The chef behind Hallmark’s Home and Family and restaurant Piedmont in Durham takes us to the farm where she grows her ingredients.
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Bert VanderVeen
Jamie DeMent is a fierce proponent of local food. She cooks it, eats it and writes about it, and she lives it, too, on her sprawling sustainable family farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina. DeMent, author of two critically-acclaimed cookbooks and owner of farm-to-fork restaurant Piedmont, in downtown Durham, also runs an online farmer’s market called Bella Bean Organics. And at the heart of everything she does is the premise of simple, honest food.
Every other month, DeMent flies to Los Angeles to film an episode of the Hallmark Channel’s Home and Family show, where she teaches viewers across America down-home cooking skills, like the secret to perfect heirloom grits (hint: copious stirring) or how to properly blind-bake a crust before making a tomato pie. She charms with a sharp wit and clear mastery of the kitchen, while in a Southern drawl she explains just what it means to “sop up” gravy, and how to use a knife to pop the lid off a homemade jar of peach-rosemary jam. An avid traveler since her summers as a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill, DeMent is always tasting new things, finding inspiration on every menu. But her favorite place to eat is at home, on Coon Rock Farm (named after a local landmark), where she and husband Richard Holcomb have lived for fourteen years on the simple farming methods of their forebears.
“Cows eat grass. Pigs forage in the woods for acorns. Chickens eat bugs so the bugs don’t eat the crops,” Holcomb says. At Coon Rock, the crops grow in gardens that are weeded and fertilized by the animals—everything is natural. Despite a few modern amenities like electric fences for the animals and internet access at the farmhouse, DeMent and Holcomb live the way farmers have for centuries.
Coon Rock Farm, which supplies the majority of the ingredients for Bella Bean, Piedmont and their personal farmhouse table, is the life source for each of DeMent’s culinary ventures. The 120-year-old farm stretches fifty-five acres along the Eno River, an idyllic landscape filled with pastures, orchards and vegetable gardens that grow more than 100 varieties of mostly heirloom vegetables and fruits. There are always new crops and new experiments to see what works on the land where peppers, onions, eggplants, squash, pumpkins, corn, melons, potatoes, peas, cucumbers, kale and cabbage are just a fraction of the bounty. The actual farmhouse at the center of the property boasts the original hand-hewn log timbers from 1880 on its foundation. There’s a pond with a rope swing; grazing pigs, sheep, cows, chickens and goats. Put it all together and “you’ve got a fairytale,” says DeMent.
DeMent grew up in Louisburg, North Carolina, where her family had a farm supply company. “I didn’t see farming as an up-and-coming thing,” she says. “It was tobacco area. Things were changing, drying up.” When she left for college, and then for a career on Capitol Hill, she didn’t imagine she would be back to the rural life one day. Now, it’s all about sustainable, organic food, and the flair for cooking that runs deep in her blood. “My whole family cooks. Mom, dad, aunts, grandmother—no one is a restaurant chef, but they are all great cooks who know flavor,” she says. “My parents encouraged me to be experimental in everything that I did, whether writing a story or playing in the kitchen.” DeMent has had no formal culinary training, which has hindered her none. She recalls going out to dinner as a college student, tasting something she liked, and wondering if she could make it at home. “Sometimes I’d set the kitchen on fire,” she says, “But sometimes not. There’s no fear of messing up when you know you are going to mess up.” DeMent has kept the fun in cooking; she plays by no rules.
For eight years, DeMent and Holcomb have owned Piedmont Restaurant in downtown Durham, where DeMent—as the executive chef (head of menu planning and recipe development)—tries to simplify fine dining. “In the Southeast, if not the whole county, there’s been a shift away from fancy fine-dining, like bubbles and foams and tweezer food,” DeMent says. She’s taken Piedmont in a more authentic, ingredient-driven direction, sourced only from Coon Rock Farm and other local sustainable providers. Loyalists keep coming back for the farmhouse soup, the buttery heirloom field peas (DeMent’s favorite), pan-seared scallops with Carolina gold rice and fried okra. Despite constant changes, DeMent does stick to a skeleton menu every season—there will always be a tomato mozzarella salad, a gazpacho, a fish from Locals Seafood—but she likes to keep things interesting. “I tweak things as I go along. All of us at the restaurant, we work on our feet,” DeMent says.
Lin Peterson, co-founder of Locals Seafood, which sells fresh seafood straight from the North Carolina coast, met DeMent at a local farmer’s market seven years ago. “Jamie and Richard would buy bluefish, tuna, scallops, drum, whatever we had on hand at the end of our markets,” says Peterson, who loved seeing the creative ways DeMent found to prepare all sorts of seafood. “We would in turn buy their fresh produce and delicious meats from Coon Rock Farm.” Peterson says DeMent inspired him to buy a salt block after realizing how amazing scallops were on the block.
