One of North Carolina’s hallowed kitchens has a new chef at the helm.
The Fearrington House Restaurant, an avant-garde dining room on a historic farm, announced this week that Paul Gagne will step into the resort’s executive chef position. After 16 years, chef Colin Bedford is departing Fearrington, leaving a legacy that includes the restaurant recently being named one of the world’s best by Forbes Travel Guide.
Gagne was promoted from executive sous chef to the resort’s top culinary role.
“We are extremely grateful to Colin for his exceptional and lengthy service to Fearrington, and his mentorship of Paul,” said Fearrington general manager Theresa Chiettini in a release. “Colin will always be part of the Fearrington family, and we are delighted to extend this opportunity to Paul — who has been our executive sous chef for five years.”
A rich dining history
Fearrington, a sprawling resort and community near Pittsboro marking its 40th anniversary this fall, has a dining history that includes some of the South’s most acclaimed chefs, including Ben and Karen Barker and Edna Lewis. Under Bedford, its dining room served seasonal tasting menus that reached the top tier of fine dining.
Gagne grew up in a small town in New York state, where his first job was washing dishes in a restaurant. He said he came from a family where both sides were strong home cooks and he learned his way around a kitchen. After high school and a few years of restaurant jobs, his family suggested culinary school.
“At that point I had never thought of cooking as a career,” Gagne said. “But I was good at it and thought maybe that wasn’t a bad idea.”
At 24, Gagne went to the New England Culinary Institute and in 2012, while in school, followed his future wife to North Carolina and interned at Fearrington.
During Gagne’s first prep shift at the Fearrington, he said the lights of the gleaming kitchen were so bright he got a migraine.
“Everything was going full tilt,” Gagne said. “But I picked it up quickly.”
In that kitchen and Bedford’s menu at the time, Gagne said he saw fine dining in a new way.
“You see stuff like that on TV, but I didn’t think people actually plated plates that artistically,” Gagne said. “I liked it right away. I loved being in the kitchen right away. I was stoked to be here. I was always wanting to learn more, to push myself further. I don’t do well with stagnation.”
After culinary school Gagne cooked at Charlotte’s Ballantyne Hotel and later came to Raleigh and worked as the executive chef of French restaurant Coquette.
Cooking as science
Gagne said he was then drawn back to Fearrington, finding the kitchen to be a rare blend of artistry and cutting edge techniques.
“Building the plate, sure that’s artistry,” Gagne said. “But I always saw the cooking side as science. That’s how I make sense of everything. If I touch a piece of steak, I want to understand how to do it better.”
Now, Gagne inherits the creative reins to a famous Southern restaurant at a redefining moment for fine dining. He said he expects the special occasion moments that bring diners to Fearrington will continue to be craved through the end and after the pandemic.
“In a lot of ways this is a once-in-a-lifetime job,” Gagne said. “I don’t think fine dining is going anywhere.”