Chef Ben Adams: Refined Comfort Food

As I strolled through the Durham Farmers Market on a beautiful day in May 2013, I stopped and spoke to a chef who was gathering local produce, cheese, and herbs into large plastic crates. Glancing at his list as he moved from vendor to vendor, he wore a vintage brown and tan ball cap—the kind truckers wear—with the word Piedmont on it. His name was Ben. I told him how refreshing it was to see a chef shopping the farmers market. We didn’t see that often (or at all) in the small towns we had previously lived. When I asked him where he worked, he motioned down the street and said we should visit Piedmont sometime.

Fast forward to January 2015. I am sitting across from Chef Ben Adams in that very restaurant, Piedmont. It is a warm, inviting space on Foster Street in downtown Durham with an elegant yet industrial vibe. It is owned by Jamie DeMent and Richard Holcomb who have a deep passion for local sustainable agriculture. Chef Adams sips tea while I tell him the story of our first meeting and how this interview feels like it was two years in the making. He smiles and says that he must have just started his job at Piedmont when we met at the market.

Photo by Tierney Farrell courtesy of Piedmont Restaurant

Photo by Tierney Farrell courtesy of Piedmont Restaurant

Chef Adams’ journey to Piedmont began with cooking school in Portland, Oregon after which he returned to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina to work at Hominy Grill and later, McCrady’s. Chef Adams also spent time in Belgium, Australia, New Orleans, and Boston—each destination adding an element to his personal style, which focuses on seasonal produce with a refined twist.   Local, seasonal produce, meats, and products were the theme woven through all of Chef Adams’ experiences. He saw his mentors, like Chef Sean Brock, operating with this focus and wanted to do the same wherever he went.

Chef Adams explains that there is a balance between showing care—putting time and effort into the preparation and plating of each dish—and creating an element of home cooked comfort food. It’s a balance that he has perfected. He seeks to elevate the local produce through the method of preparation and the flavor pairings. Chef Adams is motivated by the challenge of creating new menus with the same ingredients in each season. In his second winter at Piedmont, he is pairing a sweet potato and bacon hash with pork. To compliment the pork, he added apple butter, toasted hazelnuts, and a juniper jus. Last year, a similar hash accompanied a beef preparation. Winter can be a difficult time to cook seasonally, so Chef Adams looks for inspired ways to prepare ingredients. He explains that last winter; he juiced sweet potatoes and made them in to a reduction, adding sorghum and sherry vinegar. Sweet potato sauce? Brilliant! This year, North Carolina’s beloved orange tuber debuts in a sweet potato and pear soup with bacon jam, hazelnuts, sage oil, and browned butter. This is refined comfort food at its best.

Chef Adams believes there is a strong community of people who care about food here in the Triangle. He takes his responsibility to source and serve local produce, meat, and seafood very seriously. The chef-farmer relationship is vital to this mission. His dedication to cultivating these relationships has provided him with consistent supply and farmers who seek to grow what he wants. In his dishes, he also incorporates many products grown, raised, and made in North Carolina and beyond—Anson Mills, First Hand Foods, Joyce Farms, Chapel Hill Creamery, Rappahannock Oysters—just to name a few.

On January 27th, Chef Ben Adams will compete in the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series – Triangle.  He is going up against Chef Chelsi Hogue from Ed’s Southern Food & Spirits in Goldsboro. It his is first time participating in this challenge. I asked him to explain his approach…without giving away any secrets. He leans forward with a huge smile and begins telling me about his team. Isaac, formerly of Pok Pok in New York City, and Candice, a chef with a modernist approach, are his teammates in this battle of secret local ingredients. He purposely chose two people whose approaches are different from his. They all have an ability to think “out of the box” and get creative with local ingredients, so he is confident they can win. The adrenaline and stress of cooking is something he enjoys and will be an asset during the competition.

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Because Chef Adams enjoys the spontaneity of creating menus with ingredients that might have to change without much notice, he will be a worth adversary. The weather, growing conditions, pests, and other unexpected obstacles can throw the proverbial curve ball into a menu based on local, seasonal produce. Chef Adams has dealt with this circumstance before which will likely help him in a chef’s competition based on North Carolina ingredients revealed moments before the cooking begins.

If you have not been to one of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series events, you are missing out. It is not only delicious and fun, but as a ticket holder, you get to vote on each course. So, check out their schedule and get your ticket today. The Triangle portion of this statewide competition should prove to be quite amazing with chefs like Ben Adams in the line up.

A huge THANK YOU to Chef Ben Adams for taking time to sit down and talk with me. I look forward to my next visit to Piedmont, and I will be cheering for him on January 27th!

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Food Memories

“How is everything?” the server asks.

