For Chapel Hill, North Carolina, native Dan Jackson, almost every night inside of Osteria Georgi, where he is executive chef and co-owner, feels like a homecoming. And certainly not one he expected.
Jackson attended the University of North Carolina here before spending almost two decades in and around the Manhattan cooking scene. He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America before stops at Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Events, the Cafes at MoMa, and Fields Good Chicken. While at the esteemed Eleven Madison Park, he met his wife, Stephanie, and theirs is a modern restaurant love story: He was a line cook; she was the maître d’.
In March 2020, as the uncertainty of the pandemic set in, Stephanie left New York with their three children to live with Jackson’s parents in Chapel Hill, while Jackson stayed behind for work. But two months later, after suffering several seizures while running, Stephanie was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma brain cancer. Jackson joined his family in Chapel Hill, working remotely for Fields Good through the first pandemic summer. Stephanie had surgery and radiation treatment at Duke University before beginning a clinical trial treatment at Wake Forest University, as one of only six participants nationwide.
In August 2020, mutual friends connected Jackson to Giorgios Bakatsias of the Giorgios Hospitality & Lifestyle Group, which owns restaurants and businesses throughout the Triangle area. Bakatsias told Jackson he had a lease on a restaurant space in Elliott Square in Chapel Hill—and he wanted Dan to come on as the executive chef and as a partner. “In some ways, that was kind of too good to be true,” Jackson says. “My whole career, that was the one thing I wanted: to own my own restaurant. Here it is—and it’s also going to be in your hometown.”
At the time, Jackson was preparing to be a contestant on Chopped, so he wanted to get back into the kitchen, and, as he says, in “restaurant shape.” (Spoiler alert: He won.) Plus, it had been almost a decade since Jackson had developed a dinner menu, and for this one, he knew what he wanted: a blend of Italian, Mediterranean, and French influences, with housemade pasta, including their signature sformato as “the backbone.” An all-Italian wine list was a must, as was a cocktail menu with surprising options developed by beverage manager Brett Lyszak, such as the cognac-based Broken Cup, a “robust and aromatic” drink, Lyszak says, ideal for the cool nights between winter and spring.
Osteria Georgi opened last April, and right away, business boomed, thanks in part to the gorgeous outdoor patio. Following his Chopped episode airing, diners came in and requested to meet him, including familiar faces from his past such as the father of a former middle school girlfriend and his high school math teacher.
“A lot has happened, both amazing and—I don’t know if you call it devastating, but there’s been so much,” Jackson says. But being home, cooking for friends, family, and strangers who’ve become friends, has made it easier. “We just feel engulfed in this big hug of community,” Jackson says.