Brunch in a Barn

By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Amy Freeman

Like many culinary traditions, the origins of brunch are cloaked in sweet obscurity. Some food historians maintain that the idea of a lavish buffet that artfully blends “breakfast” and “lunch” developed from traditional English hunt breakfasts where everything from Scotch eggs to wild game and sweetbreads were presented to hungry participants.

Others insist it developed from cooks who simply wished to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Whichever version you accept, according to Smithsonian magazine, the word first appeared in a 1895 edition of Hunter’s Weekly magazine and included a plea from a noted British foodie to replace the heavy, traditional after-church Sunday meal with lighter fare that would be “talk-compelling and puts you in a good temper, [that] makes you satisfied with yourself and fellow beings [and] sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

By the 1930s, the concept of “brunch” had infiltrated America too, notably in the form of socialites and movie stars who took up the tradition and added Bloody Marys and mimosas to spice up the menu — prompting top restaurants in major cities to quickly adopt the concept.

These days, brunch may be the most versatile form of entertaining with fine food, the ideal way to celebrate everything from the birth of a baby to golden wedding anniversaries, with college graduations to first Communions in between.

Not long ago, Seasons was pleased to find itself invited to a very special brunch in a gloriously restored Moravian barn on Chinaberry Farm in the Davidson County village of Wallburg.

The spectacular brunch was equal parts weekend debut party for the historic barn — meticulously restored by hosts Mike Griffin and his Renaissance wife, Laura, who orchestrated the food and decorations amid salvaged artifacts such as a script for a Victorian stage play. She also planned the meal for 20 or so friends old and new, highlighted by the culinary brilliance of four acclaimed Triad chefs — something of a reunion in memory of her late husband, Chef Robert Pearse (see page 64), but mainly a celebration of spring.

As the mingling guests nibbled on cheese straws and baked goods supplied by Winston-Salem’s Camino Bakery, and sipped on an outstanding chardonnay or superb Pinnacle blend from the Childress Winery, or a robust Bloody Mary poured by the event’s genial celebrity barkeep, High Point architect Peter Freeman (the recipe belongs to his wife, Amy, Seasons’s gifted photographer), the chefs presented their culinary magic at stations around the barn.

What would any Southern brunch be without shrimp and grits? Brad Semon from Greensboro’s Painted Plate Catering served his own version of the Southern classic, which ranks high among the favorites of his devoted customers — and will undoubtedly find its way to his new Cadillac Service Garage event space opening this spring in downtown Greensboro.

Continuing a theme, Tad Engstrom, executive chef at popular MJ’s Restaurant & Catering in the Gate City’s Guilford College neighborhood, presented pimiento cheese grits, quail filets with raspberries and the most delicious seasoned collards this trencherman has ever eaten.

Trey Prescott from J. Pepper’s Southern Grille in Kernersville delighted the sweet tooth and child in each of the guests with an extraordinary bread pudding French toast dish that featured candied pecans drizzled with a heavenly maple syrup — made from a Foothills favorite, People’s Porter. It is easily the most popular brunch item on the menu at 3-year-old J. Pepper’s, Prescott reports, and made from a recipe he got from his own mama, Sharyn.

Perhaps the most ambitious brunch dish — certainly the most exquisitely conceived — was provided by Lisa Hawley of Jamestown’s acclaimed Southern Roots Restaurant, an omelette gateau she learned many years ago from a fellow Southern chef that requireds no less than 40 different omelettes stacked and filled with fresh spinach, English cheddar, roasted tomato, blue and Parmesan cheeses layered and baked into a golden egg cake. “It’s pretty labor intensive,” Hawley conceded, “and I hadn’t tried it in years. But I had a hunch it might be perfect for a brunch in a barn.”

Her hunch was more than correct. The egg cake dazzled guests with its beautiful architecture and rich taste, disappearing quickly. “A party like this could never happen without the help of good friends,” Laura Griffin noted as the socializing and eating reached peak levels and warming rays of sunlight filled the barn’s beautiful curated spaces. Griffin was quick to acknowledge her pals Greg Johns and Terri Christian of Childress Vineyards for their contributions; Triad designers Bobby Craddock and Donna Jordan for assisting with decorations and design ideas; and longtime friends Patti and Chris Morrison from Kernersville for introducing Twin City songstress Holly Brown to her guests. Brown’s lovely background music floated down from the barn’s upper reaches throughout the event.

“Something like this really does take a village, or at least a family of talented friends coming together to celebrate,” Griffin added, alluding to her late husband, the aforementioned Chef Robert, whose son Nick Pearse and bride Sara held their wedding rehearsal dinner party in the Barn at Chinaberry Farm last June. Nick, a line cook at Greensboro’s 1618 Downtown, was home studying for his nursing degree that morning but, Sara, a sports therapist who counts The Swarm among her local clients, was present to help close the circle of good will.

“Nick and I saw this barn come together over the past five years,” she mused as the event began to wind down, explaining how, in the spirit of proper Southern tradition, she and Nick served fried catfish, Budweiser and Cheerwine at the barn’s christening. “It was such fun; everyone loved it. But this brunch is a step further in the barn’s new life — not to mention Laura’s and Mike’s.”

Taking a last bite of Trey Prescott’s amazing bread pudding French toast, she added with a smile, “And what a perfect way to welcome back spring.”

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