As the chef-owner of three successful Triangle restaurants— 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18 in Raleigh, and now Harvest 18 in Durham—Jason Smith believes in the importance of using locally grown ingredients in his kitchen.
Recently, however, Smith took this passion for terroir further by making special arrangements to cultivate local talent, too. He realized that his dedicated young line cook at Cantina 18 would have to go elsewhere to complete a required co-op job through the Wake Tech culinary arts program, so he created a challenging new position for her as pastry chef at Harvest 18 (8128 Renaissance Parkway, Suite 114, Durham, 919-316-1818, harvest18restaurant.com).
"I really did not want to lose her," Smith says of Amber Boone, who joined his restaurant group two years as an intern while attending school full time. "I see her as part of the family, much in the way most of my people have stayed with me and grown in their careers. I see her as having a very bright future."
Twenty years ago, Smith was in a similar spot, working at Magnolia Grill alongside Chef Ben Barker, whose mentorship helped to launch many successful chefs. Smith is ensuring that Boone works in nearly every aspect of the business, from checking in deliveries and putting away goods to learning how the front of the house operates.
"I started at the bottom and am working my way up," says Boone, who hopes to eventually open her own bakery. "I learn something every day here."
Boone didn't cook much at home when she was young but was attracted to the industry by an uncle who owns a seafood restaurant in Savannah. "I really like the organization of the restaurant environment. It makes sense to me," she says. "Really, I didn't think much about baking until I was in the culinary program. I had to take general baking and I discovered that I really love it."
Boone changed the kitchen routine in her first weeks. She claimed a larger prep space for her evening work station, which gives her ample room to creatively plate her tempting treats, including a clever twist on a Dreamsicle—bright-tasting navel orange gelée topped with a creamy vanilla panna cotta and served in a canning jar. Summer brings an upside-down cake with naturally sweet Sungold tomatoes replacing old-school pineapple.
Though it only opened in March in a shopping center behind Southpoint Mall, Harvest 18 already is outselling Smith's flagship, the upscale 18 Seaboard, on dessert orders.
"I see Amber's desserts as bringing Harvest 18 to a new level," Smith says. "Customers can expect all kinds of seasonal items they won't find anywhere else; things that are more health conscious, too."
Boone has whipped up several new offerings in recent weeks. Early peaches have been the star attraction in a bread pudding made with scraps from Neomonde Bakery; Meyer lemon from Plant City, Fla., has been turned into a zesty cookie bar and topped with plump blueberries from Michigan's famed Rocky Point Farm.
Not tempted? How about rich, housemade chocolate ice cream smashed between a pair of cookies spiked with Raleigh-roasted Larry's Beans coffee beans?
Boone says access to a vast array of ingredients provides endless inspiration.
"Sometimes I'll get a text message when [Smith] is at the farmer's market, so I start thinking right away what I can do with whatever looks great that day," she says. "I don't have time to be intimidated. I'm doing my best to use my training, and the trust they're showing me, to come up with things that people will really enjoy."