Fire It Up: The Rekindling of Southern Foodways at Piedmont
By Julian Spector
Like all the best adventures, this project began with a delicious meal. Or rather, with the surprising abundance of delectable fare I’ve enjoyed since coming to Durham from Washington, D.C. I enjoyed immersing myself in certain Southern culinary tropes—your typical fried chicken, barbecue, hushpuppies, etc.—but I soon discovered a host of pioneering chefs taking these mainstays of the Southern eating experience and adding their own modern twist, making them new and fresh in much the same way as recent developments have turned Durham’s venerable old tobacco warehouses into new and fresh destinations.
In search of this interplay of old and new in Durham’s dining scene, I chanced upon Piedmont. I’d eaten there a couple of times and remembered that the menu was inspired by and sourced from the region of North Carolina that we inhabit. What I didn’t realize was the dynamic narrative that lay awaiting me back in the kitchen. Chef Ben Adams had come to Piedmont just last May to take charge of the enterprise and give it a new sense of direction. His goal: nothing less than to become the best restaurant in the Triangle. Through a perfectionist’s steely will and a grueling self-imposed work schedule (how does an 8 a.m.-to-midnight shift sound to you?), he has already seen progress. I was lucky to have a chance to capture this period of acceleration.
Beyond Chef Ben himself, I met and photographed the lively cast of cooks and staff who make the restaurant run. They come from all over but seem united in their appreciation for good food and good company. Stepping off of campus and into the kitchen was a passport to a new world with its own sights, smells, and lingo.
And, of course, there was the food. This is what drew me to this project in the first place, and it did not disappoint. It’s hard to really appreciate a great meal unless you see every step that went into its production, and I got to do that for a great many great meals. This experience left me salivating, and thinking about the process of transformation: how do you take dirt-dusted root plants out of the ground and turn them into something memorably delicious? Or, for that matter, how do you take a restaurant people might have heard of but not necessarily visited and turn it into a can’t-miss destination? Life is a series of transformations, and this project gave me a chance to stop and capture some of them. If, along the way, the artistic process occasionally called for me to eat some heirloom pumpkin soup with crabmeat and truffle oil, so be it.