Linda Billings was a lucky kid. She had a mom who could cook. Southern comfort food graced her family’s table every night, instilling a natural love of cooking and food that has stuck with her ever since.
After many years of daydreaming about opening her own restaurant, she and her friend and business partner Billy Clark decided to make it happen. They opened the cozy Blue Roost Petite Cafe this past fall, bringing the Southern-style comfort food she grew up on to her adopted neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Garden.
We met with Linda at the cafe to talk about family, food, and the comfort of home cooking.
Nona: So Linda, tell us how you got interested in food and how you came to open Blue Roost.
Well, I’m from Durham North Carolina and I’ve always loved cooking. My mother has always been a great cook. When I was a kid I didn’t realize just how good of a cook she was until I started growing up and spending the night away at friends’ houses. The food usually wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was at my house! My friends always loved spending the night at my house because my mom’s cooking was so good. They’d always say, “Oh my gosh, your mother should open a restaurant!”
I always liked hanging around the kitchen, watching her cook and asking her questions when I was a really little kid. Starting in high school, Monday night became my night to give her a break and cook for the family. I’d always choose recipes that I thought were exotic. I used to like magazines like Cosmopolitan at that age, and I remember using some of the recipes I found there, of all places! I think I did pretty well in the kitchen, but my little brothers would always complain…they just wanted to eat my mom’s food!
I really learned to cook when I went away to college. After growing up on such good food, I just found the cafeteria food to be inedible. I had an apartment and I started calling my mom all the time, asking her how do you make this, how do you make that? I ended up having people over all the time, cooking for friends. I’ve really always loved cooking.
When I moved here, we had a good place with a good kitchen and we had dinner parties all the time. People kept telling me, “You should open a restaurant…Everything you make is really good!” I had always wanted to do it. I’d worked in restaurants since I was 21. It was always my favorite business to be in. When I had other sorts of jobs over the years I was never as happy as I was working in restaurants, being out, working with food, talking to people. I just didn’t know if I could actually do it!
This year I just felt like it was now or never. I realized I couldn’t just keep working in other people’s restaurants. I’d have to either open my own or come up with another plan. My friend and business partner Billy really got the ball rolling.
Billy and I worked together at the restaurant Enduro just across the street and we’d talked for years about opening a comfort food restaurant. Last spring he said, “We’re going to make this happen.” And he really did it. He put together a business plan, went to the bank, kept calling me and telling me I’m doing this and this and this, and at some point I realized – wow! This is really happening!
Nona: So tell us about the type of food you serve here at Blue Roost.
A lot of it is really influenced and inspired by my mom’s cooking. She’s always cooked in a very southern home-cooking comfort-food style, and she does it so well. When I make something that she made, I pretty much stick to exactly how she made it. Like our Brunswick Stew – we use her recipe for that. Brunswick Stew is a southern specialty – a lot of folks up here aren’t familiar with it, but they’re really embracing our version! It’s a tomato-based vegetable and meat stew.
Her barbecue, too – so good. We use her recipes for biscuits and banana bread – we sell about a loaf and a half or two of the banana bread every single day. We make her hot milk cake – it’s made with boiled milk which gives it a really nice unique flavor – but we call it butter cake because we don’t want to scare anyone.
A lot of the specials we make are inspired by her too – the pot roast, the penne with Bolognese sauce (which she just called spaghetti sauce – I realized years later it was a classic Bolognese), the chicken pot pie. I’ll often call her up when we’re putting together a special to ask her about the recipe.
One of the other things people really seem to love is our North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich. We buy our pork shoulders and my brother Neil puts his special rub on ‘em. We smoke the shoulder and hand pull the pork. I still have at it with my brother. He always want to pick every last bit of fat out. I always say it’s good to have some in there! It tastes good! I leave it in, he takes it out. Oh well…Good cooks have to be strong willed!
In North Carolina, pulled pork sandwiches are always served with cole slaw on top. We don’t use a typical slaw – it’s the kind my mother made. It’s not sweet, and it’s got mustard and green pepper in it. I was a little worried that people might not like it up here, but they do.
When I told people I was going to open a place with Southern food, everyone kept talking about biscuits and gravy, biscuits and gravy, so I figured we’d better have pretty good biscuits and gravy. We do ours with steamed eggs, my mom’s biscuits, and sausage gravy. We make the steamed eggs with the cappuccino machine and they’re sooo good. They come out just like a pouffy soufflé. We just scramble the eggs with a little salt, pepper and butter, and hit them with the steam nozzle. It’s a little loud, but worth it!
We don’t just do Southern home cooking though…as I was growing up I learned more and more about food from other cultures and got really interested in those too. Our idea with the Blue Roost Café was to bring home cooked comfort food from all over the world to the neighborhood. In New York, so many people are from someplace else. Comfort food and home cooking mean different things to just about everyone here. So we decided to keep the main menu basically Southern – which I know really well, and feature specials and soups from different cultures.
Nona: I didn’t realize what a real family project you had going on here – you and your brother, here together in Brooklyn cooking up your mom’s recipes from back home in North Carolina?
It really is. My brother Neil had never really left North Carolina. He’s obsessed with cooking – he loves the scientific kind of side of it – everything from the chemistry to the flavor combinations. He’s always been really into it but he never did it professionally. When we decided to open the restaurant, I was able to convince him to come up here and help cook. It’s been just great to have him here and he’s loving it – he’s here to stay!
My business partner Billy is as close to family as you can get. I met him the very first week that I moved to New York and we’ve been really good friends ever since.
Well, for years and years, when I daydreamed about opening this sort of comfort food place, I was always going to call it ‘Homesick Café.’ I loved the name. So many people in New York are away from home – I wanted to have a place where they could come in and have food that would remind them of home when they were feeling homesick.
When we first started telling people about the name, lots of them just started to recoil, saying, “Oh nooo, you can’t have the word sick in the name of your restaurant!” My dad said that and lots of other people kept saying it too. When we started working on getting the space ready to open, I put a chalkboard in the window saying something like, “Homesick Café – coming soon,” and people actually knocked on the door and walked in to say, “noooo – you can’t call it that!”
I was stubborn. I just thought it was such a cute name. I even looked it up and wrote the definition of it on the chalkboard, hoping to convince people. I wrote: “Homesick – a nostalgic longing for home.” It didn’t matter. Finally I gave in. We wanted to find something that tied into the Homesick thing in some way and we came up with Blue Roost. Now I love the name!
But we are going to keep one of the original ideas behind the ‘Homesick Café’ concept alive. We always wanted to have a place where people missing home could come in and we’d be able to make food for them that reminded them of home. That’s what comfort food is all about, right? So we’re going to do a thing where if your mother or grandmother cooked something that you miss and that you can’t find around here, you’ll be able to tell us about it and we’ll work it out – we’ll make it as a special and we’ll let you know when we’ll be serving it. So if you’re homesick, we’ll make you feel better. Within reason, of course!
Blue Roost Petite Café is located at 539 Flatbush (between Lefferts Ave & Lincoln Rd) in Prospect Lefferts Garden.