Greg Balch of The Crunkleton: “Off the clock”

The hours are long and the stress level is immense. A restaurant never really stops and you are never really “Off the clock”. When I opened The Crunkleton, I was working 110 hours a week for 6 weeks straight. As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of […]

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The hours are long and the stress level is immense. A restaurant never really stops and you are never really “Off the clock”.

When I opened The Crunkleton, I was working 110 hours a week for 6 weeks straight.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Greg Balch, 36, from Raleigh, NC. With 22 years of experience, he now leads the culinary team behind The Crunkleton.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Growing up my grandma had a very small kitchen built on to her garage where she would cater for the farmers and the migrant workers. She would also cater local weddings and other parties in a very small southern town. I was always in the kitchen with her making biscuits or snapping peas, cracking pecans or shucking corn. Some of my fondest memories were spent in the kitchen or on the farm with my grandma. I always enjoyed cooking and once I was old enough and got a taste of the real thing in a real restaurant, it was all history. The adrenaline, the focus, the controlled chaos, all the crazy personalities had me vexed and I never looked back.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Of course being from the south I love down home southern food. I love all cuisines honestly, but if I had to pick one i would say Mexican cuisine. The simplicity and the freshness of the ingredients combined with all the amazing flavors, colors, and spices helped really draw me into cooking even more. Working in the industry for more than 20 years i have had the pleasure to work with all walks of life. There is a large hispanic work force in the restaurant business and almost via osmosis I absorbed their cuisine and food culture.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

The most interesting part of being a chef is not only being able to work with people from every walk of life, but to get to know them in an atmosphere where you all depend on each other to succeed. The friendships and relationships you build with these people is truly amazing. The biggest take away is to treat everyone equally and fair. We are all in that kitchen sweating, and grinding it out together as warriors, friends, brothers.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Starting out at a young age in the restaurant business is not easy. The hours are long and the work is very hard. Thinking that you are going to walk into the kitchen and start making magical food couldn’t be further from the truth. You take out the trash, clean bathrooms, peel potatoes, etc. All the stuff you see TV where it looks so fun and easy is a mirage. The intensity and the pace that you have to deal with breaks most people. The only thing you can tell any young cooks that are wanting to get onto the game is to keep your head down, your mouth closed, and your hands busy.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

In my experience the best way to create a dish that customers go crazy about is to understand your customers and what they want from your particular restaurant. I think you must be a chef that cooks to impress people not a chef that cooks to impress other chefs.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

To me ANY meal can be the perfect meal as long as you share it with good company, lots of laughs, and a glass of great bourbon.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

A huge portion of my creativity and menu inspiration comes from just talking with friends and co-workers. Just listening to them talk about things they have eaten or things they want to eat and then putting my spin on them.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I am working on a new concept/restaurant at the moment. I think this restaurant will be a rapid success and hopefully help me provide everything that my wife and kids could ever dream of wanting.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Get to know your guests! Listen to them and hear what they have to say. You as the chef are not always right. You have to realize you are cooking for normal people, not other chefs. I believe it really helps to avoid burn out, by realizing that everyone has an opinion and their own idea of what they want. You are not going to make every person happy nor is everyone going to like every dish you create. It is okay to strike out every once in a while — just remember to knock off your cleats and dig back in there.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. vWhat are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. The hours are long and the stress level is immense. A restaurant never really stops and you are never really “Off the clock”.

a. When I opened The Crunkleton, I was working 110 hours a week for 6 weeks straight.

2. DO NOT expect to come out the other side a millionaire. The money is there but requires unrelenting work.

a. Your salary will not reflect a 40 hour week rather a 60+ hour week with no overtime pay. Base salaries are way under 100,000 dollars

3. It will not be easy on your personal life or your family life. Restaurants are very demanding of your time and attention.

a. I once quit a very good job as a corporate executive chef when my kids asked me when they were ever going to see me.

4. Get used to eating a cold meal while standing up. Meals are hard to come by when you are steady working for 12–14 hours straight.

a. Most every day I make a meal for myself and then it sits there for at least thirty minutes to an hour until I get to eat it.

5. The people you meet the stories you hear and the lessons you will learn will make it all worth it.

a. I have met some the most interesting, loving, compassionate, crazy, loyal, genuine people in this industry. Best thing is for that shift we are all just there together in the moment making it happen one way or another.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

For me it is the Spicy Chicken Breakfast Sandwich!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would inspire a movement that would reach out to the kids and educate them not only on the importance of eating healthy and learning how to cook, but to source locally when you can and help support your neighbors. It takes a village to raise a kid. If you don’t support your village then in turn they can not help support you!

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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