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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PepperFest: The Amazing Pepper Festival

Do you love peppers? I mean, really love them? Then put PepperFest on your 2015 calendar—you won’t want to miss this event. Early fall brings the end of the pepper harvest, and to celebrate this event, Abundance NC, the Briar Chapel community, and countless local chefs and food purveyors come together for PepperFest. This event has grown over the last seven years to become a destination for foodies, those who support sustainable living, and anyone who loves a creative dish made with peppers. PepperFest is located inside the Briar Chapel community of Chapel Hill. This community is a sanctuary for people who want sustainable, green living. Newland Communities has created a neighborhood that offers its residents amenities like nature trails, open spaces, community gardens, and a lifestyle that supports green living. Abundance NC, an organization with a mission to support “a North Carolina where people increasingly meet their needs locally and sustainably,” is the perfect partner for PepperFest.

Peppers for this event are harvested by local growers and supplied to chefs, breweries, coffee roasters, and more. These talented individuals create a recipe with their peppers, and festival-goers walk through sampling these delicious treats. Spicy peppers and sweet peppers made their way in to everything from beer and hot chocolate to soups and desserts.   PepperFest showcases chefs and restaurants that support farm-to-fork cuisine from around North Carolina.

Sustainability and green living were the themes woven throughout the festival. From Larry’s Beans Veggie bus (a mobile coffee shop run on used vegetable oil) to the compostable cups and plates, it was evident that PepperFest planners wanted to stay true to their mission. We were given one wooden spork at check-in and asked to use it more than once. I proudly surrendered mine to one of the many recycling bins at the end of the day. I like the thought of reducing waste through this small gesture, and I love that everyone participated.

PepperFest was a delicious way to celebrate the end of summer harvest. I will be back for more next year. I hope to see you there!

Spicy peppers were in abundance at PepperFest.

Spicy peppers were in abundance at PepperFest.

Chef Colin Bedford from Fearrington House Restaurant, looking cool in his shades, was serving up a delicious creation of Italian sausage, peppers, with a cornbread crouton.

Chef Colin Bedford from Fearrington House Restaurant, looking cool in his shades, was serving up a delicious creation of Italian sausage, peppers, with a cornbread crouton.

Always great to see Art (a.k.a. @RUWandering)!

Always great to see Art (a.k.a. @RUWandering)!

Craig from Crude Bitters and Sodas sharing his Evil Zerbert in addition to his amazing bitters and shrubs.

Craig from Crude Bitters and Sodas sharing his Evil Zerbert in addition to his amazing bitters and shrubs.

Vimala from Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe was all smiles.  Her pepper pickle was SPICY!

Vimala from Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe was all smiles. Her pepper pickle was SPICY!

Chef Regan Stachler from Little Hen in Holly Springs and his staff.

Chef Regan Stachler from Little Hen in Holly Springs and his staff.

This is what is it all about! #EatLocal

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association was there.  This is what is it all about! #EatLocal

Chef Jay Piere from Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen sampled out an amazing soup with smoked pumpkin.  Spicy goodness!

Chef Jay Pierce from Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen sampled out an amazing soup with smoked pumpkin. Spicy goodness!

Final Fruits: North Carolina Apples

I have enjoyed every bite of sun-ripened tomato, juicy peach, sweet buttery corn, and spicy pepper from the summer harvest. I will miss these delicacies in a few short weeks. The stockpile of frozen summer produce that fills my freezer won’t last long—it never does. It’s okay, though. Fall brings special treats, too.

The first sign that fall is approaching? Apples! They are such a versatile fruit. I add apples to butternut squash soup for sweetness and acidity. They pair perfectly with pork, so I use them when roasting a pork loin or braising a pork belly. And, of course…apples are perfect for dessert. Apple pie, apple crisp, apples and caramel, apple gallette, and apple dumplings are just a few of my favorites. Apples are the final fruits of the year here in North Carolina. They are celebrated in the mountains and savored for as long as possible. It will be quite a while before we’ll see any fruit at our farmers markets once they are gone.

Recently, I visited Six Forks Cheese in Raleigh. If you like cheese, and you haven’t been there yet, please make plans to go. You can thank me later. It is a cheese-lover’s paradise. They generously let me taste any cheese I was curious about. I bought some amazingly mild blue cheese from Denmark that was the perfect pairing for the North Carolina Honey Crisp apples I had purchased the day prior. This afternoon snack had me dreaming of other apple and cheese combinations. My favorite go-to cheese is chèvre. Apples and goat cheese…perfect snack or—wait, what about an appetizer? A crostini is simple and will let the flavors shine. Let’s do this!

