The best grits I've ever eaten in my whole life were cooked inside a cast-iron cauldron and stirred with love by a barefoot, beer-drinking Jay Pierce during an annual industry gathering on a farm in Virginia. That's the first time I met Pierce, who was then the executive chef at Lucky 32 in Greensboro. There, he spent the last seven years delving into seasonal cooking and inserting himself into the local food community.
Fast forward to 2015 and Pierce is on the cusp of becoming a Charlottean as he awaits the February opening of ROCKSalt Charlotte, the new oyster joint from the Rappahannock River Oyster empire, near the Park Road Shopping Center, where he will stir the pot as executive chef.
We caught up with Pierce to talk about his next chapter, why he's excited to come to Charlotte and how to make your English degree work in the culinary world.
Creative Loafing: After having worked in one of Emeril's first restaurants, NOLA in New Orleans, and then making a name for yourself at the helm of Lucky 32 for the last seven years, what excites you most about this next chapter with ROCKSalt Charlotte?
Jay Pierce: I'm starting with something new, where there is no concept with a capital "C," so I'll get to use my full tool chest here. ROCKsalt does not necessarily fit into a genre. It's an ingredient-driven restaurant. I want this to be a showcase for food artisans, and I want to manage the menu through relationships in the community. Being a chef is like going to a party and you're throwing it. If we buy good food and cook it well, everyone can have a good time.
This is pretty much a required question. What do you think of Charlotte so far?
Everybody's so young. One of the things that I did not see in the Piedmont was a sense of community with chefs. When I visited Richmond, Virginia (where Rappahannock is located) I noticed a community there — everyone loves each other. I see that in Charlotte. I've met a lot of nice people — Clark [Barlowe], Luca [Annunziata] and Kris [Reid]. There's a sense of community and that's something I'm yearning to be a part of.
You started out wanting to become an English professor and that didn't work out, which is how you ended up in kitchens full time. But you've enjoyed some full-circle moments as a writer and pretty soon your first book is going to be published, right?
Yes, on March 2, my Savor the South cookbook Shrimp comes out. I've written several magazine articles for various publications. One day I inquired into writing a book and someone suggested I look into a series. I discovered the Savor the South series and they needed someone to do shrimp. I grew up in New Orleans surrounded by water and thought, "I'm the perfect person to write about shrimp." As a kid, I'd go shrimping and think it was so cool to know that there's food out there and you can catch it! So, I got a contract to write the book. It took me six weeks to write it and nine months of getting ready to write it. [laughs]