When I got my start at Johnson & Wales in 1987, for some reason I knew Charleston would become a culinary destination. I felt like it was on the brink of something, even though back then it wasn’t. The restaurant I worked in here used powdered demi-glace, and it was one of the top restaurants in the city. We didn’t know any different.
When I moved back in ’97 to open Peninsula Grill, we were the only restaurant in the city to have a printed menu item over $20. We opened with a $24 rack of lamb and everyone said “You’ll never make it.” Well, first they said a restaurant on the alley in the Market would never make it. At that time Peninsula Grill opened onto an alley between Market and Hayne streets and a bunch of bums slept there. But we said, “They’ll come for the food.” We opened to incredible success. Peninsula got the Esquire award and then Planters Inn received the Relais and Chateaux designation. Peninsula Grill raised the bar in Charleston, and then that same year Bob Waggoner opened Charleston Grill.
All of a sudden Charleston had Peninsula — an American steakhouse restaurant — and Charleston Grill — a French-style restaurant with Southern influences. Suddenly we had Mike Lata at Anson, Frank McMahon at Hank’s, and, of course, Frank Lee and Donald Barickman were already established as industry leaders here in Charleston. And Jacques Larson and Sean Brock worked for me at that time, as a sous chef and line cook respectively.
Of course, it was a lot of hard work. But that’s always been easy to take care of. For a lot of chefs, the stress of the kitchen often ends with solitary drinking in a bar. And in the ’80s and ’90s there was plenty of vices to indulge in, too. Back then Vickery’s was open till 4 a.m., and you could stay there till 6. But even with the partying, it was always about the food.
One of my mantra’s has always been: “We have fun until the food’s not right. Then we’re not having fun anymore. No one is having fun because the customer isn’t having fun. It’s all about the customer.”
When it came to the food, I’ve always been obsessed with consistency. I am obsessed with the little things. For instance, I was militaristic about the hush puppies because my philosophy is, if you work on the side dishes — the puppies, the biscuits, the bacon crumb crust — everybody takes care of the protein. It’s easy to cook a steak. It’s hard to put the whole dish together day in, day out, night in, night out. Can you do it at 5 o’clock on a Thursday and 10 o’clock on a Monday night? It has to be the same execution, whether you’re cooking for 350 people or 100. You have to be just as intense on the 350th plate as you are on the 100th. If we say it’s blue, it better be blue every single time. Not gray, not green, not anything else. Blue. We can change it, but we gotta agree to change it. If a dish isn’t right, that’s not acceptable. Throw it in the trash. That was my motto back then, and it remains my motto now at Rutledge Cab Co. I’ve always been unwavering on consistency.
It’s that consistency that’s made Charleston a dining destination. The chefs in this city chose to elevate cooking and consistency across the board, offering the complete package — excellent food, service, decor, the whole experience. And I believe if these traits that made this city a culinary leader are not preserved, then we will lose what we have created. Our hospitality community needs to focus on shifting from casual to classic, trendy to timeless. New Orleans is a perfect example of a city that is taking its culinary traditions back and recreating the lustre and success of yesteryear. They are doing it through a revival of world-class dining destinations offering classic dishes, talented chefs, and uniquely New Orleans experiences. I believe that even though we have drifted away from these core aspects of a dining destination, Charleston is ready to return to its roots, and the combination of exceptional service, quality, food, and the customer-first approach that put this city on the map are what will keep us there for years to come.