Two separate elements of DeLand history coexist at the intersection of North Woodland Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue: Cook’s Buffet, Cafe & Bakery, and Stetson University.
Cook’s, at 704 N. Woodland Blvd., is a casual country-style American buffet with a variety of homemade desserts. It’s a mere 61 years old, compared to the university across the street, which got its start in 1883.
But the two are intertwined. Cook’s is a favorite place to celebrate events like graduations or successfully completed chemistry exams. It’s also a good place to take Mom and Dad when they visit you at college.
I recently had the privilege of sitting down with two generations of Cook’s Buffet restaurateurs: owner Michael J. Cook Sr., and his son Michael Cook Jr., the general manager.
A landmark in its own right, Cook’s is thriving. It operates in the house where Michael J. Cook Sr. grew up, and was originally called Holiday House.
There are employees on the staff today who have worked at Holiday House and Cook’s for 40 years; some were hired by Cook Sr. himself.
“There’s a sense of gratification that this business has survived for 61 years,” Michael Sr. said.
Michael Sr. inherited the family business after the death of his father, Bob Cook, in 2002. Following in his father’s footsteps, Michael Sr. recruited his son to operate the business.
Going into the restaurant business was never a goal of Michael Jr.’s, but he’s found a home at Cook’s Buffet since being hired in 2011. Everything has been put in place to prepare for him to run the business on his own someday.
Growing up in and around the restaurant, the Cooks chose some of their own favorite foods to feature.
Leg of lamb and chocolate cake are among customer favorites, Michael Jr. said, but the turkey and dressing is his go-to.
He weighed in on the discussion of Southern food and soul food.
Southern food, for Michael Cook Jr., encompasses a lot more than soul food, including menu items like meatloaf, mac-and-cheese, and turkey and dressing.
“I guess just being from the South, and really wanting comfort-style food,” Michael Jr. said.
Soul food, in his experience, is more rooted in togetherness, exemplified, for example, by church and congregation.
But no matter the style of food the Cooks move forward
in the style of the late Bob Cook.
An example is the desserts, a Cook’s and Holiday House tradition. There are many dinner-ending options, and they follow the style and concept of Michael Sr.’s mother, Willa Cook. There’s a section of the restaurant dedicated to and decorated with two- or three-layer cakes.
“I think that’s just part of the South,” Michael Jr. said. “We eat a lot of desserts down here. We have our sweet tooth.”
There’s chocolate cake, coconut cake, carrot cake, fudge cake sundae, homemade Key lime pie, coconut cream pie, banana cream pie, Southern pecan pie, and bread pudding — just to name a few.
The dessert options are baked fresh every single day and are on a constant rotation. While the cakes are there every day, things like fruit cobbler and peanut butter mousse are not.
I picked the fudge cake sundae: chocolate cake with whipped cream and a cherry on top.
The cake was the best I have had in DeLand. Cook’s has managed to perfect the ratio of cake to whipped cream. I could not get enough of either. Before I knew it, it was all gone, and I wanted to return for seconds.
The service I received was filled with so much Southern charm and hospitality. Cook’s Buffet, Cafe & Bakery is by no means a fancy restaurant. Nor do they intend to be.
“We are simply the same as Mom and Dad cooking at home … simply on a bigger scale,” Michael Sr. said.
Comfort Food 101. Works for me!
— Giansy is a Stetson University student interning with The West Volusia Beacon.