There are many characteristics that resonate deeply with me about chefs. There is an odd connection rooted to the same respect and passion I have gleaned interviewing and observing musicians. Throw in winemakers and they are collectively my favorite people to spend time with.
Story By Colleen Thompson Photographs by Raul Sojo Montes
They all share the following: Discipline. Dedication. Practice. Energy. Fellowship. Respect.
It’s not an easy life. The hours are grueling. The rewards and accolades few and far between. They’re driven and fueled by pure passion and creativity—total immersion for the sake of their craft. Just a tad obsessive.
Bobby Zimmerman is that guy. That chef.
The expression of his creativity and passion has come to life through his restaurant True Blue Butcher & Table.
It’s a big, beautiful space that has been designed to feel like you’ve just walked into your favorite neighborhood spot, only more elevated and elegant and sophisticated without being stuffy or pretentious. The ambience is simply cool and comfortable, the attention to food obvious and meticulous.
We meet in the True Blue bar on a Wednesday morning. Zimmerman, behind his cool exterior and blue striped apron, is a little agitated and distracted, checking messages on his phone. The pork butt’s delivery is late; that will put the kitchen staff under pressure and could affect tonight’s menu. He’s all business today and most days too, I’m guessing.
He tells me right off the bat that this story is not about him. It’s about the food. It’s about the amazing team he has behind him. “And most importantly, it’s about the idea of having a trustworthy place to eat.”
I tell him I am here to listen to HIS story. So why don’t we just start with the name?
True Blue. A Madonna fan perhaps?
“I was trying to come up with a name for the restaurant,” Zimmerman tells me. “I Googled the word trustworthy and directly under it, the name true blue pops up. Turns out it’s a slang term for a linen that was made in Coventry, England, during the middle ages.”
True blue is supposed to derive from the blue cloth. The town’s dyers had a reputation for producing material that didn’t fade with washing—it remained ‘fast’ or ‘true‘. True blue became a moniker for the real thing. It also happened to inspire the iconic blue and white striped butcher aprons.
“So, no, not the Madonna song,” he smiles. “But ‘True Blue,’ is actually a song by my favorite band, Bright Eyes.”
“The funky, indie rock collective?” I ask.
”…I am a blueblood—I will admit that. I dance in blue shoes and wear a blue hat. Live in a blue house on a blue street, in a blue town by a blue creek. I write my blue songs with my blue pen. I sing the blue notes to my blue friends. Now I don’t know that much about you, but I like you because you are true blue.”
“Yeah that’s the one,” he says, his cool exterior relaxing a little.
Huh, there it is, that music connection. Mr. Zimmerman and I are going to do just fine.
“I have been blessed to be surrounded by amazing food my entire life. I wanted my restaurant, True Blue, to reflect the passion and knowledge I’ve accumulated as a chef over the years. I wanted it to be all about the food,” says Zimmerman. “Completely ingredient driven and entirely focused on flavor and quality ingredients that have their own stories to tell.”
He tells me about a new sous chef he just hired, and how he wanted to demonstrate and convey the idea of super simple but intentional flavors letting the ingredients dictate the menu and tell the story of the dish.
“I took new potatoes and cooked them in our own rendered beef fat, I added some sea salt and ground pepper and then chucked in a handful of mixed, fresh herbs that I flash fried. Simple, not flashy. He was like, ‘Oh wow, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted potatoes like this before.’”
Products with integrity are emphasized, like the olive oil Zimmerman sources from Spain from a fourth-generation producer who only makes 10,000 liters a year. Zimmerman even knows the exact day the olives are harvested. Or, the honey that comes from a farm in Charlotte, and the ham and charcuterie from Chapel Hill’s ethical farmhouse, Lady Edison; and the specially blended spices from Asheville’s Spicewalla.
“The other side of the True Blue concept, was the idea of having a neighborhood butcher, which almost doesn’t exist anymore,” says Zimmerman. “How do you have that conversation about different cuts of meat? What makes one cut more special than the other? How do you cook it to get the best expression of flavor from it?”
Zimmerman wanted to start that conversation with his diners.
Even the True Blue servers are prepped at being able to have those conversations, answer the questions and offer up tips. Tips like frying steak in beef fat and finishing it off with crunchy Maldon sea salt. Conversations about choosing ribeye, because it has the most flavor, but also knowing that there are three different cuts on a ribeye and why all three will offer up a totally different eating experience.
