When I called Gabe Barker at Pizzeria Mercato, his Carrboro, North Carolina-based restaurant, his dad answered the phone. This wasn’t a surprise — after all, twenty-nine-year-old Barker opened the pizza spot in 2016 with his mom and dad, who had twenty-six years of experience under their belts as owners of beloved, now-closed Durham restaurant Magnolia Grill. It was Barker’s parents, Ben and Karen, who convinced him to return to his hometown after he spent several years in kitchens in San Francisco.
“I grew up in a restaurant family. It’s kind of really all I’ve ever known,” Barker explained when his dad passed off the phone to him. “I had chicken pox in the restaurant. I worked there starting as a busboy when I was 15 or 16. My mom taught me how to roast a chicken when I was 13.” But having seen firsthand how exhausting the industry can be, when Barker graduated high school, he pursued a history degree instead. He thought he’d eventually become a history teacher.
But his friends were struggling just as much in teaching positions as chefs do in kitchens, and before long, Barker came to his parents and said he was ready to go to culinary school instead. “They laughed at me at first,” he said. His dad’s advice? Go work in a kitchen for a year — a kitchen that wasn’t in the family — and see if he still wanted to do it.
Barker shipped off to San Francisco, where his dad had restaurant connections (“Gordon Drysdale of Bacchus Management Group knew my dad, so he knew that I wasn’t a complete asshole”), and he worked in a few different restaurants before landing at Pizzeria Delfina. The pizzeria was “crazy busy” all the time so Barker got a taste of what it would be like if he were the one in charge of his own popular restaurant. “Delfina had a serious dedication to cooking with seasonality and a very direct attention to detail,” he said, and that’s why he loved it.
Like Drysdale taking a chance on Barker, his parents, also knowing he wasn’t an asshole, decided to do the same. “You’re 26 years old and somebody is offering to buy you a restaurant?” he mused. “I was given an opportunity that almost no one ever gets.” The Barkers opened Pizzeria Mercato together in 2016 and the rest is — at least for now — history. ‘It is a neighborhood community, especially behind the restaurant, so we’ve built up a crazy amount of regular guests.”
It doesn’t hurt that Barker’s spot is directly across the street from a farmers’ market, which greatly influences how he cooks. “I like to start with what is a great base ingredient,” he said. “We do a heavily vegetable-focused menu. The market really drives my thought process.” He “cooks light” and thinks that there’s something about that approach that is resonating with residents of the small city in a big college town.
As for his untraveled path as a teacher, Barker feels that the restaurant gives him plenty of opportunities to educate where he can. “I’ve got a kid who started with me who had zero formal culinary experience,” he explained. “Taking an opportunity to teach someone like that has been a really rewarding experience.”
Having grown up in a restaurant family, one wonders if Barker has thought about if he’d encourage his own children to follow in his footsteps — that is, when the time comes. On that point, Barker was coy, saying that those thoughts are a long way off. But still, he wouldn’t rule it out: “It’s a pretty difficult industry and I knew that from day one,” he said. “But I’ve never, ever regretted what I do.”