If you think you’re the only college kid sentenced to four years of Ramen noodles and spoonfuls of Jif from the jar, think again. Attending culinary school may allow a person to dine like a royal, but even some of Charleston’s top chefs were forced to eat like bottom feeders during their years of higher education.
From Wonderbread and mayo to 5 a.m. foie gras, here’s the low down on what Charleston cooks ate before graduating to culinary stardom. So the next time you tear open that aluminum flavor packet, have heart. Even the greats had to start by savoring beef bouillon.
Brett McKee, chef/owner of Oak Steakhouse will be the first to admit that what he ate in college was hops and barley. After a two-year stint at Roanoke College, where he was kicked out for rowdy behavior (see the aforementioned hops and barley), McKee finished college at Adelphi University. McKee says his parents didn’t give him money at school, so he was forced to eat cheap. His late night snack of choice? A melange of mac ‘n’ cheese, hot dogs, and black beans, drizzled with maple syrup for added finesse.
When McKee transferred to Adelphi in his hometown of Long Island, the quality of ingredients he had access to moved up a few notches. McKee had a friend with a lobster boat, and every so often, McKee would inherit a few scragglers and cook up a lobster feast.
Jonathan Hagins, executive chef of Folly Beach’s new restaurant Blu, had quite a different dining experience while at school. Hagins went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he says he ate like a king.
“You name it, we ate it,” says Hagins. “Pastries, fish, international food, breakfast, lunch, dinner. It was the best I’ve ever eaten over an 18-month period.”
Hagins never had to cook for himself during culinary school. He just ate from the school kitchens, where he worked. Each chef-in-training would take turns working at a different kitchen station and serve the other students. At the end of each shift, the students would have family-style feasts with the leftovers from the station. Hagins does recall a favorite dish — the wok-seared duck from the oriental kitchen, served with fried rice and sweet and sour sauce.
While post-midnight college snacks in the good ole U.S.A. are typically limited to drive-thru windows and pizza pies, Chef Nico Romo of Fish dined on old school French fare well into the night. Romo attended the Helene Boucher Culinary Art School in his hometown of Lyon, France. His favorite restaurant was La Mere Vittet, a 24-hour brasserie. Romo and his friends would nosh on steak tartare, foie gras, and pomme frites.
Romo lived with his parents while at Helene Boucher and was able to still enjoy mom’s home cooking — dishes like mustard rabbit and fish quenelles, with plenty of croissants and cheese on the table. Romo says that on nights when he stayed out drinking ’til 4 a.m., he would bang on the back door of the closed neighborhood bakery. The baker, who was up early making his daily bread, would let Romo in to scarf down hot and crusty bread, fresh from the oven, and sip coffee. The baker knew Romo so well, in addition to coffee, he was often offered a night cap of moonshine. Oui Oui!
While Romo’s French dining repertoire mirrored that of Louis XIV, what John Zucker of Cru Café ate at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris was more basic, indeed. Before culinary school, Zucker went to Sonoma State University, where he lived off white bread sandwiches with American cheese, mayonnaise, and lettuce greens. Zucker says he was so broke during school he didn’t eat a ton of stuff. But when Zucker moved to France to pursue cooking, the only thing that changed about his meals was the accent. Zucker went from Wonderbread and Kraft singles to baguette, jambon, and fromage (a.k.a. ham and cheese).
Carolina’s head chef, Jeremiah Bacon, remembers eating from a meal plan during his four years at CofC. Back when Craig Cafeteria was still in operation, Bacon’s favorite day was steak and shrimp Fridays. He would scout out hippie-looking people who seemed like vegetarians and ask them for their meal tickets, so he could get seconds. Bacon says he always loved the eating part of food, but only began learning to cook during his second half at CofC. His favorite thing to do was slow cook barbecue pork butt in a crock-pot. For a late-night grease fix, Bacon would go to A.C.’s and walk out with a basket of French fries. Ah, the good old days!
Simple-but-Savory College Pasta
By Fuel’s Justin Broome
Red pepper flakes
Sweet cherry tomatoes
Fresh parmesan cheese
1) Sauté garlic in olive oil. 2) Add tomatoes and cook until tomatoes are broken down. 3) Add red pepper flakes, oregano and let cook a bit longer. 4) Finish by adding fresh basil, salt and pepper, and grated parmesan.