Sean Umstead founded Kingfisher with his wife and business partner, Michelle Vanderwalker, in Durham in early 2019. Their ground-to-glass cocktails and farm-driven small plates reflect their North Carolina home.
When Sean Umstead graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism, he didn’t dream that he would own one of Durham’s coolest cocktail bars. Isn’t that the case for most people? We never really know what we’re going to be when we grow up. Umstead lived and worked in New York City for four years as a video editor for the NBA. During the NBA lockout, Umstead needed to pay rent so he hopped back into the restaurant industry. The rest is history. Pull up a chair to the table because Umstead shares his thoughts on tipping, music, and outer space.
- Most notable food memory? My grandmother’s sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving.
- Most sought after dinner guest, living or not? Gregg Popovich, coach of San Antonio spurs because he is very active in the community and has great taste in wine.
- If you were not doing what you were doing what would you be? Politician.
- Junk food vice? Lance ToastChee Peanut Butter Crackers. I always get them from a gas station when I travel.
- What restaurant do you most want to visit? Blue Hill
- What is your favorite food city that you have been to? Is it cheating to say NYC since I lived there for four years? Other than NYC, I would say Washington D.C. There are so many different cultures represented in the food scene there, especially smaller, underrepresented cultures.
- What city do you most want to visit that you have not been to? Singapore
- What quality do you most look for in a vegetable? Texture. It’s a very underrated quality.
- What’s your greatest food extravagance? Cocktails. That’s fairly extravagant. Nice cocktails, good bourbon, and nice wine.
- What/who do you listen to while cooking? WWOZ, a jazz station out of New Orleans because I think it’s the nation’s preeminent jazz station. Very pleasant to listen to with esoteric hosts!
- When was the last time you cooked at home? What did you make?We just opened a bar 3 months ago, so it’s been a while. I would guess most recently I cooked roast pork with a summer panzanella salad for friends.
- Where would you love to cook a meal at? Outer space because I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid.
- What’s the most overrated ingredient? Parsley. If I’m going to have greens on top of a dish, give me anything but parsley. It’s boring.
- If you had the chance to redo one meal/cocktail you’ve ever served, which one would it be, what would you serve instead? Anything I’ve ever burned. I would serve it, well, not burned. I never feel I have to redo cocktails because I taste them before I serve.
- If you were only allowed to keep one sense only, what would it be and why? I would want to hear. It would obviously be sad to not have the ability to taste or smell. But not being able to communicate fully with people would make me really sad.
- If you could bring back one deceased relative to cook for, who would it be and what would you cook for them? I had a cousin, Thomas, who passed away when he was fourteen. I would cook a BBQ pork shoulder because he was from Texas. He had an interest in Asian cultures, so I would cook it in a char sui style marinade. I’d do that to celebrate his return.
- Biggest culinary/bartender inspiration? Why? Luke Whearty. He opened the well-known cocktail bar in Singapore, Operation Dagger, and most recently opened Byrdi Bar in Australia. Whearty pushes the concept of what a cocktail should be, and is uniquely inspired by the people he is around and the places he’s been.
- What book are you currently reading? Burn the Ice. It’s a book about the last 20-25 years of food culture in America and the unsustainable pace. The book talks about how the end of the culinary renaissance is nigh.
- Biggest threat to Food & Beverage industry? There are two things that pose a threat to the industry. One that I see as being an existential threat is the growing importance of online image because people rely too much on their Facebook and Instagram personality. There’s nothing that bothers me more than going to a restaurant because of their online presence only to find that the quality of food and drink doesn’t match. The second threat I see is the ten years of economic growth that has resulted in an excess of restaurants. When the economy starts to slow, it will be inevitable that a lot of restaurants will start to close.
- If you can change one thing about the food and beverage industry what would it be? Tipping. It’s stupid. It creates an unnecessary imbalance and puts the pressure on the customer to pay for a wage. It obviously works, but there’s a better way to do this.
- How would you doctor up store bought Ramen? Spicy chili oil and fresh herbs.
- What imaginary figure would you most want to cook for? What would you serve? I would cook for Peter Pan, and I would cook a meal with my imagination like they did in Neverland.
- What would you tell your 20 year old self? Believe in what you like to do and don’t worry about your interest falling outside your college degree.
- What’s your idea of a perfect meal? The best meal is when the host is genuinely interested in preparing the meal, and the people you’re with have a like-minded interest in eating. It ruins the party when people don’t want to eat the food.
- What quality do you most like in a server? A person that can listen, hear, and perceive.
- What quality do you most like in a chef? Consistency. Can you make a great dish over and over and source with the same moral fortitude over and over? Do you treat the people who cook with you with the same quality of respect over and over, day in and day out?
- What do you most value in your peers/team? Again, Consistency. People who show up and bring the same energy level day in and day out is the greatest skill that anybody can have, and that is what I admire.
- What’s your death row meal? There’s so many. But if I had to whittle it down to one, it would be braised brisket cooked in the oven with onions and red wine, and mashed potatoes. My mom made this meal for every birthday, and it brings back very happy memories.
- What is your motto? I’ve never put it into words but something like the world can only be a better place when I’m trying to be a better person everyday.