Behind the Kitchen: A conversation with Jay Pierce from ROCKSALT

Behind the Kitchen: A conversation with Jay Pierce from ROCKSALT
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This is part of a chef interview series. View all interviews here.

On a Monday afternoon, I met with Chef Jay Pierce of ROCKSALT restaurant to talk about chef life. He immediately scored brownie points when he brought over a taste of monkfish that he poached in whey. Come to find out he’s a New Orleans native, worked for Emeril Lagasse, likes ugly food and crunchy, funky salads.  He also digs Vietnamese food. Can we be friends? 

What are your thoughts on social media playing such a huge role in the restaurant scene?  Has it made a good or a bad impact?

I think there are enough negatives to outweigh the positives, and vice versa. For every good thing you get from social media there’s some sort of negative that you have to deal with. I think it’s awesome when restaurants or chefs can share their creations directly with the public. It’s not going through traditional media. The fact that there’s not a filter through the media means some people shouldn’t be saying what they’re saying. I’ve seen chefs respond to guests on Twitter inappropriately. I’ve seen unprofessional behavior from chefs on Facebook, venting and venting. They don’t have to name anybody by name. It just looks bad. It’s sort of a Pandora’s box, we can’t close it. You can chose to hate Yelp, love Yelp or ignore Yelp, it doesn’t matter, it’s not going anywhere.  It’s there. So you have to live with it.

What is the first thing you do after a long day at the restaurant?

I get home and take a shower. The first thing I do after a long, hard shift, is have a cocktail. I used to smoke. It was a great stress reliever. I think when I stopped smoking, I stopped yelling. I really do go for quality over quantity nowadays. I focus on taking care of my body. I guess I don’t binge like I used to. Living the rock star life weeds some people out. So, short answer? Undergrounding.

For you, what is the most challenging part of running a restaurant?

It’s the people man. The food is easy. I know what food’s going to taste like. I know how to make it better. I know to taste it, buy it, and sell it. I know what drinks are going to taste like. By investing in people, training them, believing in them, even when they don’t believe in themselves. Having them disappoint you and having you disappoint them, is the hardest part.

Not everyone communicates clearly. Not everyone can say what’s on their mind, not everyone is self aware. As an industry that’s so intense, that depends so much on communication. Communicating the specials, communicating “hot behind you”, communicating that I need the day off on Friday or that I’m not feeling well at that particular moment. There’s a whole lot of “machismo” in this industry, where it’s ok to not be a good communicator, because that means I’m tough. And that’s not ok. That makes the job a whole lot harder.

I just want people who want to be here. You’ve got people who feel they need to be here for the money. This work is too hard to do it for the money. You got to do it for the burning love inside of you. The only reason I cook is because I can’t, not cook. I can’t, not be in food. I have to. It fulfills part of me. That’s the hardest thing some people think they should be compensated based on what they need and not what they contribute. People think they should pay for a dish based on what they want to pay for it, not what its worth. We endeavor to invest in good people and invest in good ingredients and hopefully we attract good people to dine here. But you’re not in control of all that.

Where do you see the Charlotte food scene going in the near future?

I think that right now, local is the ‘buzz’. It’s a phase that a lot of towns have gone through or have yet to go through. We’re building the infrastructure for the local food scene from artisans. Artisans are still popping up. We have only a handful of cheese makers. Charcuterie is next to impossible in this town because of the food code that we’re following. So we have some growth in terms of that. But I’m anxious to get to the point where local doesn’t get mentioned on the menu, because it’s a given. We go back to sourcing things that are better. Just because it’s from down the road doesn’t mean that it’s better. If I taste it and feel it and know what I’m investing my money in, that makes it better. Knowing where your food comes from is more important than where it comes from sometimes. Knowing the story behind it. Knowing what your money is going to support.

I’m hopeful, but I think in the next couple of years, ‘Charlotteans’ will demand higher quality things. Not just more “flash”, but more substance. Right now there are a lot of chefs making great food. But they have to package it in a way to attract their diners. Whether it’s local or whether it’s artisan or organic is all important but, more than that, it’s got to taste good. It can’t just be pretty. It can’t just be from down the street. It’s got to taste good.

To me, a mature food scene, and this is a ‘maturing’ food scene, is all about relationships. It’s not about superficial things. Sammy at New Town Farms and Paul Verica [of Heritage] for example. They’re neighbors but they plan their businesses together. This restaurant reflects what the farm is doing. It’s not just because they’re neighbors, its because of the integrity there, because of the relationship. So I think as things settle out more places will have more relationships and the food will mean more and taste better.

Besides Charlotte [of course!], what’s your favorite city to eat your way through?

I haven’t traveled that much. I’m from New Orleans so I feel that I’ll never be able to eat there enough. So that’s my favorite. The flipside is, the city I’ve never been to that I’m most eagerly anticipating experiencing would be Chicago.

What is your prediction for the next “Big Ingredient” in the food world?

