The Chef for the Foraging, Nose-to-Tail, Militant Locovore
Next time you are headed down US 64 in North Carolina, make plans to stop at Ruka’s Table in the bustling, summer town of Highlands. It’s just on the outskirts of town and if you’ve made it this far it’s a taste of the region you won’t want to miss. The real draw to this locale is the executive chef: Justin Burdett. A Georgia native, he made his way to Highlands just a few short years ago and has made quite an impact on the traditionally grounded town.
Chef Justin Burdett: A Reason to Visit Highlands
It didn’t take long to conclude that the two and a half hour drive was worth it. After posing just a few questions, it was clear Chef Burdett wasn’t offering simple lip service but a real, honest look at the topic he’s most passionate about: local food.
Born in the flatlands of southern Georgia, Chef Justin got his start at the ripe age of four. Taking up residency in his grandmother’s kitchen, he soaked up everything the resourceful, single mother of five had to share. From homemade dumplings to simple salads, he was unknowingly learning the skill of stretching ingredients. This weekly, Sunday ritual eventually lead to the chef’s lifetime culinary pursuit.
Dabbling in the Culinary Craft:
At 14, Burdett began his version of “formal training.” He took a job at Glenn’s, a BBQ joint he and his father would frequent. Admittedly, his initial intentions were driven by the mind of a teenage boy – hang out with friends and get paid to do it – but it wasn’t long before that all changed.
Frequent glances into the kitchen from the dish room landed him a job prepping. Eventually, he worked his way up to the grill and impressed the owner with his then, mediocre, 14-year-old grilling abilities.
For a time he wandered from his culinary path but it was short lived. After making the decision to become a vegetarian – another short-lived pursuit – he quickly became frustrated with the less than inspiring salad and pasta options he was constantly being offered. By 18, he was back at it and experimenting with unique preparation methods and flavor profiles to spice up his temporary vegetarian lifestyle.
Working his way back into the culinary fold, Burdett spent time in two Mellow Mushroom locations, which ultimately brought him to Athens, Georgia. It was there that he really began his culinary career.
It’s True, In This Industry You May Work for Free:
Bored of preparing the same menu day in and day out, Burdett decided to take the next step. He approached Chef Hugh Acheson of 5 & 10 in Athens and offered his services for free. He was willing to do whatever it took to get experience under the guidance of a formally trained chef.
Chef Acheson took a chance on Justin and from that point it was essentially a race to success. Equipped with a thirst for industry knowledge and a bit of raw talent, Burdett took to 5 & 10 with renewed passion for the back of house. It was here that he learned to operate without a ticket, break down meat, and handle the sauce station amongst a wide variety of skills he continues to call upon today.
During the staff’s post-dinner-service wind down, Burdett would fire questions at veterans and often find his head in the book most recently suggested by another member of the staff. After a few years in what he described as “the wild Athens town,” he had built a strong foundation and was ready to focus on the development of his own philosophy and style.
Farm-to-Table: It’s Not My Style
Asheville, the east coast hippie town synonymous with bacteria loving, raw milk drinking, and ramp foraging was the next stop on Burdett’s journey. Arriving as a young, single guy, he took to his work in the 100-hour-per-week fashion. Balancing the demands of two restaurants, he was soaking in the culture of the city and the habits of its sustainably minded inhabitants.
After balancing the two restaurant jobs, spending hours in Asheville’s farmer’s markets, and beginning to crack the surface of the local, slow food movement, he started to hone in on his own philosophy. For Chef Justin, he defines his driving philosophy as farm-to-table but will be the first to offer explanation if it’s referred to as a style.
The difference he explained is this, “Communities have been preparing farm-to-table meals for centuries. It’s not a style and it’s not new. For most it was out of necessity. You cook what’s local and you cook what’s in season. I’ve adopted it as a philosophy because it makes sense and it’s sustainable. My style on the other hand is what I call Modern Southern. You can be any kind of chef, Indian, French and still be driven by the philosophy of farm-to-table. It’s not a trend. It’s a purposeful way of sourcing and creating dishes.”
The Asheville community is certainly responsible for further instilling the importance of local sourcing and sustainability but truthfully it goes back to his roots. From those early, childhood moments in his grandmother’s kitchen he was cooking farm-to-table fare. Then, it was out of necessity. His grandmother was a single woman raising five kids and relied on family gardens to prepare meals. Today, it’s a conscious decision he makes for generations to come.
