Every morning, Cindy Vach makes two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on thinly sliced Pepperidge Farm white bread. One is for her husband, Josh Vach, and the other is for their 6-month-old silver Labrador retriever, Gunner.
"Mine is usually gone by the time I hit the end of Oyster Point Road," Josh says.
It is a morning ritual: Josh and Gunner head out the door to make the rounds, beginning at Joshs K38 restaurant at Oleander, a Baja Mexican grill and the flagship restaurant he opened in 1994 that launched a small empire. It is one of four stores he visits twice daily. A second location, formerly the Kiva Grill in Porters Neck, and, in downtown Wrightsville Beach, Tower 7 and Caf Del Mar.
After a day of tasting food behind the lines, Josh comes looking for Cindys home cooking inspired by a shared love of flavor. It may be a simple dish of black-eyed peas with hot, spicy vinegar plated with cold vegetables and a salad; steamed or grilled artichokes with aioli or drawn butter; or slabs of fresh tomatoes layered with roasted corn cut from the cob and sliced avocado.
On springs first mild weekend last month, Josh grilled salmon with lemon juice, served with artichokes, capers, salt and pepper; the next evening, sliders with Maytag blue cheese and caramelized red onions. Other times after dining out, Cindy and Josh come home and try to recreate a special sauce, stirring the memory of a savory occasion. More often than not, they say they eat around their butcher block counter.
"Our experience ends up being part of the cooking process as opposed to sitting down," Josh says.
The inside of the couples double-door, stainless-steel refrigerator is stocked with spicy salsas and condiments, the way Cindy found it the first time she showed up for a visit.
"That and a gallon of milk," she says.
Now, whether it is fetched from the honor-system garden stand at the end of their lane on Porters Neck Road; the produce section of a nearby Harris Teeter or Fresh Market; plucked from one of the restaurant walk-ins; or brokered straight from the grower, peddling his fruit from an old Ford pick-up truck parked at the restaurants back door, the home fridge is teeming with fresh greens and vegetables.
"We definitely veer on the lighter side," Josh says, "a lot of local produce you name it, corn, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, a lot of things that are really, really good for you that I just dont get or take the time to eat during my normal day. A lot of what she does here is preparing it for me to take with," Josh says.
"We both love to have a five-star meal, but we definitely run the gamut," Cindy says. "We might have a really good hot dog one day, and the next day you have your steak. Here, we usually err on the simple side of just fresh."
Cindy, a broker with Vance Youngs Intracoastal Realty team, is a Martinsville, Virginia, native who spent eight years in Miami before meeting Josh. While there, she followed the South Beach food trends, dining frequently at Emerils Miami Beach. On a first name basis with the service staff, she and her girlfriends packed around an eight-top one night when they heard Lagasse was making a rare personal appearance. Cindy sweet-talked her way into the kitchen for a photo op with the world renowned chef.
It was that photo that caught Joshs attention, when he was searching for his love match on e-Harmony.
"The dealmaker for me was that she had this group photo in her profile. She has her arm around Emeril and his sous chef and I thought if she has her arm around Emeril, I gotta meet this girl. I wanted her arm to be around me," he says.
With a freshly launched Web site: LiveEatSurf.com, Josh is a second generation foodie the sixth and youngest child of a career, Ocean City, Maryland, restaurateur some Yankees might remember the famed Quarterdeck Restaurant and Lounge on the OC strip, and later the Wild Goose Chase on the bayside. He says he was turning away bad fish from the time he was 13 years old. After cooking at Pacifica Del Mar and Epazote in Del Mar, California, at age 26 Josh opened his first restaurant, K38, on Oleander Drive, on July 13, 1994, his fathers birthday.
"He always made a habit of opening his restaurants on his birthdays."
