The cuisine of Scott Crawford: Soon to be an everyday indulgence

Scott Crawford outside the new restaurant, Nash Tavern, under construction.

by Liza Roberts

photographs by Lissa Gotwals

The seven-minute drive from chef Scott Crawford’s house near Yates Mill Pond to the state farmers market takes him past acres of rolling pastureland and rows of corn. It’s a daily journey for him, through a part of Raleigh where food comes from: along stretches of country road, long-established farms, and N.C. State research fields.

As the benchmark-setter for five-star dining in the Triangle for the past five years – in his role as executive chef of both Herons (named one of the “101 best places to eat in the world” by Newsweek in 2012) and the Umstead Hotel & Spa – Crawford has long had an intimate relationship with Raleigh’s local growers and world-class food. It has never been more apparent than now.

That’s because the three-time James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef in the Southeast is setting out on his own to open two new Raleigh restaurants. In the process, he will be transformed: From the region’s fine dining exemplar to the creator of a new brand of locally grown, casual, regional, gourmet cuisine, served in freshly energized neighborhoods. His food will go from being appreciated by a lucky few to a happy many.

With business partner John Holmes, Crawford, 41, plans to open Standard Foods, a restaurant/grocery in the North Person Street neighborhood this fall, and Nash Tavern, a “modern American” restaurant on Nash Square in 2015.

“This is a smart move from Scott Crawford,” says author John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a respected arbiter of Southern cuisine. “Raleigh is an ascendant American food city, developing a reputation as a culinary destination.” People everywhere, Edge says, but particularly in the South, “are in search of good eats and drinks that are everyday indulgences.”


Business partners Scott Crawford and John Holmes have big plans for Raleigh diners. The first is Standard Foods, a restaurant/grocery in the revived North Person Street district. Also in the works is Nash Tavern, an informal “modern American” restaurant slated for next year in a historic building on Nash Square.

No one more than Crawford. “I’m excited to have the freedom to cook the kind of food I like to eat every day,” he says, slate-blue eyes alight. “I’m so excited I can’t sleep.” Trim, with short, salt-and-pepper hair and his sleeves rolled down to cover arms-length tattoos, Crawford looks less like a food-loving chef than he does a fit executive – or someone who plays one on TV.  But there’s nothing steely about his enthusiasm, or his lack of guile: “I wake up with ideas, I’m constantly writing down ideas. I’m excited to reach greater numbers of people.” Just talking about the ingredients he loves animates him. Describing shiso – an Asian herb he describes as “somewhere between basil and mint” and can’t believe is available for a few dollars for a big bunch just down the road – his customary polite, soft-spoken reserve gives way to gusto.

Crawford says he aims to put fresh ingredients like this “on a plate at its peak of freshness” the way he learned to do while cooking in San Francisco years ago. Crawford can point to a single dish he ate there that changed his way of thinking about food. Already a working chef for several years at the time, he recalls that half a papaya filled with three oysters and a sprinkle of lemon juice hit him like a revelation. “Three ingredients. It literally changed my life.”

And that of his young family, gathered on this summer day in the kitchen of the house they built a few years ago, tucked behind 1,500 acres of N.C. State agriculture research fields. Crawford was on the back of his Harley-Davidson here when he found the unbuilt street. Cut subtly through fields and trees, it afforded privacy, nature, peace, and space. He bought the first available lot. Crawford’s wife Jessica, a photographer, and their children, Jolie, 3, and Jiles, 6, are chatty, enthusiastic fans – of whatever Crawford comes up with, it would seem: places to live, things to eat, businesses to start. They’re excited about his restaurant plans, and lovers of just the kind of food he’s eager to make.

As Crawford prepares a fresh tomato and watermelon salad, the two kids wait for him to finish, and then dig in with relish, slurping up wrinkly heirloom tomatoes in a lemony vinaigrette the way other kids might gobble fries.
‘This is how we eat,” Crawford says. “We eat a lot – a lot – of salads.”

Crawford’s instinct to pare things down to their essence has been there for a long time, he says. Now that his dream is about to come true, he’s making more than salads for his family as he creates recipes for both new restaurants.

