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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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?
JZ: 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.
Photograph (ZUCKER) by Anna Warner & Courtesy of (BEACH) Soggy Dollar Bar