At the Table

The Kindred Spirit of Justin Burke-Samson

By: The Local Palate


Justin Burke-Samson

Justin Burke-Samson finds inspiration in fleeting moments. Eating a cashew cookie in his grandmother’s faux brick wallpaper-lined kitchen, the chill of an autumn wind blowing through the rows of a New England apple orchard. For many, such details would seem cursory against life’s big events.

But not for Burke-Samson. The executive pastry chef of Davidson, North Carolina’s wildly popular Kindred restaurant, he channels it all into dishes that pay tribute to the memories that have shaped his life. Experiences he loved growing up, desserts he hated—they all find their way into his repertoire.

“I start with something I remember, and then I figure out what can I do differently that would honor the dessert, but make it better,” he says.

This holiday, he’s taking on pies. From apple to pecan, he reworks the stalwarts of the season into a fresh, modern lineup.

Baking is a hallmark of the holidays. Even those who don’t know parchment from waxed paper get the itch to crank out cookies and pies, be they from scratch or store-bought dough, to share with family and friends. “It’s one of those things that immediately triggers comfort,” Burke-Samson says.

Dark Chocolate Pecan Pie

A self-taught talent, Burke-Samson was born and raised in Barstow, California. For well over a decade, he called Boston home—he got his start working in restaurants as he paid his way through college.

“I became fascinated with what the pastry chefs were making,” he says. “I’d try to recreate something at home, and bring it back the next day to ask them if I nailed it or completely failed. One pastry chef told me, ‘You have an instinct. This is something you should be doing.’”

Flash forward several years and a dual-masters later, Burke-Samson was pursuing a career with the United Nations when he realized his true calling was indeed in pastry. Forgoing culinary school, he dove right in. After a stint baking in Boston—including a pop-up dessert dinner series he called Modern Grandma to honor his grandmother who had recently passed—he and his husband, David, relocated to North Carolina in 2015.

When it comes to baking, Burke-Samson describes his style as classic American comfort: a nostalgic amalgamation of childhood favorites, personal memories, and tributes to loved ones. Oftentimes, he strives to improve tired flavors, reworking recipes to cut out cloying sugar and achieve a balanced sweetness through other ingredients (think balsamic vinegar and sorghum).

The Bitter-Sweet Truth Comes Out

“I’ll be the first to admit, I hate apple pie,” he says. “I can’t stand warm fruit pies—I’d rather cook it and put it in the refrigerator and eat it icebox cold.” His solution? Add goat cheese.

“For a long time, I’d never been exposed to cheese and fruit together on a plate,” he says. “I grew up in a small town; I just didn’t know these things! My discovery of the world has been through food.”

He stumbled upon the recipe when he and David first hosted Thanksgiving in Boston several years back. “Of course we overbought everything,” he laughs. Some extra goat cheese found its way to an apple and pear tart, and a new favorite was born.

Pecan pie too is brought into the twenty-first century. “My grandfather loves pecan pie, but I hated it as a kid. It’s this thick layer of corn syrup topped with nuts and is always so sweet,” he says.

His recipe uses half as much sugar as most and balances the sweetness with dark chocolate. Sugar is caramelized to amp up the nuttiness, and he resolves the congealed-layer-of-corn-syrup issue by mixing it with the pecans.

Burke-Samson hadn’t heard of buttermilk pie until he moved to the South, but fell in love with it immediately.

To accentuate the pie’s slight bitterness, he studs it with bright crimson cranberries. The combination reminds him of his grandmother and aunt, who were crazy for fresh cranberry relish around the holidays. “But I always found it too bitter,” he says. “When I made this pie, my mind was blown. It had that tang they were trying to achieve.”

Winter Citrus Crostata.

A roasted fig and balsamic pie with lattice crust was inspired by his grandmother’s love of fig newton cookies.

“It’s a simple pie,” he says, but with grown-up flavors like bright, rich balsamic vinegar warmed with honey. And a stunning citrus crostata is a tribute to the jewels of Southern winters: grapefruit, orange, lemon, and lime. A play on an upside-down cake (turned right-side-up), it’s an elegant capstone to a heavy holiday meal.

Pie Recipes for Holiday Baking

For Burke-Samson, baking during the holidays is a way to celebrate and pay tribute to loved ones.

“It’s a time with a lot of happiness, but it’s also a time for reflection,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you’re making—whether you’re slicing cookies from pre-bought dough or slaving away for hours in the kitchen. It makes you happy.”

Winter Citrus Crostata

Dark Chocolate Pecan Pie

Buttermilk Cranberry Pie

Caramel Apple and Pear Tart

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