Charleston, South Carolina is a glorious blend of historic architecture and grand old gardens, horse-drawn carriages and quiet cobbled streets, water views and brick-lined strolling paths. But perhaps one of the finest things about Charleston is its growing food scene. Cutting edge trends, urban locales, and charming restaurants are tucked into former industrial spaces and quaint historic homes.
Just across the street from the carriage works, where some of the city’s horses rest and recover, sits a lovely single house with a wide, welcoming porch and tables outside. The home has been transformed into the setting for a very special dining experience. Enter Cru Café with its tall ceilings and timeworn heart pine floors. This award-winning restaurant is the brainchild of Executive Chef/Owner John Zucker, where an open kitchen beckons diners with amazing aromas and waiters transport plates of inventive and beautifully prepared seasonal dishes.
I asked Chef Zucker to chat with me about the inspiration behind Cru Café and Catering. He’s active in the nonprofit community and was recently named Vice President of Charleston Chefs Feed the Need, and his expertise makes him a sought-after restaurant consultant.
Michelle: The menu at Cru Café is a blend of Asian delicacies, fresh local seafood, seasonal produce, and grilled meats. You refer to this as Eclectic Modern American Cuisine. How did this mélange come together?
Chef Zucker: I wanted to be versatile with our offerings. I was classically French trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and also trained at Spago Las Vegas. The type of cuisine we were producing at Spago was all over the board. It was always based on the ingredients available at the time. I also wanted to follow suit but it became clear that changing the menu daily was not going to work for us.
Michelle: How did your menu at Cru Café evolve?
Chef Zucker: We went to seasonal changes. I always thought that if I was to go into a restaurant for dinner I would be more likely to return if different well-prepared, fresh, ethnic choices were available. It seems the trend to go to a smaller menu, and this has worked for us. We focus on only fresh local ingredients. That was put into my head from the start of my career and we will never waiver.
Michelle: How do you maintain your commitment to using fresh and local foods?
Chef Zucker: Our philosophy is to use only the freshest ingredients. ALWAYS. Nothing frozen (except a few seasonal items).
Michelle: So do you prepare many foods in advance?
Chef Zucker: All of our food is made to order. That means we can run out of certain items in a day to help assure the freshest possible ingredients every time. We only prep what we will utilize in that day and all parts of the product we utilize get used in something. (Check out a sample menu here.)
Michelle: I applaud your commitment to using a single ingredient in multiple ways to get the most from your food. You’ve been a local and critical favorite restaurant since 2002, yet you continue to push the envelope. What’s next on the Cru Café horizon?
Chef Zucker: We are currently working on growing our catering company and making sure we keep our level of consistency throughout our growth. I am always looking for another possible restaurant location but in the past the location usually came to me and I would know if it was a good fit immediately. You need to have that warm fuzzy feeling from the get go.
Michelle: From my perspective, your food was inventive and delicious – I will definitely return. I enjoyed both the cru burrata and the peaches n cream, while my dinner companion enjoyed the Thai Seafood Risotto. Can you tell me a few details about the food that I might include? Were the ingredients local?
Chef Zucker: Some of our ingredients are local. Of course anyone who says that they use only local ingredients year round I would question. I know Husk is probably one of the few that can actually say that because there concept is based on 100% southeast product. We do our best based on or current menu to get local product.
Michelle: You offer visitors to your restaurant a truly wonderful and intimate dining experience. In fact, when I visited, a couple made a standing weekly reservation to ensure their place at your table. That’s impressive!
Chef Zucker: I’m glad you enjoyed everything! We try to always make a bit of a twist on original menu items to keep it interesting. Fresh, fresh, fresh. We live and die by it.
Comfort served daily. It’s the Cru Café motto, and it’s the truth.
18 Pinckney Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Stay tuned to Savor the Salt for an amazing recipe. Coming up soon will be Executive Chef John Zucker’s Thai Seafood Risotto.