What do you do when you’re a front-of-the-house guy and your high profile, big personality chef has left the partnership to pursue other opportunities? Well, if you’re Steve Palmer of Oak Steakhouse and O-Ku, you do something really smart. You partner with one of Charleston’s most well-liked, well-respected, and quietly accomplished chefs — John Zucker of Cru Café and Cru Catering.
Palmer announced this afternoon that, in the wake of Brett McKee’s departure to pursue the expansion of the Roadside Kitchen concept, he will be bringing in Zucker to reinvent Oak.
The two have been friends for a long time. They met back in the ’90s in Atlanta, where they both worked at Canoe. It was on a vacation to Charleston with Palmer that convinced Zucker to move here. Once here, the two consulted on the opening of Sonoma (where King Street Grille is on King Street). While Zuck stayed on to helm that restaurant, which had an eclectic seasonal menu, Palmer left to open Peninsula Grill.
The two have remained close friends ever since.
“Certainly, Brett has a big personality,” says Palmer, “and anytime you have that kind of chef/owner leave, having a culinary presence is needed in the transition. The menu at Oak has Brett so much on it. I knew I wanted to take the menu in a different direction, and I needed a guy like John, at that level. Our philosophy about food is very much the same. We’re a steakhouse, but let’s cook seasonally and buy local.”
Palmer says he made one phone call when it came time to find a new chef for Oak, and that was to his old friend. “Not only is he a great chef,” says Palmer, “he’s a good person, and surrounding yourself with people like that makes life easier. Especially in an industry where we work such long hours.”
Zucker is excited, if a bit daunted, by the opportunity. “I’m definitely a little nervous,” he says. “The response today has already been pretty massive.”
As for the plans to revamp, they expect the new menu will be ready in the next 30 to 45 days.
“It will continue to be a high-end steakhouse,” says Zucker. “But it’s gonna be more eclectic with a little bit of my own influence.”
Zucker is a classically trained French chef, with a bit of California thrown in the mix. “I worked for Wolfgang Puck for a year,” he says.
Plans at Oak include expanding into the space next door, and the menu will most likely lose most of the Italian dishes that were McKee’s signature. And Zucker says he will remain actively involved in his operations at Cru Café and Cru Catering.