Executive Chef Scott Crawford – The Umstead Hotel and Herons in Cary, NC and a recipe for Chestnut & Parsnip Soup

What I foresee is a more sophisticated, sexier South.  A little less pork and a healthier Southern cuisine. ~ Executive Chef Scott Crawford

Impassioned.  How many people do you know who love what they do and are completely devoted to their craft and to making it better?  Executive Chef Scott Crawford of The Umstead Hotel & Spa and Herons restaurant in Cary, North Carolina is impassioned.  He is committed to moving Southern cuisine to a new place; a more elegant version of what we think of as traditional Southern fare while preserving culinary technique and the fine dining experience.

The open kitchen with glass to keep the dining room quiet during service

Having worked as a stagiaire (intern) at restaurants in San Francisco and then The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta (which closed in October 2009) under Executive Chef Bruno Menard, Crawford said that the time spent with Chef Menard was life changing in his culinary career.  “I haven’t looked at food or cooking in the same way since.  After that, it all came together for me.”

Since then, Chef Scott Crawford has worked at some of the most prestigious resorts in the South and has received numerous awards (Mobil Five Star, AAA Five Diamond, as well as James Beard Foundation nominations for Best Chef Southeast).  You can see Chef Crawford’s bio and accomplishments at the end of this article.

Meeting with Chef Scott Crawford at The Umstead Hotel & Spa

This summer, we had the opportunity to experience Chef Crawford’s cuisine when we dined at Herons.  It would be easy to write about the elegant and romantic atmosphere of the dining room  at Herons or the superior level of service, but what we really appreciated most was his culinary technique. Each dish was a stunning work of art and a celebration of a dining experience that seems to be vanishing.

With the change in lifestyles and food costs escalating, dining out has become more casual.  Chef Crawford agreed, “There is so much simplicity in our food (today).  I enjoy the value in it when I dine out, but we are losing technique.  I strongly believe in teaching culinary technique and embracing it.  Some people say we are trying to be pretentious or fancy, but we are just trying to be true to what we are doing, which is creating a special experience.”

“I have been cooking for twenty years and I have watched the game change, especially over the last ten years and dramatically over the last five.  Chefs that were doing this (fine dining) are now cooking burgers; it’s been interesting to watch.”  I asked when he first noticed the trend in the Southeast.  “I think it started with Guenther Seeger’s exit from Atlanta.  When I was working with Bruno at The Ritz, he took me to Guether’s and I was starstruck and amazed.  He touched every single detail of that restaurant.  When he left (December 2006), it was the beginning of the decline of fine dining.”  In a city that used to boast numerous fine dining restaurants, Atlanta now has two, Bacchanalia and Restaurant Eugene.

Al Berger, kitchen architect (who designed Joël’s in Atlanta), created Chef Crawford’s kitchen with his vision

Herons was very busy the evening we were there and Crawford told us that they are full most nights.  “My goal is to preserve technique, fulfill the chefs, make guests happy, and hopefully receive some accolades in the process.”  With only two or three restaurants in North Carolina where you can have this type of dining experience, an evening at Herons is one to savor.  “When times were good, every city had fine dining.  In cities like New York there will always be enough people visiting and living in the city to support places like Jean-Georges, Per Se, and Le Bernardin.”  There are also a number of restaurants in New York and many other cities that are less formal in feel, however the food, atmosphere, and service might be called “refined dining.”

When we were talking about technique, I asked how prepared the young cooks or chefs are who either come from another restaurant or out of culinary school.  “Most come out of school not knowing much, although the schools tell them they do.  Classically trained chefs are a thing of the past.  Maybe five percent of their training is that now.  We tell them how difficult it is going to be and that they can’t stay out late every night and party with friends.  They need to be at their best every day.  It may look easy, but it’s not.  Three weeks later, they want out.  It is hard.”

“If you love it, it doesn’t seem as difficult.  For me, I don’t know anything else.  When people don’t want to participate in this kind of discipline in the kitchen, I don’t understand.  Those who get it, really get it.”  One of the interns that worked under Chef Crawford asked for his help to get a stage at restaurant Alinea in Chicago in order to work with renowned Chef Grant Achatz.  “I made the call and he worked 23 hours the first day and got the job.  After eight months, he is the Chef de Partie.  He had pure motivation and drive.  Twelve and a half hours seems like a lot here (Herons), but Alinea is insane.”

Committed to sourcing the best ingredients, Crawford’s produce was beautiful

As Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Director of The Umstead, how much time does Chef Crawford actually have to do what he loves the most?  “I can jump in and cook any time I want.  I just have to plan for it.  I spent six hours the other day making sauces.  I can still do it and need to do it.  I can get it and pick it right back up.  I plated with the Chef de Cuisine the other night and it was inspiring.”

One of the chefs prepping at The Umstead Hotel

As a chef who has spent much of his life in highly acclaimed restaurants in the South, Chef Crawford’s thoughts and passion about the next trend in Southern cooking were intriguing.      “Things move fast and I have been trying to think about what the next ”big thing” will be.  What I foresee is a more sophisticated, sexier South.  A little less pork and a healthier Southern cuisine, if I have anything to do with it.  We have seen a whole lot of pork belly and a whole lot of gritty and dirty South and that’s fun and cool, but…I see a more sophisticated approach to Southern cuisine.”

If you travel as much as we do in this region, I would have to agree with Chef Crawford.  Many menus are very similar with slight variations on the same dishes.  Southern food has also been adopted by many other parts of the country as its popularity has increased and many of the Southern chefs have become nationally and even internationally recognized.  As Crawford said, “There are a few great chefs trying to preserve and return to the heritage of the South.  Preservation.  I can appreciate that, but what about progressing Southern cuisine?  I am interested in doing it and was doing it at The Georgian Room before pork belly took over the South.”

