We talk about Southern food as though it’s a singularity,” says Forrest Parker, the chef at the Old Village Post House in Mt. Pleasant. “But to me it seems plainly evident that it’s extremely diverse.”
That realization has been a long time in coming. Though Charleston’s fine-dining chefs have thoroughly embraced local ingredients and traditional Southern recipes, a sharp divide has persisted between the style of cooking found in the city’s high-end restaurants and the way many Charlestonians — especially those from Gullah Geechee families — have eaten in their homes.
The New Southern culinary movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which Charleston restaurants helped lead, made it acceptable to serve things like grits and ham hocks in upscale restaurants. But it ran a bit roughshod over the nuances of sub-regional variations, fabricating a uniform Southern cuisine chock full of fried chicken, biscuits, cornbread, and grits plus a few faux-Southern interlopers like fried green tomatoes.
Fused with far-off flavors like Cajun tasso, Lowcountry shrimp and grits won a spot in the pan-Southern canon, but other Gullah classics like okra soup have languished in obscurity. At the same time that local Southern-themed restaurants surged in popularity, places serving traditional Gullah food, as Kinsey Gidick reports in “Off the Eatin’ Path,” have struggled to stay afloat.
But new ripples are stirring in Charleston’s culinary scene, and some fine dining chefs are starting to take a stronger interest in the traditional Lowcountry foodways that have remained in the background for so long. In particular, chefs who came from somewhere else are starting to notice that the food they find in Charleston is quite different from what is found in other parts of the South, and they’re starting to take inspiration from it.
Southern Cuisine and FedEx Chefing
Forrest Parker was born in the Upstate of South Carolina, and he came to the Lowcountry to attend the College of Charleston. He had worked in a few restaurants as a teenager, and that helped him land a job in Louis Osteen’s kitchen at Louis’s Charleston Grill, one of the pioneers who put Charleston fine dining on the map.
“Twenty years ago everyone was talking about technique,” Parker says. “It was taking local product and applying classical technique.”
At that time, just putting a few down-home elements like grits and okra on a menu was a radical enough innovation to be labeled a new style: New Southern cuisine. But chefs were really looking elsewhere — particularly to France and Italy — for inspiration and guidance, and those local ingredients were used more as accents than foundations.
“It was an exciting time for us,” Parker says, “because we were working with things like foie gras and chanterelle mushrooms. It was the age of FexEx chefing.”
Plenty of Charlestonians were eating traditional local dishes in their homes, but that had minimal impact on the fine-dining scene. Parker says he was introduced to Gullah recipes, not in the kitchens where he worked, but in the works of culinary historians like John Martin Taylor and Karen Hess, who had just begun documenting the rich history of Lowcountry food.
“I got my tour guide license and was giving carriage tours,” Parker recalls. “And that coupled with the cooking experience really opened my eyes to what was going on here historically.”
Just as he was starting to dive into the local food traditions, though, Parker was lured away to Michigan to work in the big kitchens of casino restaurants, where he stayed for 10 years. A five-year stint at Opryland in Tennessee followed. When he returned to Charleston a few years ago, he found a very different food scene.
“It’s still very technique driven,” Parker says, “but in the length of time that I was away, there was this grassroots distribution movement that has popped up.”
That movement has made a bounty of good local ingredients available, but Parker realized that Lowcountry food is about more than just what’s raised in the soil. Fine-dining chefs had rediscovered Southern food as a general phenomenon, but they still lumped all down-home dishes under a single Southern umbrella.
“There’s actually tremendous diversity [across the South],” Parker says. “And that’s something that my time away really helped me appreciate.”
Kevin Mitchell, another chef who was drawn to the Lowcountry from somewhere else, has recognized that diversity, too. He grew up in New Jersey, studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, and established a career in the kitchens of large hotels and casinos in the Northeast and Midwest. In 2008, he was teaching at an Art Institute in Michigan when he was recruited to the Culinary Institute of Charleston by Dean Michael Saboe.
“I had never been to Charleston,” Mitchell says. “I had read a lot of articles about the food in Charleston and definitely was interested.”
Mitchell became immersed in the local cuisine almost immediately. “One of my first projects as a new instructor,” he says, “was to test the recipes for Charlotte Jenkins’s cookbook Gullah Cuisine: By Land and by Sea.
“Working with Charlotte was an eye-opening experience for me,” Mitchell says. “People look at that particular food as very simplistic, but actually it’s very complex. When you talk about the flavors and the spices and it’s all about local, using whatever is available to you at that particular time.”
Mitchell quickly saw that the food Jenkins was cooking was not the same as what other Southerners — even African-American Southerners — eat elsewhere. “People try to compare it to soul food,” Mitchell says. “I don’t even look at it as being soul food.”
