One of this year's S.C. Chef Ambassadors, Marcus Shell stays busy working at 39 Rue de Jean and participating in local and statewide food events including the coming Gather Charleston food festival in the fall. | Image by Ruta Smith

Chef Marcus Shell of 39 Rue de Jean started cooking at a young age. Despite living in Charleston for less than three years, he has already made waves as one of the few Black executive chefs in Charleston. This year, he participated in the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, Charleston Wine + Food and was named one of the 2023 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. 

When Shell was growing up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, his father worked as the head of the Hunger Commission for The United Way, and his mother nannied younger kids in his family so relatives could work. 

She would keep house and cook daily. As the baby of the family, he said he was allowed to be a picky eater, but luckily he loved everything his mother made for him. His culinary journey started with learning to make her magically fluffy microwaved scrambled eggs for breakfast. By junior year of high school, he was a breakfast cook at a local Java Jungle — a coffee shop and breakfast and lunch eatery. He quickly fell in love with the kitchen atmosphere and making customers happy.

Eventually he moved on from the coffee shop and worked at a coveted Italian restaurant called Riccardi’s during high school. “I still crush it when I visit home,” he said. “I was a kid working with and befriending adults. Tattoos, cuss words, heat and knives. Lunch and dinner rushes, and being taught the secrets of the food my family [and I] enjoyed as ‘special’ treats when afforded a night out.” He said he felt drawn into the industry and nostalgic about his time working at Riccardi’s. 

“I vividly remember making a million meatballs one day on prep, I can taste them now. The guys jokingly said, ‘I’ll give you $20 if you drink a cup of that meatball grease.’ I was being hazed, part of me knew it, but I also knew that I was being accepted.” 

He would spend most of his life in New Bedford, with the exception of attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then working in Boston for a number of years. He left home in March of 2018 and landed in Greenwood, South Carolina, where he also began a journey of sobriety. 

Soon he outgrew Greenwood and wanted to live closer to the ocean, as he had growing up. He was introduced to the Charleston culinary scene earlier through a mentor and from attending and working at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, so moving to the Holy City felt natural.

After some time as the executive chef at Bistro 221 in St. George and as sous chef at 82 Queen in Charleston, Shell found himself as the executive chef at one of Charlestonians’ long-time favorites, French brasserie 39 Rue de Jean. The city’s bustling culinary scene is one of Shell’s favorite things about living and working here. 

“To be honest, I’m wondering how many more restaurants we can fit into a city that isn’t getting larger geographically,” he said, laughing. “The thing that amazes me most is that with the abundance of dining destinations, it’s still so hard to get into some places. That tells me that there’s a very distinctive tier of elite experiences, and I love being part of a city that is known for the craft and what we offer.”

Besides heading the kitchen at 39 Rue de Jean, Shell keeps himself busy with events, for both work and play. “I’m currently redefining myself and discovering what I like, so things like live music, the gym, going to the pool and beach, eating out, going to movies and recently [I] picked up reading. I feel like I’m on the verge of another evolution, and I want to lean into it. Something I’ve realized this year is that I really want to travel abroad and experience food and culture, and Spain and France are on the top of my list.” 

He has a busy schedule lined up for the rest of the year. On June 3, he’ll compete in the second annual Burger Battle at Holy City Brewing, where he won Most Creative last year. He will  also attend Euphoria in Greenville, a food, beverage and music festival with the other SC Chef Ambassadors, and then participate at Gather Charleston, Travel + Leisure’s premier food event that highlights the city’s best chefs and restaurants. 

Through it all, Shell just wants to cook. “Cooking is a passion that allows me to be my truest self — fun, different, creative and, in some moments, elegant.” 

When asked about his biggest lessons from working in the food and beverage industry, he said, “Cooking is like most things — you can always improve. It’s one of the oldest crafts, and all of it is still relevant. The biggest lesson of all, though, is that anything is possible. I say this all the time, I just try hard and stay true to myself and my relationship with food. I’m living out the life that was, at one point, a dream. A dream that through the chaos of my life that I had created, I thought was not possible. 

“Anything is possible through time, dedication and most of all, willingness. Willingness to not be the smartest and most talented individual in my circle. Willingness to not be denied or give up. Above all, willingness to learn and unapologetically be myself.”

Q&A with Marcus Shell 

Marcus shares his top culinary picks

City Paper: What are some of your favorite things to eat off the clock? What do you eat during service/work?

Marcus Shell: Off the clock, I’m doing one of two things; I’m either bouncing around the city enjoying the amazing food it has to offer, or I’m ordering Uber Eats. I’ve gotten better about cooking/meal prepping at home occasionally, but I save the juice for Rue. While at work, it’s typically something easy, accessible, and something I can eat standing up: burger and fries, pasta or grilled chicken and haricot verts.

CP: Who are some of your favorite chefs in the city? Where do you like to eat?

MS: Bob Cook at Edmund’s Oast, Derick Wade at the Darling Oyster Bar, Shaun Brian, Mark Bolchoz, Alec Gropman, Amethyst Ganaway, and Vern’s, Chubby Fish and Estadio are dope too.  All these chefs have their own identity that shows in their food. It’s dope to work beside them in the city.

CP: What’s currently playing in your kitchen during prep/service?

MS: The playlist in my kitchen is funny! At any given time, you’re liable to hear anything from Michael Jackson, Motown, ’90s hip-hop and R&B, trap music or Spanish music (my new guy likes older Spanish love songs).

CP: What’s the best meal you’ve eaten so far this year and where?

MS: Oooof, I eat so much and have had so many good things, it’s hard to remember the things that melted my brain. I will say that it was a little sandwich at Chubby Fish with the caviar on it, and the bone marrow with the bang bang shrimp straight slapped. I also had a wild first experience at Vern’s. I’m pretty sure if I wrote things down, I could make a two-page list bouncing around this city.

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