Justin Burke on how to be a restaurant lifer without restaurants

justin burke samson, charlotte pastry chef
Photo by Carter Short Photography

“I think these Brussels are still ok, but we should use them for dinner tonight before they turn,” I say as I rummage through the cooler during our regular morning menu discussion. Keeping notes on my flour encrusted iPhone, we have Santa Maria-style tri-tip, blackeyed peas en brodo, charred Brussels sprouts, and farm onion and potato skewers. Checking the radar on my weather app, I suggest we open up the patio and dine al fresco. We just finished cleaning the patio, and now seems the right time to kick off the outdoor dining season. I write out the prep list. I will make the dry rub, prep the tri-trip, set up the patio, and organize the front end. Louis will prep the vegetables, grill, and plate. We have tonight’s menu dialed in and service laid out. We are ready for dinner. We kiss, and I walk up stairs to shower. Louis jumps on a conference call.  Tonight’s home meal was nothing short of restaurant grade quality and execution. I’m a restaurant lifer, in and out of the professional setting. 

I live and breathe restaurants. It has been a very generous career to me and I am grateful and appreciative of the lifestyle it has provided. For the past seventeen months, I have not stepped foot behind the line or host stand. Instead, I have been raising my son Jasper, writing freelance about food, and developing recipes. But still, my brain remains wired for restaurants. Since leaving the professional setting, I have traveled and dined at more restaurants than I did before. By being a guest, I have gained a greater appreciation of what hospitality means. I am adapting. Rather than examining a restaurant with a fine tooth comb, I am relaxing my chef’s mind to enjoy the experience that is intended for me – I am being fed and finding respite. 

justin burke samson, charlotte pastry chef, how to set a patio

Right as I started to settle in as a guest, enjoying both the recreational and professional side of food, the COVID-19 blew through and decided to stay. Restaurants began to close and collapse. I was dining out four to five times a week and my freelance career was dependent on these restaurants. If they were gone, what would I write about? Where would I eat? Despite being a professional chef, cooking at home has always been more of a chore than a pleasure.

I was in shock. I had just moved into my boyfriend Louis’ house and was living in a new city. I worked so hard to adapt to life outside of the restaurant, and I felt like all of my progress had been thrown out the window. “Who am I?” I started asking myself. For two weeks I did not step foot in my kitchen. Louis kept me fed. I was depressed and mourning. My  hospitality family was breaking and my identity was disappearing. COVID-19 was winning, and our government didn’t see us. 

One morning I was pouring my second cup of coffee. I had been up since 6:30 a.m. Around 8 a.m., Louis woke up and came downstairs. As he poured his first cup of coffee, I walked past him with my fresh cup in hand. “Behind, hot,” I said out of habit. “Oui, chef,” he said back. I stopped and started to cry. I was overwhelmed with memories. Louis was speaking my professional love language. After hiding my tears in the light of the refrigerator, I turned around, kissed Louis, and said, “What should we cook for dinner tonight?”

justin burke samson, charlotte pastry chef

My attitude started to shift that morning. I might not have my restaurants. I might not be behind the line or on the floor, but I still have my servant’s heart. In the moment when the tears were rolling down my face, I realized that I can create and enjoy food in both a restaurant and the comfort of my home. This transition was not only a turning point in my mourning process, but also in our relationship. We were learning more about each other, finding our balance as we worked together in the kitchen. We discovered our similar passions for hospitality and the joy we get from caring for others over a meal around the dining room table. 

During this time, I have managed to run our home kitchen like a professional kitchen. We both have roles that cater to our strengths. Louis does the shopping, executes the food, and plates. I conceptualize the menu, taste and adjust, set the table, and prepare the tone. What started as mini conversations over black-eyed peas en brodo and charred Brussels sprouts is now a regular chat in the morning over coffee and breakfast. We bounce ideas off of each other, pulling inspiration from our pasts and Instagram photos. We find ways to merge our Southern and West Coast palettes to create some fun menus. 

Cooking with Louis has many perks. He has never worked in a professional kitchen, but loves food and enjoys cooking with a chef’s perspective. He’s like a new, eager line cook. He takes pride in his work and is excited for me to try his creations. “Smell this, what do you think?” he’ll ask as he holds up the spoon of marinade for the pork we’re making. I love watching his palette develop as he experiments and takes risks. 

justin burke samson, charlotte pastry chef

We prep throughout the day, since we simultaneously balance our at-home jobs and zoom meetings. With our cooking playlist on shuffle, the pulse of our kitchen is a familiar, yet new, feeling. Our “stations” are clean and organized, and our communication is on point. We taste each other’s food and provide constructive feedback. Cooking starts a little before 6 p.m. Around 7 p.m., we wrap up and sit down to enjoy the meal we prepared throughout the day. 

As far as our responsibilities go, I tend to focus more on the front end of dinner. I decide on the plates and where we’ll eat: at the table in the kitchen for a ‘chef’s table’ feel, the formal dining room for a more intimate night, the comfort of our living room for a casual evening, or the patio for fresh-air. I adjust the lights to get the right glow and ask what artist Louis wants to listen to (it’s either Fleetwood Mac or The Chainsmokers). No matter the mood or ambiance, I always make sure that we have the full experience.

We have grown so comfortable with our new routine that we discuss bigger menu ideas and dining experiences we can try. We talk about how we should host and throw more dinner parties once we can socialize again. Leaving restaurant life and then not being able to enjoy restaurants as a guest has been a sucker punch to the gut. But, I am hopeful that our restaurants will bounce back and return stronger than ever. We will evolve. We will continue to provide food and restoration for our guests and will always maintain our servant’s heart. And, if I can’t go to a restaurant for now, then I will bring the restaurant to me because I’m a lifer.

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