“Oh, she hasn’t even taken a bite yet,” my husband responds rolling his eyes as I rotate my plate to get the perfect shot.  The server smiles knowingly and promises to check in with us soon.

“Honey, can you give me some light?” I plead.

“Sure,” he says as he pulls his iPhone from his pocket.

He always obliges my need to take a picture.  That…is true love!  I take a few photos and dig in to my meal.

This is a typical scene when I dine out.  Whether I am with my husband, a group of friends, or alone–I am constantly snapping a photo of my meal.  Actually, to be honest, I take an enormous amount of food pictures. At times, my friends and family who do not understand my need to capture a meal in photos, have probably thought an intervention was warranted. My need to capture a recipe in action or the perfectly plated homemade meal or an exquisite dining experience is deep within my soul. No intervention necessary because I doubt it would work! I have found that many people are committed to capturing the meals they make and the meals they enjoy while dining out. Some want to catalog their food journey while others simply want to share the meal and the experience with others. “We eat with our eyes first.” The incredibly insightful person who originally made this statement nailed it. We see a plate of delicious creativity, and we know immediately that we want to dig in. Our eyes tell our stomachs, “This should be amazing. Go for it!”

Food is also a memory; it is nostalgia; it is fellowship. Familiar food scents often spark a memory or a feeling of nostalgia. Photographs can do this, too. I remember my travels through the dishes I ate at every destination. I recall holidays and times with my family through the meals we have created together.

But still, some may ask, “why in the world would you take a photo of your food?”  Well, for me it is about the memory.  The visual creativity of the plating.  The mouth-watering appearance of the food. The aroma of the dish.  All of these things are captured in a photo and later can evoke the memory of that meal.   I keep these photos and stroll through them, much like one would a travel diary, reminiscing about the flavors and experiences. I have never been one to keep a written journal.  I guess my journaling is through the photos I take.  I am a “visual journalizer” of sorts.  We journal what is important to us and food is a huge part of my life.  From homemade, to dining out, to special occasions–I have a photographic history of my food journey.

Sharing these photos with others is a wonderful way to connect.  Social media also allows me to see the food journeys of others.  It has been an amazing way to meet people in my community who are passionate about food, cooking, and local agriculture.  When I see a photo of a delicious homemade creation, I immediately want the recipe.  When I see a beautifully plated meal from a local restaurant I have yet to discover, I immediately want to go there.

Food memories are the delicious moments in my life.  I am thankful for all of those moments and the ones that are yet to come.

The banana turron with purple potato ice cream at Mango Hut in 29 Palms, CA. I can still taste that wonderful ice cream!

The banana turron with purple potato ice cream at Mango Hut in 29 Palms, CA. I can still taste that wonderful ice cream!

This Breton butter cake with ginger ice cream and stone fruit was decadent.  If you are in La Jolla, CA, go to Whisk n Ladle...please!

This Breton butter cake with ginger ice cream and stone fruit was decadent. If you are in La Jolla, CA, go to Whisk n Ladle…please!

My dear friend Bryanne took me to the seafood market in Washington, D.C. one October. We ate these beauties at about 10:00AM.  Crawfish are best for breakfast!

My dear friend Bryanne took me to the seafood market in Washington, D.C. one October. We ate these beauties at about 10:00AM. Crawfish are best for breakfast!

Last year, I decided to eat beef again when I could find it pasture raised.  This was a beautifully prepared hangar steak with deconstructed chimchurri from Little Hen in Holly Springs.

Last year, I decided to eat beef again when I could find it pasture raised. This was a beautifully prepared hangar steak with deconstructed chimchurri from Little Hen in Holly Springs.

My first attempt at Mapo Tofu last year.  Love those Szechuan peppercorns!

My first attempt at Mapo Tofu last year. Love those Szechuan peppercorns!

My mom gave me figs from her tree in Eastern NC.  These were perfect paired with vanilla yogurt and some local honey.

My mom gave me figs from her tree in Eastern NC. These were perfect paired with vanilla yogurt and some local honey.

One of my favorite places in Raleigh is Fiction Kitchen.  This was a lovely heirloom tomato salad they did last summer.  We dine with my bosses--loved to see them experience this place for the first time!

One of my favorite places in Raleigh is Fiction Kitchen. This was a lovely heirloom tomato salad they did last summer. We dined with Dan and Diana Saklad from Whisk–loved to see them experience this place for the first time!

This wonderful focaccia from Dough in Asheville was our lunch atop Mt. Mitchell in the midst of a thunderstorm.  Awesome!

This wonderful focaccia from Dough in Asheville was our lunch atop Mt. Mitchell in the midst of a thunderstorm. Awesome!