on both chefs and their restaurant, they still found time to be a founding organizer with Bill Shore and his Share our Strength organization’s “Taste of the Nation” as well as founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1992, and were recipients of the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 from the SFA. But their greatest achievement is that 37 graduates from the Magnolia Grill either own their own restaurant/bakery now, or are executive chefs, of which 4 thus far have been nominated for a James Beard Award.
On May 31, 2012, the Chef Barkers decided to close Magnolia Grill down on their terms, and start enjoying their life and their family. The Ball & Chain was cut. Congratulations on a great run!