Photo by Jennifer Noble Kelly
John May, left, will take over Piedmont's kitchen from Greg Gettles, right
A year will do it for Greg Gettles, the young executive chef at Durham’s revitalized Piedmont. He stepped into the role early last June
, and this week will mark the end of his remarkable run in Durham. The longtime Raleigh resident and Umstead alumnus is headed to an as-yet unannounced gig in Charleston, South Carolina. Durham native John May, who led the kitchen at The Boot
until last week after a long tenure at Kinston’s Chef & The Farmer as chef de cuisine, will take Gettles’ post August 1.
“We knew when Greg came here that he was a talent in the area, and we’re extremely sad to see him go,” says Crawford Leavoy, Piedmont’s general manager. “But as opportunities present themselves, I understand having to take those.”
When Leavoy took the helm at Piedmont alongside chef Ben Adams in 2013,
the restaurant had been at the precipice of closing. But they reinvented the mood, the décor, the experience, and the menu, focusing again on farm-driven Southern updates. The restaurant picked up popularity once again and began to thrive. Then, last year, Adams took his leave to open Durham’s traditional barbecue hotspot, Picnic.
Leavoy led the search for the replacement and found Gettles through the recommendation of Scott Crawford,
who had worked with the younger chef at Herons at The Umstead. His second search in just more than a year, he says, is a chance to recalibrate and again refine the menu.
“The first thing we do is sit down and think about what are our principles, what we stand by. Certainly there are things that Greg led us to that have been amazing for Piedmont,” says Leavoy.
He cites, for instance, Gettles’ unprecedented level of cooperation with Coon Rock Farm, the restaurant’s majority owner and supplier.
Gettles took advantage of the land and that relationship in ways Leavoy never expected.
“So we wanted to find someone who had a commitment to local cuisine and had elements and style that are similar to Greg,” he says. “We started talking about people who were talented in the area and looking for opportunities and
were committed to being in the farm.”
He didn’t have to look very far. Though May spent nearly three years in Kinston at Chef & the Farmer, he spent several months this year, surprisingly, at Durham’s The Boot, an Italian-American restaurant co-founded by the same restaurateur who launched Piedmont long ago
. The restaurant’s established style didn’t quite mesh with May’s approach, and he stepped down last week.
But being in Durham put him in touch with Leavoy, who he met long ago while eating at Piedmont. He considers Gettles an old friend, too, so he thinks he understands Piedmont’s concept well. In fact, he and Gettles collaborated for a “fish barbecue” in late May that ended in a spin on a traditional “pig pickin’ cake.”
“There’s been a pattern at Piedmont. With every new person, the kitchen has gotten a little better on all sides, with preparation and presentation and overall quality. It’s gone up a step every time,” he says. “I want to continue that great tradition by bumping it up to the next level.”
May won’t start until August 1; Piedmont’s Lorenzo Leon-Guerrero, the chef de cuisine who commanded Piedmont’s booth at last weekend’s Farm to Fork, will handle the kitchen until then. In the interim, though, May plans to cook a lot and try to step away from the Italian ideas on which he depended for the last few months. When he talks about possible directions for Piedmont, he mentions Southern classics like Hoppin' John but says it's too early to predict at this point. After all, he’ll begin in earnest by developing items that incorporate his options from Coon Rock Farm, which he says is one of the most tantalizing elements of his new job.
“We can help define the landscape of what it means to be farm-to-table, because we have this link to a local farm,” he says. “Not a ton of restaurants have that.”
Given May’s ties to the area, Leavoy thinks he has found the long-term leader of Piedmont’s kitchen and that he won’t need to launch yet another chef search soon.
“Even when he was at Chef & the Farmer, his dream was to come back to here,” Leavoy says. “So we think he is someone who is a long-term solution at Piedmont. That’s the commitment we’ve gotten from him, and that’s the commitment we’ve given him, as well.”
This week, we wrote about Piedmont's new "snacks" menu, which Gettles developed. Go try these pretzels before he's gone.