When a helicopter pilot requested permission to land on the lawn of the Fearrington House restaurant one afternoon in the late ’90s, the staff took it mostly in stride.
Widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the Southeast throughout the ‘90s, Fearrington House often hosted dignitaries, celebrities and other luminaries who’d occasionally pop in and out via helicopter.
But as chef Cory Mattson tells it, the staff was a little shocked when out stepped Jim Graham, North Carolina’s longtime agriculture commissioner known for his affinity for Stetsons and cigars.
“We’re not open, this is the middle of the afternoon,” Mattson recalled. “He walks in the front door and says, ‘Is Cory working today?’ The hostess and all the servers about had a heart attack, and they came screaming into the kitchen. I go out and it was Jim Graham, and he had stopped to use the bathroom.
“We talked about deer, we talked about dogs, and the price of soybeans and corn, and then he left.”
Mattson, Carolina Meadows’ new executive chef, recounted that it was one of many colorful meetings with Graham, and the two developed a close friendship before Graham’s death in 2003 at the age of 82.
In 1986, Mattson joined Fearrington House, where he remained for 20 years as executive chef. It was under his direction that the restaurant earned its status as a Relais and Chateau Country Inn, a unique designation awarded to those meeting strict standards for excellence. The Inn also received both the AAA Five-Diamond and Mobil Four-Star awards.
More recognition came with the invitation from the N.C. Department of Agriculture for a three-week trip to Caracas, Venezuela, under the aegis of the Southern U.S. Trade Association, to promote N.C. food menus and products.
It was there that his friendship with Commissioner Graham began. Mattson said the phone rang late one night, and it was Graham.
“He said, ‘Hey, I checked into my room and I find out there’s some kid here from North Carolina,’” Mattson said. “We were laughing all night visiting, and we became friends and stayed in touch.”
After his long and successful career at the Fearrington Inn, he moved on to new projects, joining the University Club in Durham as executive chef, followed by work with the L/M Restaurant Group as corporate chef and as consultant on restaurant operations for a Hickory organization.
Mattson, who received his training with the Culinary Institute of America and has produced more than 50 programs for public television, is enthusiastic about working in a continuing-care retirement community creating dishes for residents’ health and enjoyment. When a friend recommended Carolina Meadows, he said at first he didn’t realize how great it was and has continued to be pleasantly surprised even after accepting the job.
“I just feel blessed and lucky that I fell into it,” he said.
He supervises a staff of 21 in the Carolina Meadows’ main Club Center kitchen and before long will supervise seven more people in the Assisted Living kitchen; together, those kitchens serve more than 25,500 meals each month.
Mattson lives in Sanford with June, his wife of 32 years; the couple have two daughters in their 20s. He was born in New Jersey, but he considers himself a true North Carolinian.
“I came to North Carolina in 1986, and I’ve never wanted to leave,” he said. “I was interviewing all over the country and really hoping that it didn’t work out. I really wanted to stay here, and it worked out that I could.”
Resident Public Relations Committee member Dorothy Mahan contributed to this report.