Calabria | Photo by Andy Brack

Take a look at the inside left forearm of Mount Pleasant chef Graham Calabria. You’ll see an 8-inch-long green-blue tattoo of a Day of the Dead woman. She’s wearing a sombrero, grasping an olive branch in her right hand and holding a skillet in her left.

“Whenever I flip a pan, she’s dancing with me while I’m cooking,” he said wistfully in a garden interview at his Mount Pleasant townhouse.

The tattoo is a tribute to his grandmother Faye, who died a few years back of pancreatic cancer. The olive branch represents how they could talk and talk and talk about just about anything when it was hard for him to relate to others. The sombrero depicts a real hat he once gave her. “She and I got tipsy one night and we danced all night,” he recalled. Ane the skillet, well, you figure it out.

At just 26, Calabria is a talented chef with a catering business who has already packed in more living than people twice his age. In January, for example, he was chopped from Food Network’s Chopped cooking competition (episode 639, season 51), which is the same month that he spent cooking for a celebrity in the Bahamas. 

On the road

Calabria, born in Atlanta, moved around a bit with his family until they landed in the Asheville area during his high school years. To say he didn’t like high school is an understatement. He didn’t feel like he was learning anything and wanted, instead, to learn the food business. So he did, skipping almost all of his 10th grade year. 

Some of Calabria’s surfboards.

“I skipped school to help to open a cantina” in Asheville, he said, guessing he missed 180 out of 186 days for the school year. While he learned a lot of the restaurant business, the only thing that really saved him from the school police was a guidance counselor who saw how Calabria thrived outside of the classroom. She thought it might be a good idea for him to study abroad.

“I made her a mocha chocolate carrot cake and she excused all of my absences and helped me get a Rotary scholarship.”

And so started the travels, first to a high school in Brazil where he learned Portuguese quickly and said he won a national prize in philosophy. Then he spent a long time traveling the country from one village to the next to hone his cooking skills — picking up bits and pieces of knowledge and storing them away for future use. “I rode a motorcycle up and down the coast.”

When he got back to the United States, he kept up with the travel to see the country as he dove in and out of restaurants from Asheville to Chicago.

“I’d stay and learn what I could from them, and then, I’d move on.”

There would always be jobs open in good restaurants where he could learn, Calabria recalled.

“It’s really one of the only meritocracies left,” he said, pointing to a oft-mentioned quote by the late Anthony Bourdain, “You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours — like you said you could, and like the job requires — or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.”

Calabria added, “It’s a trade where you aren’t judged based on your schooling or education or a piece of paper. You are judged on your skills.”

Arrives in Charleston

By the 2019 holiday season, Calabria ended up in Charleston, where he showed up at Magnolia’s. After a free shift-long tryout, he got a cooking job. A few months later, he shifted to Barsa, where he became executive chef, and then helped to open CudaCo, a sustainable seafood house on James Island. 

Calabria displays bowls (above) carved by a relative.

About a year ago, he decided to go off on his own. He opened Calabria’s as a catering and private chef business. Coincidentally, a great-grandfather from Italy once had a restaurant by the same name in New York.

“I wanted to keep the name alive,” Calabria said. “Anything that calls for a celebration — that’s what we do.”

He’s also involved with Palmira Barbecue pitmaster Hector Garate in a joint venture to produce custom-built direct-heat wood smokers and grills for Texas-style barbecue. In recent weeks, they’ve been welding square units that are 24- and 48-inches wide. 

In recent months, Calabria also has been working to make his rented townhouse become more of a home. He’s installed a garden fence to match that of his neighbors. And he’s got some raised garden beds to grow fresh herbs and vegetables. And there’s a small fire pit to gather around to drink a beer or two with his girlfriend and others. Out front are two motorcycles — one for utility use and an orange Victory that’s built for speed. Inside on his walls are several surfboards, some battered from use.

For now, Calabria is continuing to chop away at being successful in Charleston’s food scene. 

“You have the knife skills or you don’t,” he said, adding with a wry smile that all chefs start out with too-long fingers that over time get “trimmed” to the right size.

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