Chef Charlotte Jenkins will soon reemerge on the Charleston food scene in the same building where her culinary adventures began.
A brave 9-year-old Jenkins volunteered to cook for her family when her mother briefly left the family’s Awendaw home to care for her ailing sister in Charleston.
Young Charlotte lit a fire in a wood-burning stove, prepared liver and rice and served it to the family, including her big brother Danny, who demanded perfection from her.
“My brother was very strict and pleasing him was not easy,” Jenkins recalled at her Awendaw home at the end of a long driveway fronting U.S. Highway 17 North. “But my brother told my mother you don’t have to worry about rushing home cause little Charlotte cooked, and the food was good.”
That rave review filled her with pride. “When my Mom came home she and I would cook! Cook! Cook!” Jenkins exclaimed. “He inspired me and made me feel like I was somebody.”
Six decades later, Jenkins is a “somebody” in the local food culture, best known for Gullah Cuisine, a Lowcountry Restaurant, a popular family-run business she operated in Mount Pleasant until 2015. Since then, she’s asked frequently if she’ll reprise Gullah Cuisine.
Within a year, Jenkins will make her return, but not with a new restaurant. Instead, her childhood home where she was born will be converted to an event space for catered meals and an Airbnb.
That spacious two-story house where she cooked her first pot of liver and rice, where generations of children were fed, raised and sent into the world and where her mother, Julia Ascue, held court in the kitchen will become Julia’s Table in Julia’s Gullah House.
About 80 years ago, Jenkins’ father Lawrence Ascue, a jack of all trades, built a small house under ancient oaks on inherited land in the Ten Mile community north of Mount Pleasant. Ascue expanded the house as the family grew to accommodate nine children then nine nieces, nephews and grandchildren. “As Mom took on other family members, Dad would add a room so they would have space,” said Marietta “Rita” Ascue Worthy, the youngest of the Ascues’ children.
“Upstairs had two sections, a girl’s section and one for boys and downstairs we had four bedrooms,” said Jenkins, the fifth-eldest child.
Worthy said her mother served family “dinner every Sunday, and we called it the Gullah Table.” In her mother’s tradition, she said, the new venue will “open only by reservation, when groups want to bring family and friends together to dine, share and socialize.”
After graduating from Laing High School, Jenkins moved to New York City to live with an older brother and work in the health care industry. There she met and married Wadmalaw Island native Frank Jenkins. Their first daughter, Kesha, was born in New York. The Jenkins family returned to the Lowcountry in 1972 where their second daughter Katia was born.
After earning a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston and managing the food service operation at a Dorchester County hunting lodge, Jenkins gained the confidence and experience in 1995 to expand an on-going catering business to open Gullah Cuisine. She offered her Gullah recipes as an alternative to soul food.
“I have a pet peeve about soul food,” she said. “Back in the day when they said soul food, it was not so healthy. I wanted my food to be healthy, fresh and not greasy.”
Gullah Cuisine took a hit during the 2008 recession. Business fell some, but Jenkins kept going with the help of her catering business. Then more restaurants opened, offering diners more choices. Finally, she found it impossible to continue when Frank died.
Before the restaurant closed, however, Jenkins co-authored with McClellanville writer William Baldwin a popular 2010 cookbook, “Gullah Cuisine: By Land and by Sea.” (The book is available at eveningpostbooks.com.)
Worthy remembers that after her sister left for New York City, their mother required the children in the house to take turns cooking for one week. Julia Ascue’s wood-burning stove in the house Lawrence Ascue built will be a sentimental centerpiece in Julia’s Gullah House.
With silver hair and a pot full of wisdom, Jenkins said she wants to use her skills to influence the next generation. “Young people will play a major part in what I’ll do. I want to test them and teach them.”