First, I toasted baguette slices by brushing them with olive oil and letting them get golden in a 350 degree F oven. Once they were cooled, I spread each one with Goat Lady Dairy chèvre. Let the chèvre sit out of the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to soften it and make it more spreadable. I diced up a North Carolina grown Honey Crisp apple and placed it atop the cheese. A little drizzle of local honey, some chopped toasted North Carolina pecans, and a sprinkling of dried thyme completed my masterpiece. Well, okay—maybe not a masterpiece, but it was delicious.

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Plant: Vegan. Vegetarian. Asheville.

Vegetarian. Vegan. Do those words make you shudder? Does the thought of bacon being absent from your diet make you sad? Do you wonder how you would ever get enough to eat were you to convert? I think it is safe to say that many people have had these thoughts—including me. I am not a vegetarian. I am what you might call a flexitarian…although labeling is not something I prefer. Vegetables and grains are the focus of my diet with small portions of pasture-raised meats enjoyed throughout each month. I like bacon, but I love my veggies. I am a sucker for creative vegetable dishes, which is why I love to eat at Plant in Asheville.

We discovered Plant last summer. We were searching for restaurants that we had not previously visited. We wanted to enjoy the summer vegetable bounty in the area, and Plant seemed like the perfect place. It did not disappoint.

Nor did it disappoint during our second recent visit. The space is cozy and casual with an open kitchen. You can see Chef Jason Sellars at work creating dishes that are delectable and satisfying. The menu changes with the seasons to provide customers with the freshest ingredients. The flavor combinations are unexpected and genius.  

Our meal began with the Iron Skillet Olives. Warm marinated olives served in an adorable miniature cast iron skillet. Herbs, orange zest, and salty brine had me wondering, “WHY am I not doing this at home?” It was the perfect start to the meal. Then we split an order of the Baby Bok Choy with Ginger, Mint and Berbere. It literally blew my mind. The flavors were perfect together and really intensified the sweetness of the bok choy. My entrée was the Oyster Mushroom Apricot Adobo, which included a poblano stuffed tamale, sautéed spinach, olives, chil- cilantro mojo, pickled onion, and sour cream. Because they do not serve any animal products, the sour cream was made from non-dairy ingredients—and was amazing! Mark enjoyed the Red Curry Tofu. This dish was a lovely combination of jasmine rice/ kaffir lime cakes, teriyaki bok choy/ Thai basil, galangal-peanut curry, and arugula. Sadly, we were so stuffed after this great meal; we had no room for dessert this time.

Vegetarian. Vegan. I hope you will consider restaurants that use these words in their description.   Don’t be afraid. They are satisfying and delicious. I promise.

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Iron Skillet Olives

Iron Skillet Olives

Baby Boy Choy

Baby Boy Choy

Oyster Mushroom Apricot Adobo

Oyster Mushroom Apricot Adobo

Red Curry Tofu

Red Curry Tofu

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The Chef and the Farmer

What do you get when you combine the bounty of Eastern NC farmers and a chef who is passionate about the local foods she grew up on? You get Chef and the Farmer.  This is farm-to-fork cuisine on a whole new level.  It is inventive and sincere, which is exactly what I would say about its chef and owner, Vivian Howard. She is humble and down-to-earth.  She greeted my husband and me with a smile and visited with us at our table for far longer than I ever expected. 

As we discussed the food and the farmers in NC, it struck me that I was talking with someone who is literally using her passion to ignite the fire of farm-to-table eating all the way to the NC coast.  Western NC has enjoyed this movement playing out in its restaurants for quite some time now.  The Triangle is a burgeoning mecca for great food prepared with local ingredients, too.  Eastern NC, or as the locals call it, “Down East,” is a relative newcomer to this movement, but Chef Vivian is ensuring that it grows.   She is even sharing her passion for cooking using local NC ingredients with the nation.  The PBS show, “A Chef’s Life,” takes an honest look at what running a farm-to-fork restaurant in quaint Kinston, NC really looks like. 

The meal my husband and I enjoyed at Chef and the Farmer was perfect from start to finish.  The staff was as warm and generous as Chef Vivian, which leads me to believe they take their mission very seriously.  They, too, are passionate about sharing an amazing dining experience with their guests.  The food was creative and decadent.  It was–well, you’ll see in the photos posted below—a feast for the eyes and the palate.  

I hope you will take the opportunity to visit Chef and the Farmer.  It will be the best foodie decision you have ever made!

Pictured below:

Fried Collards

Pork Belly & Apple Pizza, caramelized onion, apple, pork belly, thyme

Pimp My Grits, shrimp and grits

Candied Yams & Watercress, pecans, bacon, sorghum

Cornmeal Crusted Flounder, cauliflower creamed farro, Tabasco/honey glazed turnips, crispy chicken skin

Sage Brined Bone-In Pork Chop, Italian sausage & butternut squash casserole, candied bell pepper

Cranberry, Eggnog & Orange Parfait, spiced chantilly

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