The Dining Room at the Woodlands Inn and Resort in Summerville has a reputation that precedes itself. Built in 1906, the Woodlands was restored and turned into an inn in 1995. With so many expectations to meet, newly-appointed Executive Chef Tarver King has his work cut out for him. He recently discussed his plans for meeting this challenge.
City Paper: Congratulations on your new position. Where did your love of food and your culinary career begin?
Tarver King: I was born in New York, but raised in Virginia. When I turned 15 my dad told me to get a job. I went to work at a restaurant washing dishes and it just blew my mind. When I first saw a “line,” where chefs prepare the food, my jaw just dropped. I remember just hearing yelling and screaming and seeing flames and knives. All of the things your parents tell you never to play with. The guy that was training me said that if I wanted to get to that point, I had to get good at washing dishes first. I started prep cooking when I was 15 1/2 and it was then that the chef there got me a Julia Child cookbook. I started reading that book and I just went crazy. I had no idea that the world of food could be so infinite.
CP: You have been at Woodlands for a little over two years now. Where were you before then?
TK: I worked at this place called Le Chambord (in Virginia) and the chef there was a three-star Michelin chef from Belgium. He was insane, throwing plates and screaming, but the coolest thing about him was that he was a teacher. I told him one day that I wanted to learn how to clean a cow’s head, and the next day I come in and there was a cow’s head in the sink. After that I worked at Le Bec Fin (in Philadelphia), The Inn at Little Washington (in Virginia), a stage at French Laundry (in Napa Valley), and went to Maine to do a facelift on a restaurant.
CP: What can we expect from the food now that you are the new Executive Chef at Woodlands? Is there a philosophy that guides your approach to food?
TK: My culinary style is old dishes with a new idea. We try to do a grand cuisine but in a Southern style. We restrict ourselves from using things that are out of season just because it creates a passionate boost for when they do come into season. Right now, we are all itching for tomatoes and the list keeps growing with ideas of things we want to do. Ramps (wild onions) are just getting ready to come around, and the lists keep rolling. And that is the best way to do it. I could get ramps and tomatoes right now, but food becomes much more of a celebratory thing when we wait until they are in season here.
CP: Can you comment on one of your favorite dishes?
TK: One of my favorite dishes is a carpaccio dish that is the first course on our tasting menu. We use escolar from Hawaii, which is an amazing fish. People also call it white tuna or wallu. We give it a good season and just barely sear the outside. It is a fish that is excellent to have rare. We shave it paper thin and serve it on top of a lemon mint aioli, so it is a bit of a surprise because you can’t see it. We put on top a toasted tabouli salad with marinated lump crab meat, olive oil, and a little bit of fresh mint. As you’re eating the aioli shows itself and adds a richness. It is a beautiful dish. It keeps evolving as you eat it.
CP: Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?
TK: Woodlands has a great tradition and we are going to carry it on. We are going to continue to raise the bar and we are going to keep pushing. — Elle Lien