Royale chef and family man Jeff Seizer gives the food of his childhood a North Carolina spin.
by Addie Ladner
On a given weekday morning, you might find Jeff Seizer looking over the heirloom tomato section at the Ronnie Moore Farms stand at the Farmers Market, or searching for the sweetest blueberries and blackberries at a nearby berry patch with his wife, Sally Stark-Dreifus, and their two young children, Sophie and Luca. Seizer takes full advantage of North Carolina’s spectrum of year-round offerings: Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Thai basil, chili peppers and more. These are not only staples at his downtown Ralegh bistro, Royale, but at his home, too. “Our region is such a wonderful one for growing,” says Seizer. “We have all the vegetables here, so it’s easy to eat seasonally.”
A lifestyle centered around food and family comes naturally to Seizer. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Seizer comes from a large Italian family. His mom was a single parent who worked as a college professor, so he planned the days’ menus alongside his grandmother. It was she who taught him the ways of the kitchen. “She was an amazing cook. Every Sunday, we had a huge family dinner,” he says. Stuffed artichokes, antipasti, meat, pasta and gravy (that’s red sauce, for the non-Italians out there) and cookies from local bakeries would fill the table. “Food was extremely sought after and praised,” he says.
While Seizer could easily learn a recipe or the ways of a knife, he says his severe learning disabilities made it clear to him early on that college wouldn’t be an option. Instead, he found his education in the kitchen and at the table with his family. “I wanted to cook. That was where it all started for me.”
Come summer, the Seizer family’s kitchen and garden are full of activity. Little hands turn ripe stone fruits and mint into refreshing popsicles. Homegrown rosemary and oregano elevate dressings for crisp salads. Cuts of chicken and sweet corn wait for the grill’s flame. “When Jeff is home, he loves cooking with the kids and teaching them,” says Stark-Dreifus. “Every year, we try to grow herbs and vegetables. This year has been more successful than others!”
It’s a good thing, too, because Seizer and his family mastered homemade pizza, the quintessential food of his childhood, during the recent stay-at-home order—just in time to top it with all of North Carolina’s summer bounty.
“I had this rare opportunity to be at home, and I’d always wanted to dive into sourdough,” says Seizer, with a laugh to acknowledge that he wasn’t the only one. While a trained chef, Seizer says sourdough was uncharted territory. “My only advantage was I had a scale and mild knowledge of different flours.”
He also had a chef’s confidence and comfort with repetition. “When you cook professionally, you make four to six dishes, 100 times a day, every day, for a couple weeks or months,” he says. At home, he did the same, practicing with his sourdough starter (“Sweet Baby,” the family calls it) to get a perfectly soft-but-crusty pizza dough. It’s now a mainstay on their home menu.
It’s all come full circle, Seizer says: not just the Italian-inspired recipes, but spending hours in the kitchen teaching his children about cooking in the same way that his grandmother taught him. “It’s about making the ordinary, extraordinary,” says Stark-Dreifus.