Chef Kevin Mitchell will honor Edna Lewis during the next dinner in his Chef Scholar supper club on Jan. 20 | photo by Ruta Smith

Farm-to-table dining is now quite common, but chef Kevin Mitchell wants to bring history to the table with his Chef Scholar supper club.

 The suppers honor Black chefs who helped build the foundation of what we know as Lowcountry cooking: Nat Fuller, Edna Lewis, Eliza Seymour Lee, George E. Johnston.

 “I would like to think the people who come to these dinners want to come to eat a great meal, but also are coming to be educated on who these people were in the history of Charleston food,” Mitchell said.

 Mitchell teaches at Trident Technical College’s culinary program, so he is used to using food as instruction.

 The idea for the dinners sprang from a dinner Mitchell planned with food historian David Shields in 2015 honoring Nat Fuller. Fuller was a slave trained by free Black pastry chef Eliza Seymour Lee. He negotiated a kind of freedom from his enslaver and went on to become Charleston’s top caterer and the owner of The Bachelor’s Retreat, the city’s fine dining restaurant during the Civil War.

 “David introduced me to the story of Nat Fuller,” Mitchell said. “David and I had this really great conversation about re-creating the dinner Fuller created in the city in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, where blacks and whites broke bread at the same time in the spirit of reconciliation.”

 The dinner was a sell-out and Mitchell and Fields would go on to collaborate on the book Taste of the South: South Carolina’s Signature Food, Recipes and Their Stories in October 2021.

 Mitchell wanted to continue the dinners.

 “My original plan was to create these dinners and take this concept on the road because David and I had researched other Black cooks throughout the country. We started to think about where we would go next: Baltimore, Denver,” Mitchell said. “But that kind of got put to bed through Covid. I was still thinking about it, though, and what really got me off my can was when my wife, Rhonda, said, ‘You have been talking about this for years, why don’t you put up or shut up?’ She gave me my inspiration to go on and create this series.”

 Mitchell’s first dinner in Charleston was in September, followed by another in November. His next one is January 20, and he is dedicating the dinner to Edna Lewis, who was known for championing fresh vegetables, especially greens, in Southern cooking. 

Lewis, the granddaughter of an emancipated slave, was the chef at Café Nicholson in New York, which became the haunt of William Faulkner, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt and others. In the 1980s, she cooked at Charleston’s Middleton Place and founded what would later become the Southern Foodways Alliance, which studies the foods of the American South.

 Mitchell says he doesn’t so much re-create the food of these great Black chefs as re-interpret them.

 “Each course honors a specific chef based on dishes they would have served at the time,” Mitchell said. “But, being a contemporary chef, I’m adding my own creativity to these particular dishes.”

Mitchell’s dinners seat about 16 guest and offer diners a unique combination of history and cuisine. | photo by Edna Lewis

 Each dinner seats about 16 ticketed guests at various venues around Charleston, and the menus come with a side of education, as Mitchell tells his guests the history of the Black chefs so often overlooked in Lowcountry cuisine. Mitchell plans to continue the dinners to celebrate the legacy of more Black chefs.

 “With each dinner, I want to honor these people who have come before me and inspire me in my own culinary career,” Mitchell said. “I feel like I stand upon their shoulders, and I’m keeping their legends and their recipes and who they were alive.”

 Mitchell says he hopes his diners come away with not just a multi-course dinner, but also with food for thought.

 “I want them to come away, as a chef, with full bellies and having this really great meal, but also walk away having learned something about the history of food in Charleston, and who were the people at the foundation of the way we eat here in the South,” Mitchell said. 

“I also want people to understand when we sit down and talk about slavery, and how people were treated, and the atrocity of slavery, I want to share the determination, dedication and intelligence of who these chefs were despite the condition they were in.”

To learn about future dinners, email chefscholarassist@gmail.com.


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