The master biscuit baker on cooking as conduit to the ancestors.
By Chris Scott as told to Carla Thomas
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.
Chris Scott is chef-owner of Butterfunk Biscuit Co. in New York. His biscuits earned him a semifinalist spot on Top Chef among other accolades. He’s currently a contestant on The Great Soul Food Cookoff.
The Butterfunk Biscuit Co. Soho location was first, and that was a ghost kitchen. We started around January of 2021 when indoor dining hadn’t really come back. The ghost kitchen was our way to try and generate business for ourselves, for our employees, and keep everybody working, as well as giving a product out to the community.
A ghost kitchen is basically a warehouse where you pretty much have just enough space to walk into the door and up to the front counter. It took a lot of marketing because you could walk by it on the street, and you wouldn’t even know it’s in there because there’s no storefront. It’s an actual warehouse where delivery people pull up, get the food, and take it to you.
When we first told the public about the ghost kitchen, they thought, “Oh wow, it’s just like a restaurant.” People were driving in from Brooklyn, from Queens, from parts of Manhattan thinking they could get in. We were getting close to 50, 60 people a day thinking it was a restaurant, but then they would get there and sit on the curb, sit on the stoop, sit in their car, hang out in front, and just eat. It was kind of nice to see that people still wanted to come out, and still wanted to support us.
The uptown location has been in the works for about three years, and we were supposed to move in sooner rather than later, but COVID put a pause on that. Once indoor dining came back into play, construction finished at the uptown location. And then we moved in right around the 4th of July. Business has been good. It’s not as gangbusters as we would like it to be, because COVID still exists and people are still very careful, but that has forced us to take that hustle kind of mentality and go to where the business is.
You really got to hustle. When you have a family and mouths to feed, you really got to chase that money—chase whatever it takes to keep your business going. Not just for yourself, but for your employees and for your community as well. At the end of the day, we all got to eat, so you have to find ways to bring the business to you.
That ghost kitchen worked. I’ve been doing a lot of demonstrations and biscuit pop-ups at different high schools. I’m doing one at the Soho House down on the Lower East Side. We’re trying to get into the Ace Hotel and the Essex Market. This is all to generate more business for our uptown location. And then hopefully we can have a few of the demos here in the restaurant as well. But you just got to know that hustle and keep doing it, keep grinding.
Teaching has always been one of my things. Doing this biscuit demo, it’s so much more than just a demonstration where you’re throwing on your apron and having fun. I’m talking about bread being made with brown hands. I’m talking about breads from different brown countries such as Mexico and India.
The one thing about my spot in particular is that I make it about the food, and the story behind the food. What I’m doing, it’s four generations of this particular biscuit passed down to me from my ancestors. And I’m all about talking about that and the history of Black people and baking in general. So when you come, you’re really tasting and experiencing a culture. You get the backstory, you get some of the family history, and the Black experience.
Every single time that I make biscuits, I’m always thinking about my ancestors and the conversations in the kitchen—about life and love and joy and pain and gossip. The one thing about the pandemic and with baking, it was all about getting on this sourdough kick. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love sourdough. I think that it’s great. It has a lot of science behind it. But it made me think, why is it that when we think about bread, our minds immediately go towards a lot of Eurocentric breads? Why don’t we think about injera, why don’t we think about roti, why don’t we think about biscuits and cornbread? Why don’t we think about breads that are made with brown hands that were made on la planche, baked in clay ovens, baked in the ground, the way that our ancestors did?
A lot of people are going to want to come to my place and learn baking with Black and African-American undertones. When they leave, not only do they know the dish, but they know the culture behind the dish. They know why this type of food or this dish is important to the culture. The same way pasta is to Italians, the same way butter sauces are to the French, people are going to learn our style and learn what we do in the kitchen. It’s just as important as learning something in a French kitchen or German kitchen or an Italian kitchen.