The "Top Chef" star's new Birdman concept pays tribute to an unsung character of plantation life.
When Chef Chris Scott was introduced to Top Chef viewers on season 15 of the Bravo reality competition, he described his style using the ear-pricking moniker "Amish Soul Food." With roots in the South and an upbringing near Pennsylvania Dutch country, Scott blended the folk cuisines of both cultures, finding both commonalities and opportunities for each to enhance the other. However, to me and my neighbors in Brooklyn's Windsor Terrace neighborhood, the concept was far from foreign as in 2017 Scott and his wife and business partner Eugenie Woo opened Butterfunk Kitchen which featured a menu of many staple dishes Top Chef fans would become familiar with (those brown sugar buttermilk biscuits!). Additionally, Scott and Woo converted their adjoining 8-year-old casual breakfast and brunch spot Brooklyn Commune into the Sumner's Luncheonette to keep the scrapple and chow-chow coming out all day long.
Sadly, at the end of last year, we were informed that both Butterfunk and Sumner's would be closing their doors for good. In a note posted on the entrance, Scott partially blamed rising real estate prices in the quiet, family-friendly corner of the borough for his departure. But there was also a silver lining: Scott and Woo would be setting up shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut — not far from the home base of season 15 alum Tyler Anderson — with a new concept. Last weekend, Birdman Juke Joint — a "Southern-style chicken shack" — popped up at Anderson's The Cook and the Bear in West Hartford to give the public a taste of what the forthcoming restaurant will offer. I emailed my former neighbor and frequent morning dog walk run-in to explain the story behind his new venture.
Adam Campbell-Schmitt: What is the story behind the name "Birdman?"
Chris Scott: The Birdman was the individual who tended to the birds on the plantation during the antebellum slavery era and once slavery was abolished, the Birdman became his own boss and used his chicken husbandry skills to raise himself out of poverty by becoming a chicken merchant and farmer.
ACS: What is the concept of the restaurant?
CS: The concept is based on legendary chicken shacks that you would find in the south such as Hattie B's or Prince's Hot Chicken or Todd Richard's Chicken Place. It will showcase fried and smoked chicken as well as classic Southern side dishes based on Southern agriculture.
ACS: What will the menu look like? What dishes are you most excited about sharing?
CS: I think I'm most excited about the desserts... imagine all of your favorite classic Southern desserts spun into soft serve ice cream. Peach cobbler soft serve, buttermilk cornbread soft serve, just to name a few.
ACS: How will Birdman differ from Butterfunk/Sumner's? Is "Amish Soul Food" still in the mix?
CS: Just like Butterfunk spoke about family tradition and the history of my culinary culture, Birdman will also tell a story about the life of the Birdman — how they raised themselves out of poverty simply by doing what they did.... raise chickens.
ACS: Family history was a huge part of Butterfunk, how do you plan to incorporate your heritage into Birdman?
CS: I will have pieces of my personal story incorporated into Birdman. There are some Butterfunk dishes that are also on Birdman's menu such as the Deviled Eggs, the nationally acclaimed Brown Sugar Buttermilk Biscuits, and others. Those dishes and the family history will follow.
ACS: Why did you make the move to Connecticut?
CS: The original idea was to go to Philadelphia — that's where I'm from (Coatesville, PA) — but things were extremely expensive. The liquor license alone was $275K. My partners are from Connecticut so we tried the concept out there instead. It's much cheaper.
ACS: What is the culinary scene like in Bridgeport, as you see it?
CS: From what I've seen so far, Bridgeport has some legendary restaurants. We hope to make our mark and be amongst the greats in the state of Connecticut.
ACS: How have your fellow Top Chef alums been supporting you in getting Birdman off the ground?
CS: Tyler has gone above and beyond in every way possible in supporting our success. He even hosted the very first pop-up at his restaurant The Cook and the Bear, which sold out in 30 minutes. Brother Luck has gone to the airwaves and speaks regularly about Birdman.
ACS: If you’re willing to talk about it, what was it like visiting Fatima Ali with some of the season 15 crew? (Editor's Note: Ali passed away while this interview was in progress.)
CS: I always say, whoever was in charge of selecting the 15 of us for our season of Top Chef should win a Nobel Peace Prize. We certainly have a cosmic connection and we truly feel that were on this earth to make a difference. When we went out to visit Fatima we basically dropped everything going on in our personal and professional lives and headed to her bedside. It was certainly an entire host of emotions, but it was something else to see Fati again and how even in the state she was in she exuded love and power and wisdom and the deepest sense of worldly spirituality. We miss her. And she lives in all of us. Together we will continue to shout her name and her voice to the world. Fati had a story to tell, and as her friends, we'll help to get that story heard.
ACS: I know a lot of your former neighbors (including me) are bummed that you had to close up shop in Windsor Terrace, but let’s hear your best sales pitch: Why should we all make the drive up to Bridgeport?
CS: Birdman is from a real place. The Birdman was a real person. It's not about "gentrified" soul food. People know me for bringing truth to my food. They know me for being honest about who I am. If you are interested in eating real heritage cooking with authentic flavors... I'm not hard to find.
ACS: Do you have any other projects or concepts up your sleeve or in the works already?
CS: I'll be speaking next month at Manhattan College during Black History Month, I was recently appointed to the Culinary board of the NYC Food Bank, and I'm collaborating with ICE culinary school, setting up a curriculum on the Birdman.
Birdman Juke Joint (2931 Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport, CT) is set to open in late February or March of 2019.