15 Minutes With: John Zucker

“15 Minutes with: John Zucker” 

by Hailey Middlebrook
Charleston Magazine

After 15 years of winning over locals with creative comfort food, the owner of Cru Café and Catering is eager to test-drive the kitchen at his new French-inspired restaurant.

CM: You’re originally from the West Coast, right?
 I grew up in Los Angeles, which is where my family still lives. But after living here for 21 years—I’m currently on James Island—I consider myself a local. I’ve formed my own pseudo-family, and they offer tons of support.

CM: What first brought you to town?
I helped open Atlanta’s Canoe restaurant in 1995, then worked as a consultant for other restaurant openings, including Charleston’s Sonoma Wine Bar [where the now-shuttered King Street Grille was located downtown] in 1996. After that, I fell in love with the city and decided it was going to be my home.

CM: Have you always been a chef?
I didn’t start cooking until I was 28, when I was living in Breckenridge, Colorado. Obviously, cooking in a ski town is a bit different than most places. I lived there for six years, working in two kitchens, and that sparked my interest in the restaurant business. Later, I went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

CM: What prompted you to start your first biz, Cru Café and Catering?
Catering was an area in Charleston that didn’t have a lot of competition—there weren’t many people doing high-end food—so we started Cru here in 2000. Since then, we’ve been voted best caterer in the area nearly every year. The café opened soon after, in 2002.

CM: You have a sought-after catering company and café and now a new restaurant, Purlieu. How do you manage it all?
That’s the biggest obstacle I’m facing right now—making sure that my other companies are operating smoothly. I’m still staying involved with all of the businesses.

CM: What inspired Purlieu?
Cru Café got really busy, and people were calling saying they couldn’t get a seat. I wanted to make sure that locals had an avenue to have our food and service without having to stress about making reservations. And I wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant; no white tablecloths. People refer to Cru as their second home; we want to create that chemistry here, too.

CM: What’s the vibe like?
We designed it like a bathtub, with tile on the floors and walls. There’s a small dining room and a counter, like Cru, where you can watch the kitchen staff. Usually, people come in Cru, and they’re like, “No, I don’t want to look into the kitchen.” But then they love it. They typically don’t talk to each other if they sit up there.

CM: Will the menu be similar to Cru’s?
 We’re still doing upscale comfort food, but with French technique. Since I was trained in Paris, I’m leaning more towards French-inspired food, but I don’t want to restrict myself to that.

CM: What’s your favorite part about owning a restaurant?
 I love the excitement of feeding people! I’d been missing that at the café, because I wasn’t in the kitchen as much as I used to be. I’m hoping to get back on the line and cook more at Purlieu.

CM: Where can we find you outside of the kitchen?
 In the summer, I’m either driving in my convertible or out on the water. I was taught a long time ago that it’s best to have a friend with a boat—but don’t quote me on that, or else I’ll never be back on it.

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