What’s the next ‘kale’? I think kohlrabi. It’s has a spring and a fall season. It’s sweet. You can eat it raw. You can eat it cooked. You can eat the leaves. It’s ugly. When you strip the leaves off the stems, it looks like a spider. I love kohlrabi. I don’t know much about nutrition but I think it could be buzzed about. It’s just so versatile. You can make a gratin out of it. You can make a slaw. You can braise the greens. You can make a salad.

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Do you have any advice you would give an aspiring chef that you wish someone would have given you when you first began your culinary journey?

Advice that I would give anybody wanting to go to culinary school, is get a job in a real kitchen first. If you want to be a veterinarian, work in a vet’s office. If you want to be a chef, work in a restaurant, a lot, before you start spending that money. School doesn’t make the man or woman. It’s more important to learn if this is the life for you, because you can learn anything.

I was having this discussion with someone today, and I said I feel like there are some restaurants that you can go to where there’s too much emphasis put on the aesthetics. You can tell that those people don’t eat out at other restaurants, because it just doesn’t taste like it. It could be pretty. But when decisions are made for color or architecture or for space or for viscosity or whatever, they are not made for flavor. So a lot of times I prefer ugly food. So my advice would be to taste, taste, taste. There’s no coming back from that. People overlook something that’s ugly if it tastes good. People tolerate bad service for good food, but people won’t tolerate bad food for good service.

My advice is, learn to communicate. If you can’t communicate your vision with food to the cooks and to the wait staff you’re lost! You don’t get to talk to every table. They’re your mouthpiece. They’re out there telling your story. Communicating through your plate, communicating through your menu. Have somebody proofread your menu. Communicate through your wait staff. Investing in your wait staff. Teaching them, what the difference between a ‘Beurre Meunière’ and a ‘Beurre Blanc’ is.

What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants?

When we use kitchen jargon on the printed menus. I don’t like when people say ‘U-10 scallops’. I don’t like when people say ‘shaved parm’. I think it’s unprofessional. I don’t like unnecessary abbreviations and I don’t like kitchen shorthand that creeps onto the menu. I can tolerate a lot of things wrong in restaurants. I can’t tolerate lying. If you don’t know what it is, say you don’t know. I teach my kids that I’d much rather you say, “I don’t know”.

Is there an ingredient or dish that you feel in completely overrated?

Truffle oil is way overrated. It’s overdone. Not so much anymore. Someone brought me a thing of truffle oil the other day and I used it to moisturize my hands and it stunk all day. It’s just not good. I think just adding truffles to something really irritates me. But I really can’t wait ’til the Chilean Sea Bass thing is done. I wish people would stop eating it. [Preach!].

How do you juggle the work versus life balance?

Right now, I don’t. Right now I have no balance. But, long term, you need to invest in people. You have to let your ego go a little bit. You have to realize that they’re people here representing you and your vision. You’ve got to invest in them, teach them, communicate to them and then let them do it. That’s how you get it. You’ve trained them, you’ve taught them. Let them do it.  When they don’t do it right, hold them accountable. You can’t be short sighted.  You look at the average of balance, not the snapshot of balance.

What do you think about this “Celebrity Chef” phenomenon?

It’s always existed. There have always been celebrity chefs. It’s just new to this country and it’s more widespread. Some people seek to achieve that status and that’s wrong. I think your food suffers. The chefs that I look up to wouldn’t be called celebrities in most circles because they focus on their craft. And they’ve been exalted over the years because of their track record, not because they’re on TV or their books deals. I worked for Emeril Lagasse at the peak of his fame, but there were no misconceptions. He was a TV star and we were the restaurant company. He was the face of the franchise, but we made people come back. So we just saw it as advertising. He was out there advertising for us but he didn’t choose the menus, he didn’t taste the menus. It’s really important to understand that breakdown. You cannot do it all.

At this point in time, we have the public’s attention. So we should use it for good. We should use it to teach them about sockeye salmon. We should teach them about wild caught American shrimp. We should teach people the difference between fish that are overfished and fish that are unknown, but taste great but are sustainable. We should teach people how to be more responsible consumers by leading the way. Not by admonishing them, but by giving them tasty choices that make the transition that much easier. We can’t wait for the difference to happen, we’ve got to cause the difference.

What is your favorite dish currently on the ROCKSALT’s menu? 

The Brutus Salad. It’s light and it’s crunchy. It’s vinaigrette without any oil. It’s just so light and crunchy and funky and just awesome. That’s my favorite thing.

What is your favorite restaurant in Charlotte other than ROCKSALT?

There’s a place called ‘Truc’. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant at Sugarcreek and North Tryon. Next to Le’s Bahn Mi.  That place is awesome.

Connect with Chef Jay Pierce and ROCKSALT

Website
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Twitter: ROCKSALT
Twitter: Chef Jay
Instagram: ROCKSALT
Instagram: Chef Jay

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