A Virginia chef shares her passion for food with her community in mind
Words by Nicole Letts
Photos by Jennifer Chase
Joy Crump’s path to becoming a chef wasn’t an expected one. Raised as a self-described realist, practicality was top of mind when it came to choosing a career. Crump was an English major, a degree that would have helped her in any variety of fields. However, after the death of her father, Crump found herself at a crossroads. She could continue down that pragmatic path, or she could chase a life driven by passion and her heart’s desire to open a restaurant. She chose the latter. “My dad had a few mantras. [One of them was] to regret the things that you do, not the things you don't do [adapted from Mark Twain],” she recalls. “So when he died, it gave me permission to give it a try.”
Practical as always, Crump took the traditional path to restaurant ownership. She went to culinary school at The Art Institute of Atlanta, accepted the occasional after-work cooking jobs alongside experienced chefs such as Virginia Willis, and eventually landed at Woodfire Grill, working first for chef Michael Tuohy and later for fellow Top Chef alumnus, Kevin Gillespie. Each stepping stone gave her an extra boost of confidence in her skill. Today, Crump helms FOODE (pronounced food-ee) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Here, she speaks about her path to success, her holiday traditions, and the future of the food industry.
What are some of your oldest memories of cooking?
My parents were divorced right after I was born, and all I ever knew was my parents lived in two different cities. My dad lived in Atlanta, my mom was in Pennsylvania. My parents stayed incredible friends, and it was really important for them to keep the family together. We made a point of getting together for all of our birthdays and every single holiday. Cooking was just very centric in that activity because we spent all of the money to get on a plane and get to each other, so we didn't have a lot left over to go out and do things. It was always about cooking to celebrate being together. Cooking is always synonymous to me with gathering. That tradition remains to this day. We get together every Thanksgiving. It's just our touchstone. We cook, and we eat for days. It’s everything to us.
You touched on how food plays a role in your celebrations, but what is one item that's always on your holiday menu?
Gratitude. Then after that, fried chicken. We always have fried chicken. Always, always, always. So, we also always have the traditional stuff such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and macaroni and cheese. But then we also have unique dishes too. My brother's wife is Puerto Rican, so we'll have pulled pork and pigeon peas. My sister's husband is white and from the Northwest, so we'll have seafood and other cold water foods. My other brother's wife is Mexican, so we’ll have really cool empanadas. It's like a cruise ship buffet!
You’re pretty well known for your fried chicken, and I know it's a special part of your menu at FOODE. What makes it stand out so much?
It’s the method of the how and the why, not just the ingredients. It's based on my mom's recipe because the original didn’t really translate into restaurant cooking. But all the emotion behind it, and the steps that you go through to get it done, is exactly the same. It’s listening to it and hearing the sound of the oil and watching the color after you pull it out gradually get darker. It’s that stuff that I remember her telling me so clearly. I'd say, “Is it time to turn it yet?” And she'd be like, “Just listen. Calm down.” And so I learned to hear it too.
What tip would you give home cooks for making the perfect fried chicken?
I like to use darker pieces because they’re more forgiving. You've got a little bit more time with it before it becomes a dry chicken breast. Experiment with darker pieces if you're trying to get some of those things right. And don't overthink it. My mom would season the chicken, like top and bottom with Lawry’s and pepper. Then she'd shake it in a paper bag with flour, and then it would go right from the paper bag to the pan. It was not a lot of brining and marinating and blah, blah, blah, blah. It was cheap. It was plentiful. It filled you up, and it was delicious. That's why we loved it.
What does Southern food mean to you? How does your food embrace Southern heritage in a contemporary way?
Number one, I give myself and my chefs a lot of freedom, even when it comes to defining the region. I consider the South as not just the southeastern part of the United States. I feel like it's really the South of every region, right? So it's all the way from the east to the west to the south. I love California cooking. I love Mexican cooking with fire on food and fresh vegetables. I love southern France, and I love southern Italy and its emphasis on whole animal and whole vegetable.
I have one chef who's just bananas over Asian food, so I let him do Asian food, as long as it feels like it has that Southern flare. To me, that’s trying to make something special out of a little bit. Because people are always freaking poor in the South, so you have to be creative and inventive. You don't just throw away the stems of your collard greens; you chop them up, and you pickle 'em, and then that goes into a relish. Nothing goes in the trash.
The second thing is that I work hard to stay in touch with what people want. My staff is made up of younger people, and I count on them so much to tell me what they are looking for when they're gonna part with 30 bucks.
So what is today’s diner looking for?
When Beth [Black] and I started the restaurant, we wanted the consumer to understand the connection between the food and where it came from. It was very commonplace in Atlanta at the time, but it wasn't here. So, our effort was to make them understand that when you’re on the highway, you likely passed that farm. It helped them understand why our menu changed so frequently, or why we didn't have an ingredient one day that we had the day before. Now I think what people are looking for is to see a connection between the food that they eat, the place it comes from, and the good in the world. I think that they need to understand what the company that they're buying from is doing. Our platform has always been community, and I think that's why our staff is younger. They see what we're doing in the community, and they want to be a part of it. They want to help us be a part of it. To them, it’s less about what's on your menu, and more about how your culture surrounds your business.
If you could host dinner with three people, past or present, who would you invite and what would you serve?
I would invite my mom and my dad because they're both gone, and I would invite Beth. She's my business partner and my favorite person on the planet. I think that would be a super fun group of four people. I would serve fried chicken, something Asian, and something vegan. Fried chicken for my mom, so we could argue about whose is better. At the time my dad died, he was obsessed with Asian culture. I would serve something vegan because Beth is vegan.