In his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, Adrian Miller defines an iconic soul food dinner as follows: “entrées (fried chicken, fried catfish, or chitlins); sides (black-eyed peas, greens, candied yams, and macaroni and cheese); cornbread to sop it up; hot sauce to spice it; Kool-Aid to wash it down.”
Note the complete absence of rice, the staple grain always present on traditional Lowcountry tables. A typical Gullah menu would have some overlaps with Miller’s lineup, but many mainstays — oxtail stew, herring perlou, conch stew, okra with rice — would be quite out of place. Gullah cooking is characterized by techniques like long, slow braising, and it incorporates spices like ginger not typically associated with the Southern kitchen.
“It’s definitely the food of love to me,” Mitchell says. “The particular dishes that you cook are things that take a long period of time to cook: the stewing, the braising — you’re taking care of it, you’re tending it for a long period of time.”
Chefs who grew up in other parts of the South recognize that difference, too. Chris Stewart of the Glass Onion, for instance, grew up in Birmingham, Ala. “Coming here,” Stewart says, “It was just the abundance of seafood that really stood out the most. Growing up in Alabama, there was very little seafood, period. Catfish places were big, but there were only a handful of fancy restaurants that had fish.”
These days, improved distribution has made fresh, high-quality seafood available far inland, and fresh shrimp and blue crab has become a fine-dining regular in Nashville and Louisville. But it’s still not quite the same as it is here on the coast.
“When I worked at Opryland,” Parker says, “I could get flats of soft-shelled crabs shipped in, but it’s different when you’re getting soft shell crabs that have been out of the water less than an hour. Being at the Post House, I can walk up the street and get shrimp right from Tommy Edwards or Magwood’s.”
Mitchell echoes that sentiment. “This food is more about using what is available and local in order to cook something really great,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the cuisine. You go directly to someone who’s growing those particular ingredients — the tomatoes, the okra. The shimper who’s pulling the shrimp out of the water right then and there.”
The Future of Lowcountry Fine Dining?
It has taken a long time, but elements of traditional Gullah foodways are starting to find their way into Charleston’s fine-dining kitchens. Benne seed, for example, has become a regular part of Parker’s repertoire at the Old Village Post House. “We’ll use it as a garnish — toast them off or pop them,” he says. “There’s a nice, nutty crunch factor.
“I love the combination of benne seed and rice. Get some Carolina Gold or Jimmy Hagood’s Charleston Gold — a little purlou of shrimp and crab this time of year with a little benne seed and not a whole lot else,” he says.
“We might have a seared piece of fish with a hodgepodge of vegetables and put little dots of benne seed oil,” Parker adds. “Here’s this intense grassiness with this really nutty punch at the end. It makes us giggle in the kitchen.”
Gullah ingredients and techniques have shaped Mitchell’s cooking, too. “I’m taking a play off of shrimp and grits,” Mitchell says, describing the menu for an upcoming event. “Almost like a fish stew, but I’m planning to make it a little more refined.
“I’m not going to serve grits, per se. I’m going to use middlings — or rice grits — from Anson Mills, and I’m going to do a pickle and bring in one of the main Gullah staples — okra. Instead of stewing it, in that dish I’m going to garnish it with some freeze-dried okra and corn and do a really nice tomato gravy with it.”
Mitchell is working to instill an appreciation for local flavors in the next generation of Charleston chefs. His students at the Culinary Institute, he says, are split evenly between Lowcountry natives and those from somewhere else.
“Those who are born and bred here locally, they are ingrained in that tradition,” Mitchell says. “They are coming here [to the Culinary Institute] to learn the more refined way. I get a lot of students who come from out of town, though, and I try to get them interested in that type of food as well.”
I’ve been fretting publicly for some time about the future of fine dining in Charleston, for we seem to be bouncing around in disparate directions recently and searching all over the place for inspiration — importing slow-smoked brisket from Texas, hand-crafting Mexican street food, churning out basket after basket of deep-fried chicken.
Just this year, though, conversations with chefs have started to shift, offering a glimmer of what might be a promising path forward. It taps into the rich Gullah culinary traditions that have been around us all along — and something that diners can’t find in Austin or Nashville or New Orleans.
BJ Dennis (with whom Eric Doksa cooks in “Yes, Chef”) has emerged as an important bridge between the commercial world of fine-dining restaurants and the older home-cooking traditions of Gullah Geechee cuisine, and he’s helping evangelize the mode of cooking he learned from his grandparents’ generation.
Kevin Mitchell, for one, is optimistic that these local food traditions will finally get the attention they’ve long deserved. “With people like myself and BJ and others out there pushing it,” he says, “I think in the next several years that food will definitely be on the radar for people.
“Ten years ago was I even thinking about it?” Mitchell asks. “I can’t say I was. I think the people that are doing this particular style of food, they are going to be influencing the chefs of the future. They are already influencing them now.”