North Carolina’s Moore County restaurants, growers, and producers work together to plate-up flavorful bounty ripe with Sandhills tradition.
When Sue Stovall was early into her second career as a goat farmer and artisanal cheese maker, she looked to chef and renowned Pinehurst-area culinary godfather Mark Elliott of Elliotts on Linden for advice and feedback on her product.
“Mark was one of our earliest customers,” says Stovall, who started Moore County’s Paradox Farm Creamery in 2007 with her late husband, Hunter. “I kept bringing him my camembert to try and he was very direct in telling me the importance of consistency in what he wanted to serve his guests. Our success was so important to him; he gave me a second-hand commercial refrigerator as long as I could haul it away. The fridge became our very first cheese cave and is still in use today.”
Elliott’s overture speaks to not only the camaraderie found in the area’s vibrant food scene, but also underscores the respect and appreciation for creating the burgeoning culinary community found here. Pride in Moore County’s agricultural heritage and traditions carry throughout the region, making star appearances in picnic baskets, plates, and dining rooms from Southern Pines and Carthage to Pinehurst and Aberdeen.
“Everyone from the farmer growing your food, to the chefs preparing it, and the servers taking care of you when you’re dining out here is bringing the story of the food and the people behind it to your plate,” says Stovall. “It’s part of what makes this area special, and part of what makes our culinary scene so memorable.”
Culinary adventurers find their Everest in Moore County, with the Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen communities hosting four seasons of farm fresh abundance to delight visitors at breakfast, lunch, and dinner – as well as a snack or two in between. It’s a must-go destination for foodies.
Guests at Scott’s Table in Southern Pines are greeted by a mural on the far dining room wall featuring a map of the Old North State captioned with the declaration, “Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.” Scott’s Table co-owner and wife of the restaurant’s namesake Chef Scott Margolis says their philosophy towards their ingredients is akin to that of a home gardener. “Gardeners wait until the very moment when their tomatoes, corn, or peas are at their peak potential before they harvest them,” says Karen Margolis. “Nothing tastes better than that. Our farmers and producers deliver almost daily with what they’ve harvested that day and it’s on the diner’s plate that evening.”
Moore County honey, tomatoes and patty-pan squash are among the products that come to Scott’s from nearby R2 Apiary. Another favored source is good friend John Frye at MacC’s Family Farm who always has same-day gems from the farm that inspire chef Scott. “Sometimes John will just show up at our door all excited with his crop that day,” says Karen. “Once he came by with a bunch of collard greens that were so huge, he could barely get them in the door. It’s just such a pleasure to know the people behind what we are serving and see the joy they have in helping make our guests have the best dining experience.”
Like many area eateries, the menu at Scott’s Table changes frequently taking advantage of the season and variety of offerings from surrounding farms. Scott’s signature crab cakes are legendary. Made with lump North Carolina blue crab, they’re served with a special lobster sherry sauce, lemon tarragon rice and the freshest vegetables of the day.
Ashten’s Hall of Farm
Ashley Van Camp has so much respect and admiration for the local growers and producers supplying her Southern Pines restaurant, Ashten’s, she honors each on her menu and a featured “Hall of Farm” on the restaurant’s website. For two decades Van Camp has been showcasing how the connective power behind area growers and producers combining with creative and talented chefs shape dining experiences and culinary expectations of everyone who eats out.
“We do our best to honor these incredible ingredients that surround us,” says Van Camp. “There is an agricultural heritage here that links our sandy, loamy soil back to tobacco and it has only been within the past 20 years or so that many former tobacco farms have turned towards commercially grown vegetables, flowers and other crops.”
Van Camp tells how she works with Carthage farmer Ben Priest of Priest Family Farm. “They have the most beautiful purple-tipped asparagus,” says Van Camp. “Early on they made it clear they were interested in working with us and asked me specifically what I wanted them to grow. When I shared that I’d recently enjoyed these fabulous Shishito Peppers, they researched them and grew a crop especially for us.” In the know visitors look for “Pappy Priest’s Asparagus Pickles” for a special take-home treat they can find at the Sandhills Farmers Market. Purple-tipped, perfect, precious, peppy and pickled, one jar is likely not enough.