Chef Crawford supports local farmers as much as possible. In addition, the hotel has a one acre farm.

How does Chef Crawford want to make a difference?  “Refine Southern cuisine, which is not typically refined.  Progress the Southern flavors into something that is not one dimensional, which Southern flavors tend to be.  You tire the palate after a few courses, which you cannot do in fine dining when you have five or as many as seven to nine courses, which we did at The Georgian Room.

“Since I didn’t grow up in the South, I had to do something to get in the mindset.  I dove in to the culture by reading numerous books, not just about the food, but also the people and the culture of the South (some of these books were Fine Old Dixie Recipes, Mother Estelle’s Dessert Cookbook, and Grace Hartley’s Southern Cookbook).  Then I went to eat at all these great places in Savannah to see how I could refine the flavors.  We had a blast and were giddy referring to Southern cookbooks that were so old and amazing.  I don’t know how many people really got it, but I know one journalist did, John Kessler (Atlanta Journal Constitution) from Atlanta.  He came twice to see what we were doing.”

One of Chef Crawford’s “refined Southern dishes” was served at The James Beard Foundation’s Sunday Supper South two weekends ago in Atlanta, which we attended.  With the winds gusting and the temperatures plummeting in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the participants at this outdoor event welcomed the red wine and soul satisfying dishes.  Crawford’s third course presentation of Smoked Beef Belly, Bread-and-Butter Roots, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, with a Pine-Vinegar Glaze was comforting on the chilly evening.  The meat was rich, flavorful and luscious with layers of flavor.  It was a huge hit, as evidenced by the accompanying Twitter stream.  And yes, it was “belly”, but it wasn’t pork belly.

Chef Crawford’s Beef Belly Dish at Sunday Supper South (Photo from Instagram)

It was a pleasure to meet and spend time with Chef Crawford.  If you ever have the opportunity to travel to Cary, NC, you should make plans to dine at Herons.  It will be a special evening that you will not forget.

We look forward to seeing where Crawford’s “Refined Southern Cuisine” is headed.  You can be certain of one thing, the food will be extraordinary.

In the kitchen with Chef Crawford

Chef Crawford has shared his recipe for a gorgeous soup, Chestnut & Parsnip Soup, Butter Poached Lobster, and Pumpkin Seed Pesto.  The dish incorporates the earthiness of fall.  Each bite offered an additional dimension of flavor as the lobster and pesto are introduced.  The presentation of this soup is stunning and would be an elegant start to a special fall or holiday dinner.

* Chestnut & Parsnip Soup, Butter Poached Lobster & Pumpkin Seed Pesto

More about Executive Chef Scott Crawford

Originally from Pennsylvania, Scott Crawford is a formally trained chef and has worked at some of the most prestigious resorts in the South.  Over the years, he has garnered much culinary recognition earning a Mobil Travel Guide Five Stars for his regional American cooking as executive chef of Woodlands Resort & Inn (a Relais & Chateaux property) in Summerville, S.C.  Crawford’s coastal Georgian cuisine earned him five stars from Mobil Travel Guide and critical praise including Esquire magazine’s Best New Restaurant accolade as the executive chef of the Georgian Room at The Cloister Hotel in Sea Island, GA.

Moving to The Umstead Hotel and Spa and Herons restaurant in 2007, accolades have continued as the property was recipient of the prestigious Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Rating and AAA Five Diamond Award.  Crawford has also been recognized by Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and Southern Living.  In addition, he was named a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast semifinalist in 2008 and 2011.  He was also was honored to cook at the James Beard House in New York City with Herons’ chef de cuisine, Steven Devereaux Greene.

You may read my article about The Umstead Hotel and Spa and Herons here.

* Photo courtesy of The Umstead Hotel and Spa

Chestnut & Parsnip Soup, Butter Poached Lobster & Pumpkin Seed Pesto


6 large Parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced
12 Roasted & Shelled Chestnuts (I used local organic chestnuts)
1 small sweet onion, peeled and sliced
1/2 Cup Pumpkin Seeds, Toasted & Shelled
1/8 Cup Pumpkin Seed Oil (* Add more oil if necessary, however, you do want a drier pesto for the soup.)
6 Sage Leaves
I tablespoon Brown Sugar
1 cup milk
Spring water (I used filtered water)
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
1 teaspoon vanilla powder
3 lobster tails or 1 whole lobster blanched and removed from shell
1/2 pound unsalted butter cubed (cold)

Salt & Pepper to taste (I used freshly ground white pepper)


1. In a large pot add the parsnips, ten of the Chestnuts (reserve two for garnish), onion, milk, and enough water to cover (approximately 5-6 cups water). Bring to a boil.

2. Simmer over low heat until parsnips are tender and onions are soft and translucent (about 25-30 minutes). Add malted milk powder and dissolve, season with salt & pepper to taste. Puree mixture in a blender (add more water if needed) and pass through a fine sieve. Slice remaining Chestnuts for garnish.

1. In a small sauce pan heat 1 cup of water to boiling, lower heat and whisk in a small amount of the cold butter at a time until the butter is emulsified (not melted).

2. Submerge lobster into the butter until warm through. Remove and allow lobster to drain on a paper towel for a few seconds.

Pumpkin Seed Pesto:
1. In a food processor mill the Pumpkin Seeds, Sage leaves, Pumpkin Seed Oil and Brown Sugar. Season with salt to taste. (This should be dryer than traditional pesto).

Plate up:
1. In the center of a warm soup bowl place the lobster, Sliced Chestnuts and Pumpkin Seed Pesto. Pour the hot parsnip soup around. Sprinkle Vanilla Powder lightly.

Recipe courtesy of Executive Chef Scott Crawford
The Umstead Hotel & Spa
Cary, NC