Firm in his philosophy, Chef Burdett was right at home in his next industry role at The Market Place in Asheville. There, he was serving a 100-mile menu comprised entirely of ingredients available within 100 miles of the restaurant’s door. His philosophy was engrained at this point and not a matter of something he should do but, something that began to come naturally.
At this point, he was ready for the next step. Passionate about Southern food and more than aware that, “You should always do what you do best” he began to experiment with his signature style: Modern Southern. Think of it as traditional southern fare elevated through unique preparation techniques and a combination of purposeful reconstruction and deconstruction. In explaining this, he cringed at describing it as “deconstruction.”
Styling his Style:
It was at Richmond Hill Inn that Burdett began to fine-tune his presentation skills. With an establishment ticket price hovering around $140 before cocktails, he was developing an entirely new skillset in the arena of presentation. He was being exposed to new ingredients, preparation methods, and clientele level. Unfortunately, his tenure at Richmond Hill was cut short when the establishment burned.
In a temporary state of flux, he spent a short time at Nova in Asheville during which time his daughter Olive was born. Settling in but certain he would have greater opportunity elsewhere, Chef Burdett and family heeded the sign when they received an offer from Miller Union in Atlanta.
It’s hard to think of the establishment in its infancy but at the time, Burdett was one of the first on staff. He accepted a position, began as line cook, and was sous chef within a month. Over the course of two and a half years, Burdett developed from a skilled cook to chef de cuisine, capable of running his own kitchen and confident in both his style and abilities. During his tenure at Miller Union, the restaurant had gone from a start up to world-renowned. Executive Chef Steven Satterfield was spending the majority of his time traveling and Burdett was essentially left with the role of running the kitchen.
Eager to depart the city and put his love of southern food into action, Chef Burdett headed to the mountain town of Highlands, North Carolina shortly after being offered the opportunity to be executive chef at the struggling restaurant Ruka’s Table. On the edge of the town’s popular downtown, Chef Justin was once again presented with a unique opportunity to grow his industry skill set.
The Ruka’s Table Era and Sourcing Struggles:
With wife and toddler in tow, the Burdetts headed to the mountains with excitement to tackle the challenges that lay ahead. In a town with a Memorial Day to Labor Day season, an older, finicky crowd, and an unproven community of farmers, Chef Burdett had his work cut out for him.
Over the past two and a half years, he has worked diligently to create a network of reliable farmers coupled with reliable community members to source the products necessary to support his farm-to-table philosophy and the restaurant’s demands. He describes it as a process of traveling to various farms, bringing pictures of specific varieties, implementing a trial and error mentality, and being a bit militant in his expectations.
Early on he often had to turn away produce. Too often the scenario of ordering Georgia melons only to receive a load from California would play out. With no intention of being ungrateful, he would turn the produce away and adapt his evening menu around the few things he could find regionally.
Today, he will often go to farmers with specific requests and a guarantee that he will purchase their entire crop. Aware that there isn’t a local market for many of the older grains and unique varieties, he accepts large harvests and heads to the kitchen to can and pickle what he can’t use fresh.
Despite the complication and extensive planning necessary, the end result is certainly worth it. At this point, it’s what his guests expect. It’s not the traditional salmon and potato dish you will get down the street and there is no twin lobster entrée with mango chutney. Instead, you’ll get artfully crafted and locally inspired meals prepared with purpose and a keen understanding of complementary flavors.
Though considerably young to hold the role of executive chef, Justin Burdett’s innate draw to the centuries-old traditions of sourcing locally and seasonally has placed him amongst the forward thinkers of his industry. A progressive outlook has allowed his career to blossom rapidly, but he has managed to maintain his passion for sustainable fare. With his continued focus in this arena and exponential growth in consumer’s interest for more responsible dining, Chef Burdett is certain to enjoy a career of great longevity and relevance.
For more information on Chef Burdett’s Ruka’s Table, check back soon for my full review of a dinner service. If you wish to visit Ruka’s Table yourself, be sure to check out www.RukasTable.com for directions, menus, dining hours, and more information on its partner establishments.