"To be a cook in the South is amazing; we're going back to canning, fermenting and preserving."
Chef Scott Crawford has been building up to this moment for his entire culinary career. The four-time James Beard semi-finalist and father of two has cooked at luxury hotels across the nation, and had a hand in his fair share of restaurant openings. And so, finally, he is opening his own. Crawford and Son is set to open in the Oakwood Neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the fall of 2016. Crawford can’t wait to get back in the kitchen, so we sat down with the chef in our food studios to talk about his acclaimed (and accidental!) culinary career, Southern culture, and his all-time favorite foods to cook.
How did you end up finding the food industry?
SC: It sort of happened by accident. I was working in restaurants as a server and bartender. I enjoyed it, but I had no idea that it was a passion yet. And then, one day, someone in the kitchen didn’t show up, and I was asked to help. I had done some work cooking, but nothing really professionally. But when I went in the kitchen, it was sort of a natural thing. It was obvious that there was some natural ability that I didn’t know existed until I was working.
The kitchen asked me to come back, and so I continued to work, and I was better at it than most people who had been in the kitchen for a long time. I found this passion, and I left the front of house money to make no money to learn how to cook. Then, each job I chose was sort of the next level. I pushed myself to learn better and better techniques, better habits, and work for better chefs. I worked in my first restaurant when I was 18, and began cooking a couple years in. I lived in Florida, on the beach, I surfed all day and then I worked at night. At that time in my life, it was perfect. I was always thinking what is going to be long-term, but I really didn’t think it would be cooking until I actually did it. Something sort of flipped, and I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
You’re originally from Pennsylvania. What draws you to Southern culture and Southern food?
SC: Growing up, early in my life, everyone canned. Everyone grew food, and everyone had great, fresh food. But somewhere in the 80s, that went away. Convenience food started creeping into our lives. All the fresh food, the gardens, all of that was sort of going away. Everyone was working more hours, and it was a different time period. I remember, that was very upsetting to me.
Fast forward, I moved to the South. I discovered the soulfulness and the love that goes into Southern cooking. And you know, that’ll hook ya. Not only just in eating it, because you taste that love that goes into that cooking, but also the camaraderie between people, the sharing of recipes, and the way food in the South is so much a part of the culture. It reminded me of those early years. So I stayed in the South. It’s not just the food that I like about the South. I like everything about the South. The culture and the products are amazing. To be a cook in the South is amazing. We are going back to fresh food and revisiting canning, fermenting, and preserving. It’s back to what I enjoyed as a child.
What is your all time favorite recipe to cook?
SC: One of my favorite things to make is soup. Of any sort. It’s sort of therapeutic for me. Soups can do two things. For instance, a gazpacho can refresh you, and bring life to you on a day that’s, like, 96 degrees. It can do so many great things on your palate. But then, when it’s freezing outside, and you’re going into a new season, you make an incredible soup with squash and brown butter and roasted nuts. You can reach someone’s soul in one bite with a soup. I love teaching people how to make soups. And puddings! Bread puddings. I love custardy things; I love cornbread pudding, real custardy things.
Tell us about your latest project, Crawford and Son. Why did you want to establish it?
SC: I wanted to establish a neighborhood restaurant that people can enjoy multiple times a week, where we all sort of recognize each other, that people can truly identify with, and that you can dress up for special occasions. In choosing the location, I spent a good deal of time in downtown Raleigh.
I just fell in love with the Oakwood neighborhood, and so I searched for a good spot in that neighborhood. I hope to pull people from all over the area and beyond, but we really hope to see people from the Oakwood neighborhood come in multiple times a week. We wanted something small enough that we could change the menu every day and keep it really exciting. My favorite restaurants have the signature menu, but they’re not afraid to change the menu every day. That’s exciting to me, and exciting for the neighborhood.
What is the hardest thing about making this restaurant concept a reality?
SC: This process has been incredible. I’ve opened lots of restaurants where it’s not always been that way. Now, I have an incredible team, an incredible contractor, an incredible architect, and an incredible design team. The collaborations have been amazing. There are challenges when you get into construction, but those are easily overcome when you have such a cool, strong team. We discuss the issue, and we go.
What are some life lessons you’ve learned through food industry?
SC: I don’t know if you can only learn this through the food industry, but harnessing creative energy and channeling it through food has been something that I’m not sure I would have been able to do in any other career. Having a manic creative energy can be really good, if you have an outlet. But when I was younger and didn’t have an outlet, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. So for me, what I learned was how to channel that creative, manic, great energy in a way that can make people very happy.
What about being a chef makes you love your job?
SC: My favorite part, the most gratifying for me, is not the cooking. It’s the team. Teaching people, mentoring people, and building teams—that can be magical. You can impact peoples’ lives in such a way that is beyond just cooking great food for guests. I’ve had people come back after I haven’t seen them for years and years, and they’ll say, “you have no idea how you changed my life,” through mentoring and the way we ran that kitchen. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
Let's try some rapid-fire. Chef Role Model?
SC: Marco Pierre White
Worst type of patron?
SC: Angry ones. Some people are just angry.
Best type of patron?
SC: Happy ones. Hungry ones.
Go-to meal to cook on a weeknight for the family?
His wife, Jessica Crawford: The go-to is anything that’s in the pantry. He can make it into something amazing.
SC: I can make something out of nothing. Like an onion and some grits—and it is going to be badass.