It is said the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction must make sense. Pieces must come together as a protagonist resolves a conflict. The Fiction Kitchen wants to give Raleigh its first 100% vegetarian restaurant, and two principal characters are constructing the story.
Caroline Morrison and Siobhan Southern are keenly aware of the challenges they face by opening the Fiction Kitchen. Southern mentions to me a familiar statistic about the survival rates of restaurants, estimated around 50 percent. But the two find solace in being an original. They have tested their food on palettes across the Triangle—from monthly brunches at The Pinhook in Durham to pop-up food events around Raleigh, including this week’s Cooke Street Carnival—and now they are ready to open the Fiction Kitchen on Dawson Street near the warehouse district. Its brick storefront, adjacent to Deep South, is painted a neon lime, a shade only someone hoping to be noticed would wear, and the inside is naked to the studs.
“Raleigh is the capital city and it doesn’t have a vegetarian restaurant,” said Morrison, with a combination of dismay and surprise. “We want to educate consumers about seasonality in Raleigh and Wake County, local food and what’s in season. The menu is going to be driven by produce and what’s local. We’re going to play with proteins a lot but want to leverage relationships we have with local farmers.”
The idea of things locally sourced is a constant in our conversation. The Fiction Kitchen employs a local architect to design the space, aims to feature work by local artists, plans to build a menu around food available locally and, in the construction process, will use reclaimed materials from local sources. When it opens, a date that shifts each time the old building reveals another clever secret, around late December, the restaurant will employ a staff of about 10, consisting of local chefs, bartenders and servers, and it will seat 49 patrons.
The future restaurant facade, design by Andrew Osterlund, logo by Anne Rhodes
My diet would be most accurately compared to the eating habits of a caveman, so, after hearing about a vegetarian restaurant opening in Raleigh, the plates I initially pictured were dainty, subtle and green. This is not the direction the Fiction Kitchen is headed. It will sell soul food, in some respects, minus the meat. Morrison and Southern want to create hearty, Southern meals, all set in a restaurant that is as much an experience as it is filling.
“Our mission was never really to make a vegetarian restaurant that is new age-y. I first went vegetarian back when I was a teenager and the only place I could get anything vegetarian were in these health food stores,” Southern said. “We’re not going to have ten salads on the menu.”
“I’m from Halifax County,” Morrison said, echoing her business partner’s sentiment. “I’m born and bred a Southern girl. And the way my family eats, food has to be hearty.”
In addition to serving things like mashed potatoes, collard greens and biscuits and gravy, the Fiction Kitchen will offer diners a healthy alternative to the myriad of restaurants in the area serving a meat-based, bar-type menu. The two will also play with imitating regional staples.
“A lot of people go vegetarian in their early 20s and get to be in their 30s and realize they haven’t had pulled pork barbecue in so long,” said Southern. “So we want to try to come close to some of those things in a way that is reminiscent of those flavors.”
The barbecue, Morrison says, has won the admiration of her brother who serves in the military and he has been encouraging her to test it on his fellow soldiers. Siobhan talks about one person who demanded to know where the pig was from.
Siobhan Southern and Caroline Morrison
Mimicking flavors goes beyond meats. The two also create alternatives for people with food allergies.
“We did gluten-free donuts and two different people within an hour said they hadn’t had a donut in years,” Southern said. “They said ‘this is amazing.’”
Talking with the girls, it is clear the two are set on creating a restaurant that can both impact the community and fill a void. They are running a Kickstarter campaign through the end of this week and the money raised will go toward buying all new kitchen equipment, pieces that have never cooked meat products. The two discussed purchasing used items but compared that to buying a used car, knowing at some time, once they are up and running, previously owned equipment will require servicing or replacing. As of Oct. 9, Fiction Kitchen had raised $23,436 toward its goal of $36,000. If the goal is not met, the Fiction Kitchen will not receive any of the money raised.
“I was listening to NPR the other day and they were interviewing Kenny Rogers,” Morrison said. “I was just listening to the lyrics, and I’m not a big country music fan, but the lyrics are pretty apropos for where I am in my life right now.”
Fiction Kitchen is Morrison and Southern’s leap of faith. They want to create a new dining experience for Raleigh and they need Raleigh’s help to do it.
“I’ve been working two jobs for five or six years and this is our chance to work for ourselves and do something for our community.” Southern said. “It’s not a big restaurant group doing this. It’s just two girls.”
There is a wooden slab in front of the Fiction Kitchen that is elevated like a little stage. In its current state, it is a poor excuse for a patio. But, as is with any old space, what is serves as a placeholder for what can be, and it will be replaced. From the small platform one can look upon the outdoor amphitheater, down to the right, and stake claim to its view of the Raleigh Convention Center’s shimmer wall, backlit by the sharp-edged rises of a growing skyline. The Fiction Kitchen is a thing just underway, set precisely where the city is headed, and soon, when the space’s insides are healed and the doors open to customers seeking something new, the entire story will make sense.