Standard Foods will be “a modern version of a neighborhood market,” he says. It will house a fishmonger, a butcher, local produce, dry goods, and prepared food that changes daily. A store suitable, he says, for both the foodie seeking fancy ingredients like duck fat, and the family around the corner who wants to put together a simple weekday dinner. Salads will factor in heavily, made with just-picked produce from next-door Raleigh City Farm and others; so will new twists on Southern dishes like boiled peanut chowder with fresh bacon, or tomato popsicles with spicy pickled okra. The restaurant will feature a 20-seat communal table, room for 60 more, and a long bar for lingering.

Terrific timing
For developer Holmes, whose persistent vision for the Person Street neighborhood has seen him working to make it a reality through ups and downs for a decade, meeting Crawford was a stroke of terrific timing. After a similar restaurant/grocery concept for the space with Chad McIntyre of the former Market restaurant fell apart, Holmes considered trying to pull it off himself.

At the time, he didn’t know Crawford (other than by reputation, and through his food at Herons) and didn’t know the chef had been staying up until 2 a.m. every night after work for six long months, writing a business plan for his dream restaurant. He didn’t know that Crawford was ready to put the two-inch-thick plan to work.

Holmes also didn’t know Crawford had been dipping his toes in the downtown waters – catering parties at the Contemporary Art Museum, for instance – and walking the streets to find his perfect spot. Or that the chef had seized on Nash Square as an ideal location; had even peered through the windows of a vacant three-story building on the south end of the square.

That building, which hides a stately façade behind nondescript Modernist panels, was the site of the Raleigh Times from 1920 until 1955. (This was after the paper moved from its original homebase on Hargett Street, which now houses Greg Hatem’s The Raleigh Times Bar.) Holmes was the owner of the building and was getting ready to gut it and give it a complete historic renovation. He wanted a great tenant, preferably a restaurant, for the ground floor.

When the two men met, and Crawford saw and loved the Nash Square building, Holmes knew he’d hit a jackpot: “I just didn’t anticipate we’d get someone of this caliber.”

Then Holmes asked Crawford if he could show him another property. He took him to see the Person Street Plaza space. And before they knew it, the two men had formed Nash Square Hospitality Group – and were hard at work on plans not only for Crawford’s dreamed-of tavern, but for the restaurant/grocery as well. “Suddenly, we’re going ahead and doing two restaurants at once,” Crawford says. “And we’re both equally happy about both concepts.”

Holmes admits: “We’re drinking from a firehose.”
Scott Crawford, at home, in Raleigh, NC.They can see it
Crawford says he has a good feeling about both projects, in part because he can “see” them. He’s backed out of three deals in the last 10 years because he couldn’t. “In my life,” he says, “anything I can see, I can do. The stars all had to align for something like this to happen.”

It’s clear, on a tour of both properties, that both he and Holmes have a gift for seeing what could be rather than what is. Right now, both spaces are shells. Unlit, blank slates. “Just standing here,” Crawford says, “I can see it.”

“We’ll have a double-height ceiling for the bar,” says Holmes, gesturing around the dim space of the future Nash Tavern. “One hundred seats at least. Maybe an exposed kitchen.” He points to the brick wall that faces an alley to the east. Behind panels are steel casement windows, he says, that used to fill the pressroom with light from top to bottom. “We’ll return them.”

The result will be “a modern take on the classic American tavern,” Crawford says, “where you can walk in and have a very casual experience, or you can dress up and make it a special occasion.”
Holmes uses a flashlight app on his phone to light the way down into a damp, soot-black basement. “We’ll have special events down here,” he says. “Watch your step!”

As with Person Street, Nash Tavern, Crawford and Holmes say, will provide an opportunity to bring a downtown “dead zone” to life. “With great food and great design,” Holmes adds, “we can revitalize the whole area.”  The Nash Square location combines a beautiful but underused park with a street that links the Warehouse district with Fayetteville Street and beyond, he says. “To a small extent, we can make a difference. Food can revitalize areas of the city.”

Crawford sees the future: “I can look at Nash Square five years from now, and it’s not going to look like this.” He gestures to empty sidewalks; to vacant benches under some of Raleigh’s most spectacular, hundred-plus-year-old oak trees; to the park’s four wide-open acres. “It will be vibrant.”

