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by Sara Bavar
"The essence of the beautiful is unity in the variety."
~ W. Somerset Maugham
Facing adversity at every corner, Butts turned his naysayers into believers through innovative techniques and determination. As a staple in the Atlanta food scene and through his work as a mentor to the next generation of Black chefs making a name for themselves, Butts is changing the narrative on diversity within the industry.
DLISH had the pleasure of speaking with Chef Butts about his culinary journey, the changing face of the food industry, as well as his new adventure in entertainment.
Sara Bavar: You grew up in a food family. Can you tell us what that was like?
Robert Butts: Basically, my family was big on food. They weren't professional chefs at all. It was more like getting together for the holidays and having conversations over food while enjoying stories – we were really big on that. Food brought us together. So that's how I fell in love with food. I used to watch my mom and my grandma cook, but I wasn't allowed in the kitchen because, you know, it was the women that cooked and the guys would be watching TV. They're playing games, of course drinking their bourbon and brandy, playing Domino's, stuff like that. So, I would watch the cooking from afar, and then over time, I got my chance to cook.
Brown Butter Seared Scallops
SB: How old were you when you first started cooking?
RB: I was nine years old, and it was Thanksgiving. I decide to make something new for my family, so I made this noodle dish. I didn't drain the water out and added mustard and pickles – it was disgusting, but they tried it anyway, and they got sick.
After that, no one trusted me to cook again until I was in high school, where I took home ed instead of woodshop. There I started to learn dishes and make it for my teammates in basketball, and everyone liked my cooking. It was the joy on their faces when they would eat and really savor the food that I loved.
SB: What was culinary school in Charlotte like for you?
RB: I went to the Art Institute of Charlotte and the program was amazing, but I felt like I there was more to learn so I decided to go backpacking through Europe for a year and a half. I ended up staying in the south of France in Villeneuvette and Clermont, where I worked at Hotel de la Source under Chef Morgan. This was probably one of the most life-changing experiences for me, mainly because of my love for food. But what they taught me was about the beauty of food, the passion of food - we would go to the garden every morning, and the Chef would hand me a tomato and say, "you must make three things with this tomato." Today, I can say that I really owe my very simple style to my French training.
After my experience in France, I moved back to Atlanta and started working in different types of restaurants – from the hole in the wall spots to fine dining.
Citrus Cilantro Marinade Beef Rib
SB: What do you want your patrons to take away when they eat your food?
RB: When you eat at my restaurant, it is an experience; it's a vibe. I am a person who lives on vibes. Everyone is going to come in and feel like friends. When you buy my food, it is very comfortable, and by the time you are done with it, you are going to be so satisfied. I always come out and talk to everyone because you are coming to my house. You are not a customer; you are a friend and a guest.
SB: You have mentioned in other interviews that you had a lot of doubters on your culinary journey. Who were the doubters in your life?
RB: Mostly, my family and friends. I initially got my bachelor's in international relations and a minor in broadcasting. I was working in the news, and I wasn't enjoying it; the only thing that made me happy was cooking. So, I decided I would quit my job and go to culinary school. Everybody thought it was the dumbest thing I could do, and my mom kept trying to discourage me. Everyone was telling me not to do it. I lost a lot of friends as a result. A lot of people didn't believe in me, even when I started posting about my food, everyone kept making comments saying things like, "that looks ok, I don't think he is going to make it," stuff like that.
One person I was working with even said, "Robert, I suggest you quit now because you aren't going to make it in this industry." But I am the type of person who says if I am going to do something, I am going to see it through. They didn't see the vision that I saw.
Things began to change little by little, and I started to meet amazing chefs and had unforgettable experiences. I got to run my own kitchens, I won the Taste of Atlanta a few times and overtime all those people began to look at me and say, "Congratulations, I knew you could do it."
SB: How are you adjusting since COVID?
RB: Right now, I am doing a lot of freelance work and helping out other chefs. I have a food studio called Food & Lifestyle TV, in which a network of chefs and I get together and do fun, live videos of us cooking, doing battles, and discussing menus. It's a strong network of minority chefs coming together, helping each other learn, and getting better at their trait. We help each other out with catering, pop-ups, and private dinners as well.
Crisp Porkbelly Fettuccine Carbonara Pasta
SB: When do you think we will be going back to the traditional restaurant space?
RB: I don't believe restaurants will never be as traditional as they once were. There has to be a new type of thing because we live in a new normal. I do see myself going back to a restaurant again, but it will be different. We still have the drive and passion, but now we have to be more inventive.
SB: What about the supply chain? Are you looking to be more sustainable?
RB: We are working with a lot of farms in metro Atlanta now. We have Zeke's Farms and Soul Greens, all young and upcoming entrepreneurs for our products, and we are working directly with farmers now when it comes to protein. It has made it more fun; it is all about taking on a new type of skill, understanding farming, and the process to actually grow your food. It makes you appreciate it more. Now we build off of each other in different ways and support one another locally.
SB: What's the ultimate goal for you?
RB: My overall goal is to have my own restaurant one day – a barbeque, southern bistro called Black Smoke. I will have my little hole-in-the-wall spot where we only sell chicken wings and fun stuff that I grew up eating. But most importantly, I would like to spread my knowledge because many African American chefs are not trained, so I see myself as a mentor or teacher for the next generation. I know when I was coming up, even though I was good, so many of these chefs just wouldn't give me a chance. Even when it comes to festivals, people assume we don't know what we are doing because we are black. We have try double as hard, if not triple as hard because you have to prove yourself. That's why it is so important to have a strong community.
I have earned my accolades now. It's time to give back to the next generation.
Click here to learn more of Chef Robert Butts work.