2013 Carolinas Rising Star Justin Burdett of Ruka's Table

2013 Carolinas Rising Star Justin Burdett of Ruka's Table
November 2013

For Justin Burdett, it all started on a stepstool, with (a then tiny) Burdett peering over his grandmother’s stove and dropping biscuit scraps into a vat of warm chicken broth. Not even Nanny would’ve guessed this would send Burdett down a path of cooking and hospitality. But a (friendly) shot in the arm from his family, and a strong showing of talent, led Burdett to reach high school with an already strong arsenal of skills—and a hunger to keep cooking.

Taking that old school route with ease—and elbow grease—a 14-year-old Burdett worked his way from dishwasher to the line, fryer, grill, and (yes) the pit itself at Glen’s BBQ in Snellville, Georgia. Already showing a flare for Southern flavors, Burdett’s next stop was a mom and pop restaurant, serving straightforward, scratch comfort food, and sparking a lasting interest in honest regional cooking. From there, and a few more jobs, Burdett’s next pivotal stop was the grill station, a position he earned at 5 & 10 under local culinary hero Hugh Acheson.

Well-versed in Georgia, Burdett’s next move took him to Asheville, North Carolina, and five years working his way up at places like The Market Place and Table Restaurant. He expanded a growing interest in fine cuisine tasting menus at Richmond Hill Inn, an executive chef position at Nova, and a three year-stint as chef de cuisine at Miller Union back in Atlanta. The great hopscotch between North Carolina and Georgia finally ended when Burdett and his wife took over Ruka’s Table in Highlands, North Carolina, where he explores local flavors and ingredients (with immediate critical acclaim). Among many accolades, the Southern Foodways Alliance member took first place on “Chopped” in 2010, and was nominated for “People’s Best Chef, Southeast” by Food & Wine in 2013.

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Interview with 2013 Carolinas Rising Star Chef Justin Burdett


Dan Catinella: What inspired you to cook professionally?

Justin Burdett: My nanny and my grandmother when I was really, really little. She raised five kids by herself, an old-school Southern lady. She would prop me up at this tiny table at her kitchen. I would help her make biscuits. I started cooking in kitchens 15 years ago. I was 14, and it was a barbecue place—One's BBQ. I washed dishes for about a month before they finally let me work the fryer. I eventually worked my way through mom-and-pop places while living in Athens.

DC: Do you recommend culinary school for aspiring cooks?

JB: I didn't go, and I personally don't recommend it. I think you can get more experience just doing it. I think culinary school can skew your experience of what really goes on. I wouldn't say the same thing to everyone though—to each their own. I'm not a school person though, and I know it wouldn’t have worked out for me. You get what you put into it.

DC: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?

JB: I want to make food that is very modern Southern. My main philosophy on food is knowing where everything I serve comes from and I think ultimately, the standard practice of everyone should be to use good animals. I like really modern technique and plating and have a very heavy Southern influence. It’s also important to have quality over quantity. It’s one thing to push high volume numbers, but I feel like it’s so easy for quality to start slipping. I’d much rather worry about filling seats and having a product that I’m totally proud of.

DC: What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do in your career?

JB: I did the show "Chopped" on the Food Network. I ended up winning, which was good, but it was extremely stressful. The most difficult thing though is the lifestyle that comes from working in a restaurant. It’s difficult rarely seeing my wife and kid. It’s tough.

DC: How would you describe your style?

JB: The style we try to do is still pulling Southern flavors but keeping things very modern and having the modern aspects of texture and plating come through. I think a lot of it is trying to show some restraint in cooking. When I was younger I wanted to put as many things on the plate as I could, and now I’m realizing just a few things done well speak volumes more than a ton of elements that are mediocre.

DC: What's your proudest accomplishment to date?

JB: Having a kid has been a super proud moment. Professionally? Being recognized by Food & Wine. I was one of a hundred in the country that was nominated for "People’s Best New Chef." I hope if I’m on the list again, I’ll win.

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