Justin Burke-Samson

Nostalgic desserts, the kind you would find at a church potluck, are getting modern makeovers in Cornelius, N.C. 

Jenn Rice
January 17, 2018

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my mom baking pineapple upside-down cake. And by “baking” I mean dumping a box of Jiffy Golden Yellow Cake Mix, butter, canned pineapple chunks and a few other ingredients into a square pan for a few minutes, then dumping it upside down on a serving plate. It was beautiful. 

At Hello, Sailor in Cornelius, North Carolina, one of the South’s most talked-about new restaurants (it can best be described as a hip fish camp with Palm Springs vibes), lowbrow desserts are making a comeback thanks to pastry chef Justin Burke-Samson. Burke-Samson, who also concocts desserts at Kindred, its sister restaurant down the road in Davidson, anticipates these simple styles of sweets to blow up in 2018. “What we’re doing is looking back through our younger years and getting inspired by nostalgia, then giving it a chef driven makeover,” he says.

To qualify as a lowbrow dessert, Burke-Samson says the dish must be able to be executed at home by anyone. “In a professional kitchen, we use all sorts of techniques to develop flavor and compose a dish—but as someone who started as an at-home baker and has no formal training, I know the importance of staying true to my roots," he says. "For me, lowbrow is seeing a classic dessert with a makeover—seeing it executed differently but giving you the same memorable flavors and feels.”

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These desserts also fall into the foolproof category, meaning they don’t have to be perfect to taste good. “We’re talking a makeover, not plastic surgery,” he says. “It’s the hybrid of comfort bakers and fine-dining pastry chefs—that’s where I fit in; I’m in the middle taking both extremes and bringing it together.”

The "lowbrow approach" to pastry is alive and thriving because that's what diners are asking for. “Everyone wants to be a good cook or baker, but do not want to spend hours in the kitchen or feel inferior to what they are eating when out because of its complexity,” he says. “So, as chefs we’re hearing that and adjusting what we’re doing too, making food approachable and familiar but still pushing the boundaries of our own creativity.

Here, Burke-Samson takes us through five of his all-time favorite lowbrow desserts.

Poke Cake

After adding a stunning slice of German chocolate poke cake on Hello, Sailor’s menu (it sells out instantly each time it’s available, by the way), Burke-Samson’s certain that poke cake is going to flood menus this year. “It was a challenge to put a poke cake on a menu—I mean, it’s not the sexiest thing around,” he says. “I wanted a dessert that honored the mid-century vibes of the interior and a dessert that I could change its flavor profile easily but still be a poke cake. [It’s] one of the proudest things I’ve made in my career—it’s nothing you would expect.”

Fried Hand Pies

To clear up any confusion, baked hand pies and fried hand pies are two completely different ballgames. “Baked hand pies have been blowing up the scene in the past year—but fried, oh man, that’s on a whole new level,” he says. “That’s old-school fast food right there. We make ours obnoxiously big, like gas station fried hand pie size. The filling changes bi-weekly and is fried in beef fat and tossed in a sugar and salt mixture. Served warm with vanilla soft serve.”

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Dirt Cups

Dirt cups—cups of crushed Oreos with chocolate pudding and gummy worms—is a nostalgic dessert Burke-Samson crushed as a kid at Tony Roma’s in the mall that’s about to hit the kid’s menu at Hello, Sailor. Beach Cups, his modern version, will come complete with cake crumbs, chocolate mousse soft serve, toasted meringue, graham cracker teddy bears, gummy sharks and an umbrella. “It’s the works,” he says.

Upside-Down Cake

Pineapple upside-down cake is a recipe that can be tweaked with so many different ingredient combos, including rock fruit, which Burke-Samson currently loves. “My favorite to-date that we did was a blueberry masa upside-down cake served with crème fraiche ice cream,” he says.

Icebox Cakes and Pies

“You don’t get simpler than these bad boys,” he says, of the church potluck staple—a mouthwatering dessert consisting of cookies, ice cream and/or whipped cream in layers for cakes and as a crust and filling for pie. “I’m seeing them pop up here and there, thinking they are on the rise,” he says. Right now, he’s playing around with a lemon mascarpone icebox cake crafted with hazelnut shortbread, lemon curd, mascarpone-frozen custard, pomegranate preserves and candied thyme at Kindred. “It’s sliced so you can see all the layers inside, it’s very mosaic. The colors are stunning, its super nostalgic and comforting, but at the same time pushing our creative juices and refined to the max.”