“Beef quality is incredibly inconsistent, and you will find different qualities from different places during different months. I like to support North Carolina farmers, but it isn’t always possible if I’m looking for the best beef all the time,” Zimmerman explains. “Minnesota happens to be producing the best beef right now. We also care for every cut of beef individually. Beef doesn’t tenderize until after 21 days, and 28 days is even better. At the end of the day we want to serve it at its best. Serve it truthfully.”
Truth and food. So where does that come from?
“I grew up in eastern Iowa, in a small town called Clinton. At 13, I got a job at a gas station truck stop as a dishwasher. For a truck stop it was a pretty sophisticated place that made not terrible food,” says Zimmerman.
“I learned to make pate choux there,” he smiles. “My first prep job was to make like 900 miniature eclairs. I actually still use the cinnamon roll recipe I learned there on the True Blue menu, with a slight twist of course, but basically the same. From there I graduated from prep cook to line cook. When I was 16 years old, the head chef completely ghosted one night,” he says, laughing. “I basically had to cook my way through chaos. I had no choice really. I actually just wanted to be a musician. I would cook the line and then go and play in the band on Friday nights. But after that adrenalin rush—cooking through that crazy service—I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
He moved to Mississippi with his family in his senior year and is quick to tell me it sucked.
“My family moved for the Casino in Bay, St. Louis. I took a job serving hot dogs at a stand and happened to meet chef Gary Barnette, who offered me a job in the kitchen at the casino. Although moving did suck, I realized later in life that I’d be a different man, and a different chef, had I not made that move.”
After a stint at culinary school, Zimmerman worked the line through a string of kitchens ending up in New Orleans and working for “some badass New Orleans Chefs, who literally drank all day. A two million dollar restaurant, and the chef would start ordering spiked lemonades at 2 p.m. Bourdain was accurate in his description of chefs back then. I’m grateful it’s not like that now and it will never be that way in my kitchens.”
Looking for something different in a place which wasn’t yet over traded, he landed in Wilmington, NC as the executive chef at Landfall Country Club, where he stayed for six years. From there he left the kitchen completely to work for food distribution group Southern Food. For five years, Zimmerman spent the time exploring the world’s finest food suppliers and researching every inch of the supply chain, all the while prepping and planning True Blue.
His talents are constantly flexed, but they remain unassuming, making his prowess that much more palpable. “I still work the line. It’s the part I love the most. Behind the line, sweating—that’s where I belong. Whether I owned one or five restaurants, I would always need to spend two to three hours in the kitchen with the food. I’m compulsive about the consistency of every sprig of herb, every garlic clove, every slice of potato, every trace of sauce on the plate. That’s the fun part.”
Teaching and mentoring young chefs and keeping things creative and innovative in his kitchen is also part of the fun. Allowing young chefs to create, uninhibited. Like recreating cereal milk.
“Cereal is actually what chefs live on. So it started out as a joke and ended up as a challenge. Create the taste of cereal milk completely from scratch. We started out with crème brûlée batter and added lemon zest and spices and in the end, we were like, ‘Oh wow, this totally tastes like cereal milk.’ We didn’t end up using it on the menu, but we did have fun.”
If it stops being fun, it becomes a checklist, a to-do list. Coloring outside the lines is where imagination and innovation stems from.
“Being a chef is tough. Being a business owner is even harder. I still eat dinner sitting on a five-gallon drum. I haven’t had a day off since I got the keys to True Blue. I am always working. I try really hard to not be the arrogant, self-absorbed chef that screams at his team all the time. It’s not a good look. I’ve gotten better at it; I make sure I take good care of my chefs, and I’m starting to take better care of myself too. I love owning a restaurant, every day there is something new to do, something that True Blue needs from me.”
Cereal and five-gallon drums aside, I ask Zimmerman about the best meal he’s ever eaten.
“A 20-course tasting menu,” he says without hesitation, “at Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 restaurant on the Lower East Side. An Avant-garde, era-defining restaurant. The dinner started at 9 p.m. and ended at 1:30 with a bunch of chefs curating the menu for the following day, all the while drinking a lot of wine.”
So let’s bring this conversation full circle—please tell me you’re a wine guy.
“I’m a wine guy. But after a dinner service, honestly, I’m just swirling savvy B or whatever is around,” he laughs. “But I love wine. I love the mystery in wine. I don’t just drink it, I really do study it while I drink it. I look for all of the individual flavors. I was lucky early on in my career; I worked for a chef who made me very conscious of my own palette, studying and exercising it. Wine is a great way to keep exercising.”
By the end of our chat, we’ve touched on all the things driving Zimmerman’s passions: food, music and wine. The pork butt’s have arrived. The food gods will be smiling down on this evening’s service, and the chef is a happy man.