Carolina Alumni Review 67
On a Saturday morning, Neal’s Deli co-owner Sheila Neal ’ 93 served up two trays of miniature biscuits — one with omemade pastrami, the other with pimento cheese. The
nearly bite-sized morsels weren’t just delicious. They were infor-
While visitors on a Taste Carolina food tour munched, Neal
told them of her training at New York’s French Culinary Insti-
tute and her husband, Matt Neal, training down the street at the
renowned Crook’s Corner, where his father was the chef who put
shrimp and grits on the culinary map. The tour group also heard
how they are dedicated to using locally grown, seasonal ingredi-
ents. They are regulars at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, he told
them, and the ingredients for much of what’s on their menu —
soups, salads, sides, sandwiches — often rely on what they find.
Neal’s Deli was the first stop on a moveable feast through
Carrboro and Chapel Hill, one of the original tours led by Lesley
Stracks-Mullem ’08 (MBA) when she started Taste Carolina Gour-
met Food Tours five years ago. Now she oversees 15 tour guides,
who introduce people from near and far to the ever-growing food
culture in seven North Carolina cities: Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Ra-
leigh, Durham, Hillsborough, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
Her recipe for success includes a course called “Launching the
Venture” at Kenan-Flagler Business School, where she learned how
to start a business; a passion for farmers markets and fresh produce;
her appreciation for a good sandwich; and the joy of showing peo-
ple around and sharing some of the things she likes best. “As long
as I’m going to all these restaurants and telling people about them,”
she surmised, “I can do this for a living.”
Stracks-Mullem also caters to Research Triangle Park compa-
nies, including IBM, Lenovo and Siemens, often with larger groups
that go to fewer places but follow a similar menu of restaurants,
breweries, bars, farmers markets, food shops and coffee houses.
Team building is a natural by-product. Sampling the food and
beverages at each locale and walking and talking between stops
provide an opportunity for getting to know one another in a way
not likely by spending a meal sitting in one place and talking to the
same two or three people.
On the tour that started at Neal’s Deli, the 11 participants included a brother and sister who had flown in with their spouses to
surprise their sister, a Cary resident, for her 50th birthday. Their
celebration included the Taste Carolina tour, which became a
The group moved on to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, learning about cheese making from Flo Hawley, co-owner of the
Chapel Hill Creamery. Sam Suchoff ’04 — a former vegan who
runs and owns The Pig restaurant in Chapel Hill and on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons mans The Pig hot dog
Lesley Stracks-Mullem ’08 (MBA), enjoying a popsicle at LocoPops in
Chapel Hill, said she minored in barbecue before starting Taste Carolina
Gourmet Food Tours.
Food tour founder shares her favorite things
stand at the farmers market — told them about making barbecue,
bacon, hot dogs and sausages from humanely raised pigs. Graphic
artist-turned-pecan farmer Alfred de la Houssaye sold pecans, fruit,
baked goods and peacock feathers and entertained with tidbits
about his Cajun roots and his vast knowledge of the nuts.
The tour made its way to Carrboro Beverage Co., a bottle shop
where the featured brew was General Lenoir’s Old Ale, made from
a recipe on a handwritten note found at Fort Defiance in Lenoir.
At Acme Food & Beverage Co., owner and chef Kevin Callaghan
’ 89 served up bowls of jambalaya and sausage with an account of
his visit to the farmers market that morning and stories about his
penchant for turning unexpected ingredients — he mentioned collard flowers and butterfly grouper — into culinary delights.
Across the railroad tracks in Chapel Hill, the group tried Indian
dishes at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe and sliders at Al’s Burger
Shack. Then they backtracked to Carrboro Coffee Roasters for a
coffee-making demonstration. A seam-splitting pecan pie brought
the tour to an end.
Along the zigzagging route, Stracks-Mullem folded in bits of
information about the towns, their age-old rivalries and distinctive charms. She talked about trends — notably the conversion of
tobacco land into other uses — behind a thriving farm-to-market
movement in the Triangle. At each stop, she steps back to let the
chefs, farmers and brewers tell their stories and allow the tour participants to get to know one another.
Though Stracks-Mullem leads like a perfect hostess, she describes what she does as “a very selfish business. ... I get to take
people to my favorite places.”
— Lucy Hood ’ 83
Top, Stracks-Mullem leads a corporate group on a tour of downtown Raleigh eateries. Bottom, before having drinks, the group listens to Kevin
Barrett, bar manager at Foundation, a craft cocktail bar in Raleigh.
Walk, Talk, Eat