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5 Questions with Chef Jay Pierce of Rocksalt

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Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Press
Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Press

Earlier this year, Chef Jay Pierce left Greensboro, North Carolina, and his post as Executive Chef of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, to head for the Queen City. He joined forces with the gentlemen at Rappahanock Oyster Co. and opened Rocksalt in the newly renovated Park Road Shopping Center as its executive chef.

Jay is a considerate chef, in that he considers a lot before anything goes onto a plate, from source to story to the history or inspiration of a dish. And his wheels are definitely already turning at Rocksalt.

 

You had a long tenure at Lucky 32 in Greensboro. How has your transition been to Rocksalt in Charlotte?
This is a new town for me, a new concept, and a new company, and it is liberating to be starting again. I have to reestablish my credibility with diners, suppliers, farmers, here, but I am also not trapped in what people think I should be doing. Like collard greens. I made great collard greens at Lucky 32, and soon, I was the “collards greens” guy. At an event I might hear “Where are the collard greens?” if I didn’t bring them. This is a chance to reinvent myself.

What are some of the ingredients you’re really enjoying?
I’m really enjoying Spring right now, Spring ingredients. Charlotte has such access to great spring seasonals, and you will see fennel and asparagus on the menu a lot right now. Ramps are just finishing, but I am really enjoying being able to seriously incorporate these ingredients.

What, in your opinion so far, defines Charlotte diners?
The first thing that struck me is that diners here like their scallops medium rare [chuckles] which is, of course, the preferred way. But beyond that, what really has impressed me is the openmindedness to purchase fish they’ve never heard of. Rocksalt has a commitment to serve sustainable, seasonal, and under utilized fish, and for instance, we just came out of winter skate season, and we sold a lot of it when it was our fish of the day.
I also like the idea that I am earning credibility with guests here. Many Charlotteans don’t “go out for a steak” or sushi, they want to go to a place for the experience, to be open to what the chef is doing. That is a critical shift in dining for a chef and makes for a serious dining town. And that is so empowering for someone that does what I do.

You moved to a new city, opened a restaurant, and at the same time published your first book, Shrimp: A Savor the South Cookbook from UNC Press. Wasn’t that a lot to take on at once?
Well, as often happens in restaurant construction, we were delayed a couple of months and so all of that happened at the same time. But when your dreams come knocking, I believe you have to run toward them. The opportunity to write something was a dream, and although I wouldn’t have planned this to happen all at the same time, I believe that good things come to good people who work hard.

And there’s one more change we haven’t talked about. I’ve never seen you without a ponytail. That too?
Yes, I cut my hair, and I’d had that for about 5 years. This is a new look and a new life, a tremendous opportunity to refashion my image. I believe in symbolic gestures, the cusps of things, and I wanted to honor it, to push over the cusp. I’m a new person now and happy to commit to a new life here.

MORE 5 INTERVIEWS /// Brent Stephens of Charleston Distilling / Kevin Roberts of Perly’s in Richmond / Pastry Chef Martha Wiggins of New Orlean’s Sylvain / Marvin Woods of Asante in Atlanta

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Jay Pierce