Josh says, "I grew up in the kitchens, and I grew up realizing that the focus is on the food, and that if it wasnt for the flavors we wouldnt be here. The atmospheres are cool, the fact that its about Mexican and surfing, it definitely embodies who I am as a person, but if you dont have the reliability and consistency of your product, it doesnt matter how good your service is or what cool Kelly Slater video is on, its not going to bring them back."
Cindy says Josh starts with a clean slate every day. He lives and cooks by his fathers hard work ethic: "youre only as good as what you just did."
The heart of Pat Bells kitchen is the area between her stove top and her sink, surrounded by yards of Madora gold granite counter tops, a camouflage for crumbs and the centerpiece of the kitchen that changes color as the sun swings from east to west.
"I designed the kitchen basically to be a working kitchen," Pat says. "Theres just enough space so that everything works."
This is the fourth-and-forever kitchen that she has designed in a new home she shares with her husband, Bill. Everything is within reach of the cooking area. Potholders are beside the oven, utensils stored in drawers near the range, cloth towels and paper towels beneath the sink. Inside weighted drawers that glide open are pots and pans arranged by size and stacked mixing bowls stainless steel, Pyrex and vintage crockery bowls, Grandmas bowls that were passed down from one generation to the next.
These bowls made the cover illustration of the cookbook that Pat co-authored with her sister, Food from the Family Tree, a compendium of family recipes. It is just one of thousands of cookbooks she has collected on the shelves of her library. Some are organized by geography: Asia, Pan Asia, China, India, France, Italy, Spain, the Mediterranean, Latin America, South America, Puerto Rico and regions of the United States.
Some, like the Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are first editions. Others are devoted to hors doeuvre recipes, vegetables, baking, healthy diet, meat, fish, microwave, chef cookbooks, celebrity cook books, the New York Times cookbook, food reference books, history of food and food science books.
The Bells are foodies of the highest order. Pat, now retired, was the senior travel editor for Gourmet, relishing the role she played for 20 of the 25 years she worked at the magazine.
"My grandmother was a wonderful cook and my mother she wasnt the same kind of cook. She wasnt the cook-all-day-long kind of cook like my grandmother. She worked, she was a nurse. She was a different generation and in that first transition of when packaged foods first came out; but we still always had real meals at home," Pat says.
"The love of cooking drove me to the job. I had a friend who was working at Gourmet. And I said if they ever need anybody there, Id be interested."
When the editor-in-chief needed an editorial assistant, Pat was hired.
"Ive always loved the food magazines and Gourmet was always the best, and I always said Id love to work at a food magazine and be surrounded by all of the food recipes," Pat says.
"It was wonderful. It was a fascinating way to see the world. Fortunately Bill is the best. Hes a very adventurous eater," she says, adding, "Theres virtually nothing on the face of the earth that I dont eat."
From fried bugs in Mexico, emu in Africa, ostrich, gator and antelope, congee and 1,000-year eggs in China, to yak burgers in Tibet, the Bells have shared some very exotic meals.
"In China, I had dinner one night with the chef of the White Swan Inn in Guangzhou (Canton). For years and years it was the big hotel and restaurant. On the table was a bowl with a fish swimming in it. They picked out the fish and dipped it immediately into the cooking pot, to show you that you were getting the freshest, best ingredients."
Pat says her style is food cooked simply, and when they entertain, she prepares almost everything herself.
"Basically we entertain a lot and like to have a few friends over for dinner."
With an extra refrigerator, an extra freezer, two ovens conventional and convection and two microwaves, everything is almost always made ahead of time then warmed before serving.
"The idea is, if youre entertaining, you can go right from the kitchen into the butlers pantry," she says.
Down the hall is a separate pantry for canned goods, jellies, jams and tomato sauce; an annex for a collection of esoteric kitchen wares mandolins for slicing, rice makers for steaming grains, even an idli maker for poaching grit, farina or polenta cakes drizzled with lentil slurry.
"We eat a lot of ethnic food because weve traveled everywhere," Pat says.
