On Grits with Chef Jay Pierce, Lucky 32


Jay Pierce gets southern food. He grew up in a suburb of New Orleans and has long been exposed to the bold and vivacious flavors of The Big Easy. Several years spent working in some of the best kitchens in New Orleans and Orlando have made him into a true Southern chef. Since planting roots with his family in Greensboro, NC, he's been a devoted advocate in the local food movement there and is passionate about making his community a better place. His food reflects North Carolina's culinary traditions, but with a hint of NOLA. I admire his honest, no frills approach to food. His talents extend well beyond the kitchen too. He has a knack for storytelling, writing, a keen sense of humor and a warm, down-to-earth nature that is present in every dish he creates.

Explain the differences between yellow and white grits as you see them and which do you prefer? I like yellow grits. The difference comes down to personal preference. The thing is, white grits to me will forever be associated with Quaker Instant Grits and Shoney's breakfast bar. So by adding butter to them, you make them kinda yellow. Yellow grits just look classier; they look rich and fancy, like they're loaded with butter, even though they're yellow. In talking to this farmer I know, he says, there's a divide in this country about grits. West of the Mississippi, yellow outsells white grits, and east of the Mississippi, white grits outsells yellow. So maybe my preference for yellow isn't a Southern thing at all.

Tell me about the food you cook at Lucky 32 and how grits play a role there. At Lucky 32, we like to refer to them as “dinner grits,” because they're not breakfast grits; they've got cream, butter and cheese, so they're all gussied up. I see grits as the second quintessential starch (next to rice). Growing up in Louisiana, we had rice at about every meal. Potatoes were really rare, but rice – rice goes with everything and rice helps to fill your belly. Also, it's grown down there and potatoes aren't. Rice can go with everything and grits was always sort of a breakfast staple, the Southern man's oatmeal. But now, in my professional career, I see grits as this wonderfully versatile vehicle for lots of things. At the restaurant, we do fried grit cakes with a country ham cream sauce and make this mustardy braised barbecue and heavily-braised pork shank grillades, both served over grits. Grits identify your dish as rooted in the South, from the get-go. It helps to set the stage in the diner's brain for what they're going to experience.

Do you have any favorite grit mills you personally use to source your grits? I've tasted several different grits from around here and I think Old Mill of Guilford does a really good job of milling a consistent grit; I like that there's not a lot of hull in their grits and I like the size and texture of them. There's a bonus, which is that they are coming from just down the street. I also love Old Mill's story and I think it enhances the dining experience to know it was a labor of love to restore that mill and it is right down the street, so the grits are fresher. 
For a while, when fuel prices were going through the roof and ethanol production was being amped up, corn was in short supply around here, so we were unable to get Old Mill grits. I tried other grits and they're just not the same. It's like they have to be cooked longer because they're bigger and drier.

What liquid do you use when cooking grits and why? The funny thing is, at home I use half milk, half water. Here in the restaurant, we use Homeland Creamery cream, and the mixture is like four parts water to one part cream. We put the butter in at the beginning instead of finishing with butter, so it gets evenly melted and emulsified. By starting the grits in dairy first, the grains absorb the cream and butter and that's what allows the grains to bloom. I really think that it makes you use less butter because there's more of a full-mouth flavor. 

How do you feel about cheese and grits? I generally prefer cheese in my grits, particularly sharp cheddar cheese. At home, if I'm making grits for breakfast, I'll go through the drawer and gather lots of random bits of extra cheese. I've put parmesan, and fontina, and bleu cheese in grits and it really helps to make them richer.

Do you have a particular food memory associated with grits? Shoney's breakfast bar white, and unsalted, grits. That's one of the things that inspired me to be a cook. We didn't eat out much when I was growing up, but when we did, it was so lacking. Those grits were not something I would love to eat. But when you put some salt on them it's a revelation! I was like, "why don't people do that?"

It seems like grits and Southern food in general are making a comeback lately. What are your thoughts on this? I think there's a Southern identity that is really easily marked through food. We as a country are often looking to associate ourselves with the next big thing. California cuisine was really big for some time, then for awhile there, it seemed like the next big trend was going to be molecular gastronomy, which is so cold and sterile, and not approachable to your average Joe. The pendulum has kind of swung the other way, from this really austere, light food, to this indulgent food, which is the full extension of the comfort food movement of the late 90s. So you have these Southern chefs that have a personality, and a story to tell, and they're exploring this food like never before, using ingredients that home cooks used, not traditional chefs. It's a celebration of a home cuisine, playing out on a national stage. There are lots of people around the country who haven't encountered those tastes before, and there are people who did grow up in the South but didn't encounter Southern food in those ways, with these classic techniques and pristine sourcing. I do think that it's really interesting that Southern food, being less cerebral and more visceral, really has kinda transcended its geography. It has transplanted so well beyond the South, which is why we see Southern restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. 

I have a friend who's a writer and he says no great art comes from a successful society; great art comes from a fallen society. That's why so many of the great poets of the 20th century were Irish and the dramatists were from the American South—because things were in ruin. So a lot of their subject matter was about what used to be, what could have been. It's all fantastical and romantic and I think people who eat Southern food can tap into that vein – that romanticized past. No one’s remembering the ugly, horrible, despicable things that went on, they're creating this false past, where everyone was a gentleman farmer and ma and pa put up pickles and the hogs had names. No one's celebrating how hard that existence was, so if it's romantic and "lost," it can be mined to a degree. All that being said, I'm in favor of it. 

Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen 
7307 Tryon Rd  
Cary, NC 27518
(919) 233-1632 

Old Mill of Guilford 
1340 N Carolina 68  
Oak Ridge, NC 27310
(336) 643-4783 

Homeland Creamery 
6506 Bowman Dairy Rd 
Julian, NC 27283
(336) 685-MILK(6455)

Hayley Teater is a baker and writer from Greensboro, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter (@tiptoes86)!

24 fluid ounces heavy whipping cream
1 ½ quarts water 
1 ½  sticks butter 
½ tablespoon salt (or to taste) 
¾  teaspoon cracked black pepper (or to taste) 
2 cups yellow grits 
¾  cup grated sharp cheddar cheese 

Add cream, water, butter, salt and pepper to sauce pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to simmer and stir in the grits.  Stir with wire whisk continuously to keep grits from clumping up.  Once all the grits are blended, continue to stir for 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat and cook for about 15- 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in cheddar cheese.

Makes: 2 quarts

Disclaimer: All our recipes were originally designed for much larger batch size. This recipe has been reduced – but not tested at this scale. Please adjust as to your taste and portion size.
 1989-2011 These recipes are property of  Quaintance-Weaver, Inc. Unauthorized commercial  use is forbidden.

UPDATE on Jay:
Jay is now kicking it out in Charlotte, NC at Rocksalt go give him a holler & check out his Shrimp book