Growing up in Durham, John May never imagined he’d be executive chef at one of the city’s prominent restaurants. In fact, he hardly thought about cooking at all.
The new Piedmont chef was 23 in 2009 when he first cooked a meal for anyone but himself. A dinner of seared tuna – fresh from the Outer Banks and meant to impress a girlfriend – was a self-described disaster, though it didn’t discourage Rebecca, now his wife. Instinctive talent led the former Marine to use GI Bill benefits for culinary training at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham from 2010-11. At the same time, he gained hands-on experience as a line cook at Weathervane in Chapel Hill.
Just a few years later, John was working beside chef Vivian Howard at Kinston’s destination eatery, Chef & the Farmer. The telegenic former sous chef can be seen in her award-winning PBS show, “A Chef’s Life,” including season four, which debuts locally on WUNC-TV September 8 at 9:30 p.m. “John has an astute palate and strong sense of the kind of food he wants to cook,” Vivian says. “We miss those things as well as his sense of humor. I’m excited to see what he does at Piedmont. I think the restaurant’s style suits him.”
You moved to Durham from California as a child. What are your earliest restaurant memories?
I remember eating at a bunch of little Asian restaurants and a steakhouse called Shell’s. That was my dad’s favorite place. Mostly we ate at home because he loved to cook. One year for his birthday we got him a cooking class at our house with Shane Ingram from Four Square. I remember going there on a date in high school. I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t realize food could be that good.
After two-and-a-half years at Chef & the Farmer, you returned to Durham in December. How did you manage the transition?
We love it here. We got an apartment downtown and every morning I look out the window at the Imperial Building, which is where my dad had his textile company, DC May. There’s great food on every corner and I love being able to walk everywhere. The crew at Bulldega knows my dog because we walk by there all the time.
Piedmont owners Richard Holcomb and Jamie DeMent first experienced your food when Chef & the Farmer was featured at the TerraVita food festival. Did working with Kinston-area growers prepare you for developing a menu based on seasonal ingredients from Piedmont’s sister operation, Coon Rock Farm?
Absolutely. We really want to emphasize connections with our farm. It’s inspiring to have so many great ingredients at your fingertips, which is what led to creating the monthly prix-fixe dinners at Piedmont. We designed our first one around peak-season tomatoes. This month we’re focusing on peppers (see recipe for charred pepper relish below). Next will be heirloom grains, and then sweet potatoes in November.
We’ll also continue the Seasons of the Sea dinners. On August 24, we did a North Carolina shrimp dinner with Jay Pierce of Marshall Free House in Greensboro (author of “Shrimp,” a Savor the South cookbook from UNC Press). We want to do at least one each quarter.
How else do you see the menu evolving?
The name of the restaurant says it all. I’m developing all these menu items to only include things that grow here in the Piedmont. For example, since lemons and limes don’t grow here, I plan to not use them at all and develop acidity and contrast in other ways, like with vinegars of various intensities. That’s the kind of challenge I enjoy.