Scapes, truffles and slipper lobsters

by Brian Clarey

Triad’s Best Chef speaks on local fare, grilling in winter and cooking for 7,000

Before coming to the executive chef position at Print Works Bistro and the Green Valley Grill in 2007, Leigh Hesling ran the kitchens for ships on the Royal Caribbean cruise line, turning out expansive buffets for thousands. But he grew up on an Australian farm, a country boy at home in the Triad, where he’s lived for the last 10 years. The Triad’s Best Chef, according to the 2011 YES! Weekly readers’ poll, speaks about his restaurants, the bounty of local cuisine and the secret of scapes.

Brian Clarey: What part of Australia are you from?

Leigh Hesling: I’m originally from Queensland, the far northeast coast of the country. The best thing about where I grew up: It’s in the tropics. The growing season lasts all year long; we’re not locked into seasonality. We have all types of reef fish, barramundi, shrimps, lobsters. We called them “Morton Bay bugs.” But for the American tourists we’d call them “slipper lobsters.”

What’s really cool down in the Bass strait they fish these giant crabs. They got like huge nippers. You can see them in Chinatown in Sydney. They got them in tanks.

BC: Your last job was on the Royal Caribbean cruise line. What are some of the differences between that job and this one.

Leigh Hesling: I do a lot myself. It’s impor- tant to me that the restaurants still have my touch. The restaurant becomes a part of you — you put so much of your soul into it.

On the cruise ships you’re feeding 5,000 passengers and up to 2,000 crew every day. For the guests it’s five meals a day. It’s colossal, [and it’s] more of an administrative job, production, logistics, statistics. Here I can go to the market this afternoon and decide what I’ll put on the menu tonight.

BC: You use a lot of local ingredients in your cuisine, the Farm to Fork thing. What kinds of local ingredients do you like to use?

LH: There’s a lot of diversity in the agriculture, and there’s the availability of unique ingredients [like] truffles.

BC: They’re growing them out by Hillsborough.

LH: They say in the next 10 years North Carolina will be to truffles what Napa Valley is to wine.

The first year I started getting them, [the farmer and I] would meet in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. It was like a shady drug deal:

She’d bring the truffles and I’d bring the cash.

Now I’m getting these scapes…. It’s the shoot that grows out of the garlic bulb, above the ground, for the flower. It’s just like eating a garlicky chive, and no one really gets them — they’re only available for two weeks, but I’ve got a lady with an acre of garlic.

BC: What kind of stuff do you like to eat?

LH: I love pork — what chef doesn’t? I grew up on a farm. I love everything fresh, ready to eat, that represents itself naturally. I don’t eat out a lot, period. I eat at home a lot. I use my grill in the middle of winter.