For diners, it’s exciting to explore a culinary eco-system that fosters creativity not only inside individual restaurants, but throughout an entire community. In Moore County, Ashten’s is a leader and area catalyst for innovation. One such example is found with a former busboy at the restaurant, Isaac Kundinger. He saw a market for microgreens like those used at the restaurant and at 26, founded the Conscious Cultivators, a “vertical indoor grower” of microgreens.
Started in 2017 in his parents’ garage, Conscious Cultivators has seen its fortunes sprout alongside the increased demand for tasty garnishes and salad staples such as sunflower sprouts, opal basil, red veined sorrel, mustard and micro celery greens. While Kundinger comes from a line of traditional farmers like his father and grandfather, he’s the first in his family to “go small” and tend his crops indoors under grow lights.
Ostrich ranchers, Ryan and Gaby Olufs of Misty Morning Ranch, have also experienced the influence and mentorship of Van Camp, her team of chefs and other area culinary influencers such as Warren Henry Lewis, owner and chef of his eponymously named restaurant Chef Warren’s.
“We feel like we’re part of a tight-knit family in the community here,” says Ryan Olufs, who launched the 60-acre ranch in Robbins in 2016. Olufs supplies restaurants such as Ashten’s, Chef Warren’s and the Sly Fox Pub with antibiotic free ostrich meat and jumbo-sized eggs, which are highly prized by pastry chefs for their rich yolks. “The volume of one ostrich egg is the same as about two-dozen hen’s eggs,” Oluf said. “Crème Brulee is made extra easy as the chefs don’t have to separate so many eggs for their recipes.”
Produce That’s Personal
“Connecting the soil under your feet to the food on your table is what this region is all about,” says Olufs. “We were excited to see this in action last spring when we worked with Moore County Cooperative Extension service and Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in hosting a special dinner here.” As part of a broader project of gathering information for the Visit NC Farms mobile app, https://visitncfarmstoday.com/, the dinner, coordinated/catered by Ashten’s featured dozens of area growers, producers, area wine, beer and cider and saw guests dining directly with farmers to gain first-hand exposure to the wonderful area sources.
For fifth-generation farmer, Cliff Pilson of C.V. Pilson Farm, producing top quality produce is personal. “That’s my name on the box,” says Pilson, whose sweet potatoes are featured on plates and in markets throughout the region. In addition to their nutrient-dense tubers, the farm is well known for in-season strawberries, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, and the North Carolina grapes this region is famous for – the Scuppernong and Muscadine. No visit to Moore County is complete without sampling the wine made from these varietals.
‘Q and brew are on tap at Pinehurst Brewing Co. (part of the Pinehurst Resort) as the smokers go all-day long turning out tender brisket, chicken, ribs, and pork shoulder alongside some smokin’ sides. Lovingly crafted micro-batch lagers, stouts, and ales flow here in rotation where every pint is a signature brew.
Local seafood is not to be shortchanged in visiting the region and there’s no more authentic Carolina seafood-shack than Aberdeen’s fabled House of Fish. Chef/owner Danny Hayes has been reeling in the locals and folks from afar with stellar Southern favorites like fried flounder and catfish, shrimp & grits, oysters, spots, croakers, bass and “whatever’s swimming” in nearby waters. This casual nautically themed go-to roadhouse has been packing them in since 2014.
“Quality trumps everything when it comes to flavor and creating special dining experiences,” says chef Warren Henry Lewis, whose classic French Bistro fare has made Chef Warren’s an area favorite for 22 years. “If it’s beautiful and fresh, we honor that and let it shine.”
Michael J. Solender is a travel writer from Charlotte, N.C. You can read more from him here.