The phrase farm-to-table may be trite, but it’s literally what she does. DeMent also throws around “locally-sourced,” but warns that there’s a kind of “local” that doesn’t matter if there’s no concept of sustainability. At Coon Rock Farm, no chemical fertilizers are used, and they make their own compost. Sustainability, for the animals, means they live outside, they rotate through the gardens, they eat non-GMO feed locally produced, and only grass for cows and sheep. These animals provide the meat that is in high demand at Bella Bean Organics, DeMent’s Community Supported Agriculture program. Through the online market, shoppers can customize a box to be delivered to doorsteps from Maryland to South Carolina: “We sell the meat and produce from our farm and add on things—like big spoon peanut butters, artisan breads, and dry goods—all from local venders,” DeMent says. With thousands of customers on the mailing list, Bella Bean delivers hundreds of boxes a week. “We ship a lot of meat,” DeMent says, “It’s hard to find a pasture raised pork chop at Whole Foods.” Bella Bean also offers a “Best Catch” item, which is one pound of whatever fish is running at that time through Locals Seafood. “Thanks to Coon Rock Farm and fellow market vendors, Jamie is surrounded by the best ingredients, and her ‘on-the-farm’ training is what makes her cooking so appealing to consumers,” says Peterson, “Her passion for food shows through.”
“Jamie is enthusiastic about all local food,” says Carmella Alvaro, owner of Melina’s Fresh Pasta in Durham, who works with Bella Bean to distribute her artisanal fresh pastas like lemon ricotta and gorgonzola ravioli. Alvaro has been friends with DeMent and Holcomb ever since the pair walked into one of her pasta-making classes six years ago. “It’s inspiring to see a person work so hard to put together a system to bypass mass-produced and factory farm-grown food,” Alvaro says of Dement’s efforts at partnering with small businesses and farming her own land, to provide honest, locally-sourced food. DeMent’s first cookbook, The Farmhouse Chef: Recipes & Stories from My Carolina Farm (2017), includes 150 recipes inspired by her roots and her travels: simple, savory food that comes from whatever she finds outside her front door. Sage-rubbed pork chops, warm rice pudding with cane syrup caramel and grilled rib-eye steak with soy ginger marinade are just a few of the dishes she showcases in the book. DeMent believes that if the product is fresh, picked ripe, and raised properly, it shouldn’t require a whole lot of work to make it taste delicious. “Jamie’s meat dishes are exceptional, but her vegetables and salads have more flavor than you could imagine. I think it’s the herbs, or maybe the butter, or maybe it’s just that every dish is filled with passion and love for what she’s doing,” says Holcomb, “Corn, butter beans, field peas, heirloom tomatoes, okra—none of them have ever tasted as good as they do when they come out of Jamie’s hands.”
As a child, DeMent helped can apples and freeze berries in the special kitchen her grandmother had just for canning and preserving, an art DeMent herself captured in her second cookbook, Canning in the Modern Kitchen (2018). Her freezer at Coon Rock brims with corn, chicken broth, and pesto from her herb garden. The pantry is lined with jars of roasted tomato sauce, pickled okra, and honeyed figs. For DeMent, preserving food is the basis of a sustainable lifestyle, because it extends the lifespan of fresh products. To her, it’s common sense: Strawberries aren’t fresh all year, so blanch and freeze them while they are. Dry the herbs, can the vegetables, put anything possible into a jar, waste nothing and enjoy a stocked kitchen all year.
DeMent was drawn to locally-sourced food long before it became the rage. As a nineteen-year-old on a summer trip to Crete, DeMent and a group of fellow college students visited a goat farm in the middle of nowhere, learning about pasture-grazing and shepherds who live outside with their goats. “It was this perfect bucolic day, and then we picked the goat we would eat for dinner,” DeMent recalls, “The farmer put it on a spit and roasted it on an open flame, with salt from the sea and herbs from the garden. I can close my eyes and remember what that tasted like,” she says. Two decades later, and she still thinks of it as the best meal she’s ever eaten, a visceral experience that might have been a glimpse into her future.
When it comes to farming and food, DeMent says, “All things are subject to the whim of the universe. One day I might think, ‘I’m going to pick the broccoli today.’ But then the goats have eaten all the broccoli, so instead I’ll take the goats to the processor and we’ll have goat for dinner.” She adapts, uses what’s fresh, and lets the land dictate what ends up on her plate.
DeMent’s food is special not necessarily because her recipes are outstanding, but because her ingredients are. She’s found her groove with Holcomb at Coon Rock, living an authentic farm life, eating the freshest local food and, most importantly, sharing it with those around her, making her reality accessible beyond her fences. “On a recent Home and Family episode that featured Jamie cooking a lamb roast recipe, the host remarked that Jamie and I are living a Hallmark movie,” Holcomb says, “That’s not 100% accurate, but it’s pretty close.”