Durham, N.C. — Two young chefs recently embarked on major career moves downtown. Although Greg Gettles, 27, has been kicking around the Triangle for years now, he just began heading up his own kitchen at Piedmont last year. Josh Munchel, 36, moved to town from Cincinnati to run Counting House, the restaurant at the boutique 21c Museum Hotel. In addition to the requisite tattoos and hipster haircuts many happening chefs seem to sport these days, both have hotel experience, love a good farmers’ market and ordered Pellegrino along with their coffees during a recent sit-down at Parker & Otis.
You have both worked in hotels. Greg, you were at Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, and Josh, you were previously with 21c in Cincinnati. You’ve also both worked in small, privately owned restaurants. What are the main differences?
JM: There’s just a lot more to consider in the hotel world. There’s a lot more people who may want things you may not specifically have.
GG: Yeah. You have your set menus, but ...
JM: You always want to say yes.
GG: To me, it’s a completely different world. In a hotel, it never stops. You have probably double or triple the number of employees than you would in an independent restaurant. In a hotel’s environment, they are going to do whatever they can to make sure you’re happy. And we do that in restaurants – [we’re still] in the hospitality industry. That’s all we want to do is make people happy.
What are some of the more interesting things people have asked you to make that were not on the menu?
JM: Dietary restrictions are the main thing. If they don’t want to see any popcorn in their room, then that has to go away. But I haven’t had anything too extreme yet here in Durham.
Josh, coming here from a colder, northern climate, we would imagine that this Southern terrain would be just heavenly for you as a seasonally driven chef.
JM: 21c has really put emphasis on being chef-driven. What was really interesting and exciting coming down here was how the chef-to-farm movement across the U.S. is kind of a trend now, but here it’s been embedded for so long in the South. It’s so agriculturally driven. In talking with farmers, they are just as interested in the growing process as we are in the cooking process, and there’s definitely more of that here than where I was.
GG: The Durham market is awesome – so many young farmers, so full of passion. You have that breath of relief that it isn’t lost, this love of farming. Going to the market is my absolute favorite time of the week. I look forward to it, not only because we can get great product but to start the dialogue. I see the same frustrations with every chef and grower: Chefs don’t know how to talk to growers, and growers don’t know how to talk to chefs. They are losing out on money, and we as chefs are losing out on amazing product that wouldn’t be sold unless we tell them we can use it. When I go to Coon Rock Farm (owned by Piedmont’s owners and the restaurant’s main supplier), I just walk around and think to myself, “That’s edible. That’s edible. That’s edible. ... Don’t till that because that’s edible ...” It’s just stuff that chefs all over the world are using, but not much of it is found on plates in North Carolina. For example, oxalis is a weed, but it is delicious and a perfect garnish.
So what can be done?
GG: A major goal is to set up this forum between chefs and growers. If a grower has an entire row of perfect, dime-sized baby turnips but can’t sell them because the greens aren’t perfect, let every chef know. We would be thrilled to take those off their hands because they are delicious and look amazing on a plate.
What sorts of things are you asking farmers to grow for you right now?
JM: We had a server earlier this year bring in some bamboo from her yard, and we did some interesting things with it. But from farmers, I’m wanting things I can ferment and pickle for the cooler months. Beyond pickling okra, I’m trying my hand at making muscadine vinegar.
GG: I’ve been processing moss – makes a great edible bed for just about anything. I’m also looking for Asian ingredients. I know there’s some yuzu growing somewhere around here, and I won’t rest until I find it. It looks like a weird, wild lemon. Nobody’s giving them up, but I know they are out there.
What do you do in Durham when you’re off the clock?
JM: Rest. [laughs] No, really, I think a lot of chefs get into this work because their brains never really rest, never turn off. There’s always something to be done. Whether it’s an email or a new dish that needs to be created, there’s always work involved.
GG: Yep, it never stops. But given the time, I think Monuts for breakfast, and if it’s a Wednesday, grab some ramen at Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop. If I can cook dinner for myself, that’s pretty special.
Editor’s Note: On April 21, chefs Josh Munchel and Greg Gettles and their amazing crews will be featured at TASTE 2016, presented by Johnson Lexus. The Grand TASTE Experience will be held at the Durham Armory, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. The evening will feature 30 local chefs and a dozen beverage purveyors – not to mention a live jazz band! Buy tickets at tastetheevent.com.