Raleigh chef Scott Crawford’s leadership style is rooted in his own health scare

Chef Scott Crawford, left, samples a dish with help from Gray Maddrey in the kitchen at his Raleigh restaurant, Crawford and Son, on Dec. 7, 2016.
Chef Scott Crawford, left, samples a dish with help from Gray Maddrey in the kitchen at his Raleigh restaurant, Crawford and Son, on Dec. 7, 2016.

It’s a few hours before dinner service on a Wednesday at Raleigh’s Crawford and Son restaurant. Massage therapist Araina Nolls has set up her portable massage chair a few steps from the kitchen door.

One by one, the waitstaff and bartenders take their turns getting a 10-minute massage, each sighing as Nolls works out the kinks in their shoulders, necks and upper backs. Nolls planned to return the following week to give massages to the line cooks, pastry chef and dishwashers.

It’s an unusual perk at an independently-owned restaurant, most of which don’t offer health benefits and are known for hard work and long hours that can take a toll on the body.

This wasn’t the first time that Crawford and Son staff got such treatment. During the first week the restaurant was open in November, chef and owner Scott Crawford arranged for his chiropractor to come before service and adjust the spine of any staffer who wanted a treatment.

“I know the service after the adjustments was great. The energy was great and energy is important,” Crawford told his managers at a December staff meeting when he explained that eventually both the chiropractor and massage therapist would come once a month. He noted that this is one way to compensate staff when he cannot yet afford to offer them health insurance.

Crawford’s efforts today to help his staff be healthy are directly related to a health crisis he experienced about 15 years ago ago, which he has only recently begun talking about publicly.

Crawford, 44, is a well-known chef in the Southeast and beyond. He made headlines recently for refusing to serve The Indy’s restaurant critic, citing her previous coverage as unfair and unprofessional. The critic and her editors defended her work and qualifications for the job. While people can argue over whether Crawford should have served the critic, his professional credentials are not up for debate.

Crawford is a four-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast. He’s twice helped luxury hotel restaurants earn five stars from Mobil (now Forbes) Travel Guides, most recently at the Umstead Hotel in Cary. (A five-star rating, according to Forbes, means: “these are outstanding, often iconic properties with virtually flawless service and amazing facilities.”) Crawford also was once named among the top 100 chefs in America by Esquire magazine’s longtime national dining critic John Mariani.

“I rank him up there not only in North Carolina but up and down the East Coast – if not the country,” said John Childers, executive sous chef at the Umstead, where he worked with Crawford. “He cooks that well and leads people like he deeply cares about them and that’s rare.”

Bent on being the best

Crawford grew up in Meadville, a small town in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. His family owned a saw mill and machine shop, where he learned his work ethic and got the inspiration for his restaurant’s name. After high school, he moved to Florida, worked in restaurants and attended a small culinary school there.

By 2000, Crawford found himself working at the Ritz-Carlton resort on Florida’s Amelia Island, first in a high-volume casual eatery and then in the fine-dining restaurant. He developed a reputation for being an intense, demanding chef. In his kitchen, each pot had to be turned a certain way. He would don a clean apron before going out to thank diners for coming. His former employees say he had high expectations, pushed them to achieve and made them better chefs.

During this time, Crawford said he worked hard (16-hour days, occasional all-nighters) and played hard (cocaine and alcohol). His health began to suffer. He started losing weight, got down to 150 pounds on his 6-foot-1-inch frame. He was twice hospitalized, once asking the resort’s security guard to drive him to the emergency room.

“I just remember part of it was self-induced. I was so hell bent on being the best. We also were in a culture that asked that of us, but didn’t necessarily give us the tools,” Crawford said. “... Between the alcoholism, the drug abuse, malnourishment, stress and sleep deprivation, my body just had enough.”

Doctors ended up diagnosing Crawford, then 30, with a variety of Type 1 diabetes, which means the body does not produce insulin. This subset of Type 1 diabetes shows up later in life and can be caused by lifestyle choices, Crawford said his doctors told him. For the rest of his life, Crawford will have to monitor his blood glucose levels, take up to six shots of insulin a day, exercise and watch what he eats. Left untreated, diabetes can cause vision loss, kidney disease, nerve damage and heart disease.

Steven Devereaux Greene, who first met Crawford around 2001, watched his friend struggle with the diagnosis. “He was unhealthy with his diabetes and not taking care of himself,” said Greene, now executive chef at the Umstead. “Once he quit, his health and his mindset changed a lot. His focus changed a lot.”

But first there were missteps and denial. When Crawford started giving himself insulin, he said he didn’t know how much to inject, would occasionally take too much and pass out in the kitchen. His line cooks would run to fetch him juice. It also took him awhile to admit he was an addict. But the stakes were getting higher since he had left the Ritz-Carlton for the Woodlands Resort and Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property in Summerville, S.C., and he didn’t want to screw up this opportunity.

“My brother told me I was going to die,” Crawford said. “The next day, I walked into a (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting.”

A few months later, Crawford said one of his friends, a diabetic with a cocaine habit, died.

Crawford, who now mentors recovering addicts, is comfortable talking about his addiction because he hopes it will help others, especially in the restaurant industry. He said, “If I’m going to impact the next generation then I have to be honest about what occurred with me.”

Finding balance

In 2006, he was hired to open the Georgian Room, a fine-dining restaurant at The Cloister Hotel on Georgia’s Sea Island, with the aim to earn a Mobil five-star rating. Crawford was upfront with his staff about the challenges he faced, checking his blood sugar often, injecting insulin in his leg when needed while in the kitchen, taking time to eat handfuls of pecans or chicken breast and steamed vegetables.

“Over the three years we were together in the Georgian Room, he went from somebody who was really struggling to someone who figured it out,” said chef Daniel Zeal, who worked alongside Crawford at the time.

Crawford and his team would end up earning a Mobil five-star rating for the Georgian Room, becoming at the time one of only 21 such restaurants in the country.

Three years later, Crawford was hired away by Ann Goodnight, whose husband, James, owns SAS, the software analytics firm in Cary. The Goodnights had opened the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary in 2007, but the hotel had seen three executive chefs in two years. Crawford was hired to right the ship and help Herons, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, achieve Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond awards for the first time.

During his five years at the Umstead, Crawford figured out how to take care of his health as well as balance family and work. (He and his wife, Jessica, had a son, Jiles, 9, and a daughter, Jolie, 6.) He ran on the treadmill, went to the chiropractor and a massage therapist and watched what he ate. He hiked with his family on his days off. The family’s morning routine was sacrosanct: She made breakfast. He packed lunches. The family hung out together before school.

“We try really hard to make it a good morning,” Crawford said. “It’s the only time I get with them.”

Thomas Card, who worked at the Umstead with Crawford and now is executive chef at 21c Hotel in Durham, admired Crawford’s efforts to be a good father despite his demanding schedule. Card said Crawford would leave the restaurant at 6 p.m. on some weeknights so he could be there for bedtime.

“He does a really good job with his work-life balance, which is insane,” Card said.

That has become both more difficult and easier since Crawford left the Umstead. He left in 2014 to open Standard Foods in downtown Raleigh but parted ways with the owner last year. In November, he opened Crawford and Son, a couple blocks away in the revitalized Person Street neighborhood.

For the first time, Crawford is his own boss, which means crazy hours as well as the accompanying stress and pressure. But now he can close the restaurant for one week in January and another week in June and on holidays. “That’s the most gratifying thing – being able to make those decisions,” Crawford said.

He added: “I think it’s best for your business and best for your staff.”

Andrea Weigl: @andreaweigl

More Information

Crawford and Son

618 N. Person St., Raleigh