Home base
Crawford shares Holmes’s belief that food can play an important role in the life of a city. He ought to – the Forbes five-star and AAA five-diamond awards he earned for the Umstead Hotel and Herons put them and the region on the culinary map, and gave the Triangle one of the top restaurants in the South. And Crawford’s done it before. He earned five stars from Forbes as executive chef at both Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville, S.C., and at The Cloister in Sea Island, Ga.

With his own restaurants, Crawford will have the chance to make a mark entirely of his own. It’s something the Pennsylvania native has dreamed of since he started cooking at 17.

That happened by chance, when a prep cook didn’t show up at the Florida seafood restaurant where Crawford was bartending and waiting tables. The chef asked him to fill in. “Apparently I cut everything better than anyone on his staff. He told me I should be cooking.” A few years in Florida restaurants led to culinary school, and then to San Francisco, where he ate that papaya-oyster dish, and learned to appreciate fresh ingredients.

Several years in the early ’90s with the Ritz-Carlton at a time when the chain was opening dozens of hotels a year honed the skills that made Crawford the chef he is. More than anything, he says, working in hotels “taught me about service and how to pay attention to every detail.” He brought that intensity to Woodlands, where he turned Southern staple ingredients into something new alongside friend and sous chef Steven Greene, who introduced Crawford to his wife Jessica. (Until recently, Greene was the executive chef at Cary’s An; today, he has Crawford’s old job at the Umstead). In his next job at The Cloister in Sea Island, Crawford earned five stars for the brand-new $500-million hotel in an unheard-of 18 months.

Crawford’s tenure at the Umstead – during which he says he had extraordinary support from Ann Goodnight, who runs the hotel and allowed him to redesign and build the kitchen to his own custom specifications – gave him a lasting legacy. “I was insanely committed to getting the Umstead to where I could be proud of it and where Mrs. Goodnight could be proud.”
His peers were, too. “Chef Scott Crawford is awesome,” said Hugh Acheson, the James Beard award winner and chef and owner of Athens, Ga. restaurant 5&10. When Herons made the Newsweek list of 101 best places to eat around the world, Acheson called him “a really skilled guy. The man is bringing together everything and making it work.”

The Crawford family, at home, in Raleigh, NC.

Crawford makes cooking a family affair at home with his wife Jessica and children Jolie, 3, and Jiles, 6

Big things
It’s a track record that predicts big things. Crawford’s wife, unsurprisingly, predicts them, too. She says she can imagine Standard Foods outposts in other nearby cities. She plans to be involved with both restaurants as a photographer and jokes she “might apply” for a job. “If I’m lucky, he might hire me as a hostess.” (Her own photography business is thriving).

Both she and her husband expect to bring their kids along for the ride. “That way, we can all be a part of it,” Crawford says. Jiles, a smiley, self-possessed Scott Crawford lookalike, says he wants to cook with his dad one day. Jolie – a very grown-up 3 whom they refer to, jokingly, as “the threenager,” seems game for just about anything.

Cooking and eating are just two of the things the family do together. Crawford has put his love of long Sunday motorcycle rides temporarily on hold because the four can’t do it together. Instead, he’s bought a deck boat (“because it’s safer for kids”) that they take out on nearby Lake Wheeler. The kids go tubing, Scott fishes, Jessica relaxes.

“When I get out there on the water, it’s just peace,” Crawford says. “It’s hard to find. But if you can find that peace, you never burn out.”

Watch the award-winning chef show you how to make a simple but delicious summer salad (recipe below).

Scott Crawford’s Tomato, Watermelon and Cucumber Salad with Goat Feta and Basil
1 cup cubed red watermelon
1 cup cubed yellow watermelon
1 cup sliced heirloom tomatoes
1 cup sliced cucumber
½ cup feta cheese
(Scott uses Elodie Farms’ goat feta)
¼ cup basil leaves
2 tablespoons shiso leaves (an Asian herb that resembles a cross between basil and mint, available at the state farmers market)
¼ cup basil vinegar (can substitute white balsamic vinegar)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
In a mixing bowl, whisk together vinegar, lemon juice (if using), and olive oil. Add all other ingredients. Toss and allow to chill for one hour before serving.