Scott Crawford, the new chef at the plush Herons restaurant in The Umstead Hotel, is my home boy. Yup, Crawford grew up in the big metropolis of Guys Mills, PA — population 133 (not counting livestock) — which is less than 20 miles away from my hometown of Titusville (the big city with a whopping 6,100 residents). We’re talking about a mix of small town and country. Dairy farmers. Tool and die makers. Folks generally don’t make it to the big time by staying here, and the vast majority of my high school friends left to explore the country and look for more exciting things.
So did Scott Crawford. Tired of camping in a nearby forest being the biggest adventure he experienced, he packed his bags and headed to Florida to see what life had in store for him. He surfed and worked in restaurants. He found ways to make ends meet. And he went to a community college to learn about cooking, which lead him to the ever-famous (and yes, I’m being sarcastic) American Culinary Academy in Tampa. Yup, the place no longer exists. He then started working with noted chefs Norman Van Aken and Scott Howard, ending up in San Francisco. From there, Crawford began a stint working for Ritz Carlton hotels across the country.
If the story ended here, you could say that this small-town boy did well for himself, getting away from a dying region and seeing the country. But, of course, it doesn’t end here. Crawford started to garner national attention in 2004 when he became the Executive Chef of Woodlands Resort & Inn, the Relais & Chateaux property and Gourmand Dining Room located in Summerville, SC. The restaurant received a Five Star award from Mobil, but Crawford wasn’t done. He was hired in 2006 to become the Executive Chef of The Georgian Room at The Cloister Hotel in Sea Island, Georgia. Crawford transformed an old-school, member and tourist-driven establishment into what John Kessler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the best restaurant in Georgia and the Gayot guide lists as one of the top 40 restaurants in the country. He now had two Five Star Mobil awards on his resume.
And now Crawford has a third challenge, and this might be his most difficult, but he relishes the opportunity to transform Herons into a dining destination. “I love hotels, as there is so much going on and so much to do. I have to delegate work to other leaders, and being a so-called ‘leader of leaders’ is exciting to me.” He, his wife and young son just moved to the area a couple of weeks ago, so he’s getting used to the area while he learns what’s going on in his workplace. He went to Magnolia Grill for the first time last night and is planning on trying a number of local restaurants in the next few weeks. He wants to get a sense of the area based on its culinary offerings. I’d like that job, thank you very much.
And speaking of his wife, I already know many of Crawford’s guests will be disappointed to know he’s married. Let me just come out and say that I’ve talked to a couple of women who have met Scott, and, well, they seem to swoon a bit over him. He’s tall with steel blue eyes and a model’s jawlines. He plays guitar and rides a Harley. He has tattoos, but he keeps them covered while in the dining room. And he loves the formality and crispness of chef’s whites. But although he calls himself a former “wild child,” he’s one of the most soft spoken persons I’ve met. When Scott talks, you truly want to hear what he has to say. So let me just say this: when he told me he likes to be visible in the dining room, well, ladies, that’s a good thing.
I, on the other hand, have more prurient interests — namely, his food. I received an early working draft of his spring menu last night, and I have to say I haven’t been this excited about a new chef in years. Yes, I know I’m a big cheerleader for the restaurant industry in the Triangle, but this excitement far exceeds my norm. Crawford is a chef with highly refined sensibilities. He appreciates balance and subtlety in his dishes. He embraces Southern traditions, flavors and products without being beholden to them. Similarly, he will source local ingredients whenever it makes sense, and he looks forward to developing relationships with local growers and artisans. I suspect that the locally available ingredients will influence Crawford’s cooking, but it won’t define it. He’ll get his morels from the west coast. He’ll get his oysters from New England if they’re better flavored. His principles on the locavore issue are like his cooking — balanced.
My only concerns about Crawford have nothing to do with his cooking and everything to do with something beyond his control — the economy. Herons is a luxury restaurant, and its prices have been very high for this region. Restaurants like Herons rely on folks with lots of disposable income and the business customer. But you know it’s a strange new world when the front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal contains a story saying how Goldman Sachs now prohibits its partners and employees from staying at the Ritz-Carlton and to go to the Embassy Suites instead — that’s a major transformation. I’ve entertained clients at Herons before, and I ended up spending over $75 on a lunch for two (yes, just for food). I suspect that Crawford and the powers that be of The Umstead understand this, and I’m hopeful that the prices on the new menu will be lower than what’s currently available, where the only entree less than 30 bucks is a vegetarian selection. I also hope that they will take advantage of their beautiful bar area and convert this into a lower-priced restaurant, as you typically see with Danny Meyer’s restaurants in New York.
Regardless of the price, I suspect Crawford will change the way we think of hotel restaurants in the area. His spring menu will be rolling out in a month or so, and I’ll be there to taste my home boy’s cooking.