A staple of the Durham food scene, Piedmont Restaurant has been serving up creative and delicious meals for years. Last time I went to Piedmont Restaurant, I talked with the former Executive Chef on what it takes to run a restaurant. Since then, John May, one of Zagat's 9 Southern Chef's to Watch in 2017, has taken over. I met with John to learn more about what makes Piedmont so unique. What was the biggest takeaway? Though Piedmont is trying to attract a younger crowd, it still retains its distinctly Durham vibe and should be included on everyone's Durham restaurant bucket list.

Inspired Food from the Best Ingredients

During my visit to Piedmont, the highlight was the food— as it has always been. All of the dishes are fresh and creative, and only use ingredients that come from at most 22 miles away. Piedmont takes the "farm-to-table" concept to heart: ingredients will only be used if they are truly in season, and the staff pay close attention to how the ingredients were farmed. Take asparagus for example. "Asparagus is only around for a week or two— if a farm has it at the market for a month or more, we won't use it, because they aren't practicing organic or other sustainable practices," Chef May says. 

I tried five different dishes while I was at Piedmont. First was a bowl of shishito peppers that were charred just enough to incorporate flavor without overpowering the natural crunch and flavor of the peppers themselves. Next was a beef tartare with Gouda cheese, mustard seeds, apples and fingerling potato chips on top. Every bite was an incredibly complex mixture of flavors, with the potatoes providing a much needed variety of textures lacking in most tartares. But even though the dish was complex, it was still surprisingly light and fresh.

Following the beef tartare was a smoked amberjack collar, which was the first time I was served a fish collar rather than a fillet or a whole fish. This was by far my favorite thing that I ate during my visit. The fish was cooked perfectly: it had a crispy crust imbued with a smoky, barbecue flavor, but the flesh was still moist, flaky and tender. It was paired with a pumpkin puree that complemented the fish flavor well, without stealing the show. What surprised me the most about this dish was at the shear amount of meat in it— every time I flipped the collar around, or dug through a crevice in the bone, I would (to my pleasure) find more meat to enjoy. 

The last two dishes were a pulled pork sandwich with a house-made cheese, and a broccoli rabe dish. The cheese on the pulled pork was unique and sharp, and added a new layer to the classic sandwich. The broccoli rabe was, once again, as fresh as one could imagine, and shone through as the spotlight on the dish. 

Even though all of the dishes that I tried had multiple layers and flavors, three things stood out. First, each dish focused on the ingredients. Instead of masking the amberjack or the broccoli rabe or the shishito peppers, the Piedmont staff really worked to let the ingredients' natural flavor profile highlight each dish. As such, it was possible to truly enjoy the ingredients for what they were, no matter how complex the dish. The second thing that stood out to me was the focus on vegetables. Chef May emphasized that Piedmont tries to spotlight vegetables, even if there is meat in the dish as well. "We want people to come in here and eat their vegetables, and not have them feel like a side act."

The last thing that I noticed among all five dishes was the creativity and delicacy incorporated into the menu. I most certainly could not come up with any of those dishes on my own, and was amazed at their originality. On Piedmont's creative process, Chef May explains that "we have to have a very good, collaborative kitchen team. We'll just find ingredients that we really like and develop something on the fly. The majority of the time we put them on the menu without even tasting them." 

Finding a Niche within Durham

Brian Chan

In a city with so many fantastic restaurants, how does Piedmont stay unique and relevant? By finding something that the people who work there are passionate about, and expressing that through their food and hospitality to patrons. Specifically, Chef May finds that Piedmont's focus on vegetables is a unique voice within the Durham food scene. Further, he elaborates that he really tries to make the dining experience (as well as the working experience) at Piedmont a fun one. He wants patrons to see how much the staff enjoy being at the restaurant, and to also have a good time during their visit, rather than feeling the need to be stuffy or extra fancy.

Having grown up in Durham, Chef May knows a thing or two about the Durham food scene. "It was a little odd to me that in 2011 we won Southern Living's Tastiest Town in the South. I mean, we beat Charleston and Atlanta! So now I think we're trying to live up to that. We have some really really good restaurants that I am confident are as good or better than restaurants in larger cities." When asked about the relationship between the restaurants and bars and breweries within Durham, Chef May emphasized the sense of community that he experiences. He loves seeing other people in the industry at his restaurant when they have a night off, and will go to other restaurants in the city as well. "We're all in this together," says Chef May. "Everybody is doing their best to make good food."

"Youthanizing" Piedmont

Chef May really emphasized that they want more students to frequent Piedmont. They've changed up their playlist to include the Wu Tang Clan and The Black Keys instead of just jazz, especially during their brunch service. "We go completely off the rails for brunch. We have a ridiculous fried chicken and waffles, among other things. We have sparkling wine, light cocktails, rosé. One of my goals is to have at least one person tell us to turn the music down once a week." 

"We're trying to 'youthanize' Piedmont," says Chef May. "I think there was a stigma about this place that it was a little bit stuffy. It was the type of place where you brought your parents when they came into town. We're trying to bring down our prices, and work on the vibe. We have a pretty laid-back and fun vibe, and want students to see that. We have a new bar menu that I would highly recommend students of drinking age to try out. We have everything from wings to burgers, cheese boards, shishito peppers, and oysters. And most of these are under ten bucks." He suggests that students stop by on a night out for a drink and a snack at the bar, and I wholeheartedly endorse that.

Why it's Worth the Trip

With its new chef, Piedmont seems to be shedding it's previous image as a fancy night-out establishment. But even if the team is trying to make the restaurant's vibe more laid back, Piedmont has not backed down on its creative and stunning dishes, nor its distinctly Durham feel. Walking into the restaurant, you immediately see the wooden chairs, high ceiling and bare piping— which, after living here for four years, all scream Durham to me. The food still shows immense skill from the restaurant's staff, and exhibits nuanced treatments of fresh ingredients. 

I will definitely be visiting Piedmont in the near future for brunch, or dinner, or drinks, or all of the above. Will you?