Article and photography by Fitz
Lead photo of Chef Josh Gregory’s snapshot of he and his wife, Somer Leigh Gregory, in the Supper kitchen
Josh Gregory is the kind of chef who will tear up if he talks too long about grits. He is the kind of chef who knows how to put out fires in the kitchen. He is the kind of chef who, in times past, has been on his back scrubbing his station after a double shift because, had he squatted instead, his guts would have released out the excesses of the night before. Josh Gregory is the kind of chef who devours culinary books. He is the kind of chef who notices details other chefs don’t consider when composing dishes. Until recently, Josh Gregory was the kind of chef who felt like his face was pressed on the walkway window of the kitchen door as he peered in on the top tier chefs of Hampton Roads, hard at work trying to bring more of a definable identity to our local cuisine. Josh Gregory is about to walk through that door and join them.
What is Hampton Roads cuisine anyway? Or maybe better yet, what are some of the defining characteristics of it. Gregory and I have been discussing this question quite a bit, both amongst ourselves late into the night when he should be home with his wife Somer and with others in the industry over beers. Some say a few chefs have come close to doing it, giving our cuisine a more identifiable character. The chefs they point to are, the late, great, out-of-the-box and notorious Bobby Huber of Bobbywood, the eclectic, multifaceted genius madman Sydney Meers of Stove, the low and slow loving, impeccable sourcing guru, flying soft shells to New York for James Beard stuntin’ Sam Mcgann, and the liquid nitrogen lovin’ wagyu beef stuffin’ Todd Jurich. I think that’s valid; no one around here was playing with truffles, oysters, and burgers in the 80’s and 90’s like those guys. However, in the same breath as complementing those guys, I’ve heard leading industry folks joke about how pink sauce aka lava sauce, she crab soup, and Meiomi wine in actually is what defined that era.
For me, a born and raised Norfolk boy who simply likes to eat well, the question is beyond me. My only thought is that like in the 80’s and 90’s, if at some point we are going to try to begin to answer that question again, another group of local chefs, in their prime, are going to have to throw their middle fingers up at the abundant pessimism toward our local cuisine and lead the way. They are going to have to stand on the shoulders of those previous icons and take it much further. And just to start, those chefs, likely chef/owners with the power to make the meaningful decisions, are going to have to have at least three passions: a strong, from-scratch cooking ethos, a substantial love for local sourcing, and the balls to color outside the lines with their food and risk failing instead of pandering with outdated but proven easy money fare. Gregory is leading the charge in two of these three.
The first thing Gregory did when he took over the executive chef job at Supper, not long after being hired as the sous, was to make a master pickle brine that would be used as a “catalyst” flavor in his new menu for the restaurant. As he explained to me, “It’s almost a duct tape and trash bag to use in cooking issues. It’s used in our pimento and hot sauce–anything to bump up salt or sugar notes.” The hot sauce he mentioned, described to me as “simple and personal”, stands out as a true little gem, particularly when you pair it with, the best white boy made fried chicken I’ve personally had in town. Gregory also introduced a bread program, which was vital to establishing a strong, truer, Southern foundation for Supper than in years past. Now being made in house are loaves, slider rolls, biscuits, and cornbread. Bread, by the way, which other notable peers of his buy to use in their restaurants. As Gregory put it, “They are called classics for a reason.” Across the board, Gregory has both brought more scratch cooking elements into Supper than ever before and instilled that quintessential approach to good food in his kitchen staff.
In terms of outside the line coloring and taking risks with his food, Gregory, though now very much in a personal competition with him, took a lot away from his time working under Chef Eric Nelson at Steinhilber’s. Not that you’re going to find a bunch of risks going on at Steinhilber’s, just consistency, but in Nelson, who in his past worked under both McGann and Jurich, that disposition runs deep. When Nelson created the short-lived, very forward thinking Blue Tape pop up, Gregory’s support and admiration for it was undeniable. Also, the degree of freedom Gregory had in his stint as a cook at Pacifica, allowed him to experiment, take chances and grow. Other well-documented critiques of Hampton Roads tapas aside, Christopher Glover, the owner, deserves credit for creating that atmosphere for Gregory and others. At Pacifica, Gregory would develop inventive dishes like his, bulgogi tostada with kimchi and a fried farm egg, grilled amberjack with soba noodles in a squid ink and kombu broth, and crispy pork belly with sunchoke and goat cheese creamed greens with Jagermeister Demi glacé.
In terms of sourcing locally, the jury is still out to some degree. Supper is in league with the big blue machine Sysco. Having said that, Gregory is no question always thinking and producing with a seasonal mindset. It is also important to note here, he is the executive chef and not the owner at Supper. At this point in his career, he can’t make that call. It is a disadvantage for sure, and one the company of chefs whose creative doors Gregory is beginning to knock at, the Steve Marshs and the David Hlediks of Hampton Roads, can choose not to contend with. Couple that with the volume Gregory deals with most nights, it’s no thing for him to flip every table in Supper over four times, a number that dwarfs either Marsh’s LeGrand or Hledik’s Saint Germain, and it’s a testament to Gregory’s food that he is knocking at all.
For Gregory, being able to produce consistently good food in the face of high volume, is most assuredly why he found such an open home quickly at Supper once things went south for him at Pacifica. It’s a talent he first developed a knack for while in the trenches during services at the long since gone, but fondly remembered, Atlas Grille. Gregory has done nothing but refine that skill ever since. As Gregory put it, “Sometimes you gotta be fast, clean, and competent, so the customer is happy. There isn’t a lot of room for romantics on the line Friday nights. You don’t have the luxury of pondering where the cow is from. Sometimes you just got to sling it.” When it comes to slinging it with consistency and soul, on a packed 72 degree Saturday night service, you want Chef Josh Gregory making your food.