A thermostat controlled wine cellar is paneled with the ends of wooden wine crates collected from around the world.
In the house that Bill Bell designed, the couple hosts gatherings in one of three dining areas: one formal, one informal and one waterside overlooking the lap pool and Landfall Lake.
"I used to serve dinner and plate up everything and serve people. Everything now is set up as buffet. Everybody can help themselves and sit down," Pat says.
"We knew that our casual entertaining would be in the kitchen. The kitchen is good for that. You can hang around to chat and you can actually have a lot of people prepping stuff together."
On a steel sheet pan, Gailyn Gagliardi arranges a mound of lemons cut into half domes, a flute of raspberries, a bag of sugar, a juice squeezer, two bowls, two tumblers and two spoons. Like a pair of butterflies to nectar, Gailyns two little girls, Noel, 6, and Caroline, 4, are drawn to the tray that their mother places on the formal dining room table.
Morning light cascades off classic red walls and casts a pink glow over the mother and her girls as the lemons are squeezed, the sugar is added and the raspberries mashed into the tumblers.
It is the beginning of a very busy day. One in which Gailyn is expected to play three roles all at one time: mother of two wee ones, kitchen manager of the Burgaw Incubator Kitchen and chef-owner of Caf Liardi.
Her cell phone starts ringing off her hip its her caf staffer calling about a big top with an 11 a.m. lunch reservation as she shepherds the girls into the car to drive the one mile from their home into Burgaws bustling downtown. Noel and Caroline, identically dressed in pink polka dot dresses, black leggings, white anklets and black Mary Janes, huddle in the back seat, their blonde curls hovering over a video game.
Born in Maine, raised in Florida and educated at the Miami Culinary Academy, Gailyn has been cooking her way up and down the East Coast since she opened her first restaurant, the Green Giraffe, in Dover, Delaware, in 1994. The second was Gailyns European Caf and Coffee House in Athens, Georgia. Caf Liardi, in Burgaw, is her third bistro.
In each case, her food chain showcased her trademarked coffees, teas and baked goods wedding cakes, scones, muffins and her signature item: the biscotti, a light hazelnut biscuit dredged in milk chocolate.
Once she arrives at the historic Burgaw train depot, Gailyn unlocks the doors and the girls scramble inside, making themselves at home in the commercial kitchen with wire whisks and pots and pans. As the two sisters stir up a batch of imaginary broth on the black and white checkerboard floor, their mom changes from jeans and a top into her chef whites inside her office.
The Burgaw Incubator Kitchen was seeded by federal grant money with the intention of creating jobs.
"Its for small entrepreneurs to help them develop their products," Gailyn says.
For Gailyn, its more like a labor of love. Targeting area food product developers who might have a family recipe they hope will take off, she says, "We work hand-in-hand with them. We have more than 100 people that are interested in going in. Its basically just to develop jobs at the end of the day. Once they get their product off and running, the goal is theyll be able to hire people in their own company."
Grant money, $75,000 received from the U.S. Department of Agricultures Rural Business Enterprise fund, was used for investing in brand new equipmentgas stoves, ovens, a pig roaster, cold storage, dry storage, commercial coffee maker, stainless steel prep tables, rolling racks, dish sinks, pots, pans, whisks, spatulas, knives, cutting boards and even bar towels await the entrepreneur who completes the paperwork and pays $20 an hour to lease the space.
Cape Fear Community College also sub-leases the Burgaw Incubator Kitchen as a satellite site for its growing Burgaw student roster. Guess who is the instructor?
Gailyn teaches Italian cuisine, international cuisine and some baking and pastry courses. In the fall, she plans to launch the North Carolina Culinary Institute at the site.
Meanwhile, when she is not too busy to look forward to the annual Burgaw Blueberry Festival in June slurping blueberry coffee and sampling blueberry salsa she has taped a few food shows for local and regional television stations, showcasing her recipe for pastry wrapped salmon with a ginger currant glaze.