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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Meet and Three: J.C.'s Kitchen in Durham

Posted by on Thu, Aug 11, 2011 at 4:00 PM

Hand lettering on the side of J.C.s Kitchen advertises the restaurant's specials.
  • Hand lettering on the side of J.C.'s Kitchen advertises the restaurant's weekly specials.
J.C. doesn’t cook. That’s no news to the slew of regulars at J.C.’s Kitchen, a home-style restaurant in a buttery yellow building on the corner of Main and Fayetteville streets in Durham. But new folks, explains owner Phyllis Terry, often expect to find the namesake behind the counter.

“It’s a form of witnessing to say they stand for Jesus Christ,” Terry says of the restaurant’s initials. The definition, if not explicitly explained, can be inferred from the interior of the building, where Scripture and inspirational plaques adorn the walls, gospel music pipes from a CD player, a Bible rests open by the cash register, and Terry, a petite woman with wide eyes and an inviting grin, moves about as a model of warmth and hospitality.

“We serve real food for the soul,” Terry says of J.C.’s. Or as crisp hand-painted lettering on the side of the building puts it: “Where the food is anointed and you won’t be disappointed.”

Earlier in the week, I felt that only part of the motto might be true. I had no doubt of the anointing. As Terry told me and I experienced, the restaurant is a spiritual place. But the food gave me pause when Terry confessed that most of the vegetables are cooked with turkey in place of a more traditional slab of pork.

My hesitance was unnecessary. The greens—a mix of chopped collards and cabbage—were an excellent blend of bitter, sweet and smoky flavors. And the fried okra was just as it should be: slightly crisp (not soggy from a deep-fryer) and lightly breaded. I also had one of the day’s specials, a heaping portion of fried chicken drenched in a sweet batch of barbecue sauce. But the coveted food is oxtails, available on Fridays. “People call in on Monday and Tuesday to order those,” says Terry, noting that they always sell out before the dish is even prepped at the end of each week.

J.C.s owner, Phyllis Terry, performs one of her many roles at the restaurant.
  • J.C.'s owner, Phyllis Terry, performs one of her many roles at the restaurant.
Terry has long been acquainted with a kitchen. She says that her mother, who prepared food for church and a family of nine children, was “the number one cook in Durham.” As a result, all of the Lee kids learned her recipes. “We grew up knowing what it was to cook. That was inherited,” she says.

But Terry never intended to make food professionally or own a restaurant. Instead, she spent nearly 20 years with her husband as a missionary, living and working in Africa, India and most recently, Japan. It was two of Terry’s siblings, Charles and Sheilah Lee, who set out for a career in cooking.

Around 1997, Charles turned what used to be Parker’s restaurant into his own place called Lee’s. A year later, he gave it over to Sheilah, who refashioned the place as J.C.’s and came up with the restaurant’s slogan.

Under Sheilah’s watch, the place became much more than a restaurant. “It was an outreach center to help the destitute and down and out,” says Terry. “It was her passion. She clothed people and fed them.”

But in 2008, Lee became ill with cancer. Upon her death that year, the Herald-Sun wrote, “If you were down on your luck, you didn't so much need to have a grip on your bootstraps if the late Sheilah Lee had any say in the matter—she was the type who'd pull you up herself.”

Terry didn’t want her sister’s mission to fade, so she left Japan in order to take over the restaurant. “We’re living out of seeds she planted in the community,” she says of the current business. And Terry’s ministry hasn’t ended. “It’s still our form of witnessing. There are all walks of life coming through here,” she says.

Terry recently saw through one of her sister’s dreams in hopes to make the restaurant more inviting. She remodeled the interior of the building, removing a long lunch counter to make room for new booths and tables. The flooring was redone and the walls were painted bright brick orange, teal and yellow. Terry hopes the updates will draw more people to the spot, because as she sees it, “That’s what J.C.’s is about. It’s about people.”

J.C.'s Kitchen (706 E. Main St., Durham, 680-6227) is open 6 a.m.—8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

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