It's been two years since chef Ben Adams took over the kitchen at Piedmont. He and general manager and wine director Crawford Leavoy lifted the Durham eatery from a slump to become a hotspot known for creative seasonal fare and spot-on service. Now, Adams has left to launch his own place.
Set to open this fall in North Durham, it's tentatively named Picnic. The name is a nod to comfort food cuisine that can range from beach blankets and icy Budweiser tall boys to silver trays and mint juleps, as well as the picnic shoulder cut favored over the Boston butt by partner and pitmaster Wyatt Dickson of Pig Whistle. Picnic's third partner is Ryan Butler of Green Button Farm in Bahama, whose pasture-raised heritage pigs could practically walk to the not-quite-finalized location.
Meanwhile, Piedmont is continuing with acting chef de cuisine Lorenzo Leon Guerrero. He will stay on to support the next executive chef, Greg Gettles, current sous chef at Herons at the Umstead Hotel, who takes over June 1. Scott Crawford, former executive chef at Herons, hired Gettles when Ben Barker was closing his legendary Magnolia Grill in 2012.Adams and Dickson met in 2002 as fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina. Independently, Adams and Dickson moved to New York after graduation, where they worked in “suit jobs” providing legal and financial services. As they sat in Crook’s Corner last Wednesday, sharing plates of Pig Whistle barbecue and a twist on traditional slaw—red cabbage, green onions and a bright cilantro vinaigrette—Adams and Dickson dressed in the casual, come-as-you-are look they hope customers will wear at Picnic.
"The sides and small plates will be my thing," Adams says, pausing to dip some of chef Bill Smith's Hoppin' John before passing the bowl around the table. "Some will be familiar to Piedmont diners, like my collards with smoked bacon."
The Charleston native, who cooked at Sean Brock's famed McCrady's before being lured to the Triangle, says other dishes under consideration include a mac 'n' cheese starring Chapel Hill Creamery's award-winning Calvander, baked beans with Sea Island red peas, and fresh ceviche served with pork cracklins. A pop-up preview is May 23 at Daisy Cakes.
"This restaurant was always in the back of our minds, but I was glad to wait until [Adams] was ready," Dickson says. "We won't be garnishing dishes with tweezers and microgreens, but the experience he's gained at Piedmont is invaluable. Just wait until they see his rillettes and terrines. It will set us apart from most of barbecue places."
Barbecue figured prominently in Dickson's life while he grew up in Fayetteville. His dad bottled batches of the family's eastern-style sauce as holiday gifts. Dickson, however, says his style weds the best of eastern and western traditions.
"I think of it as the 'Great Carolina Compromise,'" he says with a hearty laugh, referencing Pig Whistle's business motto. "After all, what's a little ketchup between friends?"
Dickson started developing his signature sauce at his UNC fraternity, where he cooked for football games. He didn't barbecue while in New York but started again in 2008 when he returned to Carolina for law school. His focus though became creating a catering business.Dickson’s first big boost came from chef Andrea Reusing, who invited him in 2012 to cook a whole hog at the 10th anniversary celebration of Lantern in Chapel Hill. It was the first time he used heritage pork (Reusing’s supply is raised by Chapel Hill Creamery on whey, an abundant cheese byproduct). He never went back to commodity meat.
Aside from special restaurant events—Piedmont featured Pig Whistle at a whole hog dinner last July, and Crook's will have it on the menu again June 3—the only way to try Dickson's barbecue is to place a party-size order. Picnic will allow him to serve fresh, affordable portions daily.
Lunches will range from $7-$10, with dinners around $12-$18. Choices other than barbecue will be available. Daily specials will be designed around seasonal availability.If ribs are your favorite part of the pig, Dickson advises showing up early. “A pig only has so many ribs,” he says. “This isn’t a factory. We’ll serve them one or two at a time to make sure people who really want them can get some.”