As a Tennessee transplant in Brooklyn, I watched this last season of Top Chef with interest. One of the contestants, Chris Scott, is the owner of my favorite Kings County soul food restaurant, Butterfunk Kitchen. And I can report—with my true Southern expertise—Scott’s episode four–winning lemonade buttermilk fried chicken is the best you’ll have this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In an extremely close elimination challenge, Scott was knocked out of Bravo’s reality show just short of the finals, but his spectacular cooking and genuinely friendly demeanor made him an audience favorite. It’s also made getting a seat at Butterfunk more of a challenge; between Top Chef and being named a New York Times Critic’s Pick, what used to be a quiet neighborhood secret is now a packed house every night. Needless to say, Scott is busier than he’s ever been.
In between preparing orders of shrimp and sausage gumbo, succulent pork neck-bone dumplings, and crispy deviled eggs, Scott kindly took a moment to speak about what Top Chef has meant to his business, his plans for expansion, and soul food snobbery.
What Should We Do?!: How would you explain the concept of Butterfunk Kitchen?
Chris Scott: We’re authentic soul food, heritage cooking at its best. I’ve done research on my family history and can trace our lineage back seven generations, through Pennsylvania Quaker and Amish settlements that provided refuge against slavery laws. My ancestors survived and thrived cooking Southern food with a Pennsylvania Dutch twist, and I’m honoring that tradition at Butterfunk.
WSWD: There seems to be a real premium in the contemporary restaurant world on chefs drawing from their lineage to build a menu.
Scott: I think it’s very important. A lot more classically trained chefs are returning to their roots and doing the food of their people. In Brooklyn, that’s not only Southern cuisine, but also Korean and Pakistani cultures. I like to say that we’re not just serving a meal—we’re serving a story. It’s an opportunity to honor our cultural heritage with the food we cook.
WSWD: If it’s my first visit to Butterfunk, what would you suggest I order?
Scott: I recommend first-timers take a chance with something that might be outside of their comfort zone and try our house-made scrapple with okra chow chow or the corn hoecakes with pulled barbecued pork. Both of those dishes are family traditions and capture an authentic history. People certainly know us for the chicken, but it’s important to me that New Yorkers have the opportunity to learn that Southern food is way more than fried chicken, ribs, and watermelon.
WSWD: I’ve noticed that some foodies are prejudiced against traditional soul food cooking, thinking it unrefined and unglamorous. Do you run into this sort of snobbishness in the food world often?
Scott: Look, I’m sure there are still chefs and critics who think Southern food is something unworthy of culinary respect, but the industry is flat-out proving them wrong. In just this past year, five African-American chefs have won a total of seven James Beard Awards, and most of those winners cook varieties of Southern food and soul food. The winner of best new restaurant in the country, Seattle’s Junebaby, is a soul food joint. So those snobs are out of touch and more hung up on their own issues than they are on the quality of the food.
I’m sure there are critics who think Southern food is something unworthy of culinary respect, but the industry is flat-out proving them wrong.
WSWD: As a resident and business owner in the family-friendly Windsor Terrace–Kensington area of Brooklyn, how engaged are you in the hyper-local restaurant community?
Scott: I absolutely love the neighborhood. You can get amazing food out here from Joe Brancaccio’s Food Shop and Chris Cheung’s East Wind Snack Shop. I also like Le Paddock and Werkstatt.
A lot of people from outside the industry believe that all restaurateurs are in competition with one another. It’s actually the opposite: We absolutely support each other whenever we can and want one another to succeed. The more great food you can find out this way, the more people come to our area to discover what makes it unique.
WSWD: If you were speaking with a young chef looking to make it in the restaurant industry, what recommendations would you have?
Scott: That’s not a hypothetical question for me; I go out of my way to speak with young chefs all the time. The most important advice I always give is to pay attention, respect the craft, and believe in your work. Having a great work ethic is important in this field because it takes years of hard work just to get the basics, and then even more to master the nuances of cooking. Kitchen wisdom does not come easily, but the good news is that when it does come, you can accomplish just about anything.
WSWD: What’s been the impact of Top Chef to your business?
Scott: Being on the show was a wonderful experience, and so many doors have been opened because of it. Mainly, I’m grateful to have had that platform to get my food and my story out there. Businesswise, it’s been life changing. We’re serving folks not only from our neighborhood, but from all over the country who have seen the food on television and want to try it in person.
WSWD: Any plans for future expansion?
Scott: We’ve already started building a location in Connecticut, one that we’re hoping is just the first of many outside of Brooklyn.
WSWD: With a few years under your belt, where do you think Butterfunk has room to improve?
Scott: Now that we’re growing so quickly, Butterfunk has to evolve past the “mom and pop” persona that we used to have. As much success as the past year has brought, it’s all still a work in progress. We’re certainly on the right path.