I arrived in Charleston in June of ’97. I left a restaurant called the Wild Boar in Nashville, Tenn., where I was the sous chef to become the new sous chef of the Charleston Grill, both of which were under the leadership of my mentor, Bob Waggoner. I had been working with Bob for two and a half years at this point. When he was presented with a great opportunity at the Grill, I told him if he needed a sous chef, say the word. The next thing I knew, I was packing a U-Haul and heading for Charleston.
At the time, Charleston already had a culinary buzz brewing thanks to Frank Lee at S.N.O.B. and Donald Barickman at Magnolias. To come to a city that loved and demanded great food was very exciting. We put together a team of people who were as passionate and driven as Bob and I are. Over the years, we’ve had so many talented people who’ve gone on to become chefs of their own kitchens — Cooper Thomas at Wild Dunes, Jason Houser at Muse, Edwin French at the Biltmore Estates in North Carolina. The list goes on. I look back at our kitchen as a culinary boot camp for future chefs. Not only did they hone their culinary skills, but they also learned the importance of teamwork and communication. I feel like all these people have taken a little piece of us with them, and that makes me so proud and honored.
It’s funny how many times I’ve been asked how my leadership style is different as a woman. I love the fact that my staff refers to me as Mama. And just like any other mother, some days your children need a hug and some days they need a kick in the pants. Either way, we are a family.
The competition is tough here with such a vibrant culinary scene, from the wonderful, small neighborhood restaurants like Trattoria Lucca, The Glass Onion, and Al di La to the more nationally-recognized establishments like FIG, Peninsula Grill, and McCrady’s. But there’s also a strong sense of camaraderie between all of us. Everyone wants to keep this town a culinary destination. I have a great sense of pride in knowing that our restaurants can stand toe-to-toe with restaurants in such food towns as New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Just as the culinary scene has evolved in Charleston over the last decade, so has the Charleston Grill. In the beginning, the Grill had a French-inspired menu based on Bob Waggoner’s culinary training in Burgundy. Recently, we introduced the four quadrant menu, allowing us to offer more options and global influences to our diners. The menu is constantly evolving with the season’s produce.
It couldn’t be more exciting to have a farmer come in and say that the “candy” corn I’ve been dreaming about since the season ended last year is finally available. And the next week someone else will call with a bounty of heirloom tomatoes for me. It never gets boring as a chef. It gives my cooks inspiration, and our front-of-the-house gets excited by all the new creations.
Over the years many people have asked why I stayed with Bob as sous chef for so long and not gone out on my own. Admittedly, there were many opportunities, but none of these offered what Charleston has. The Grill has given me everything a chef could ask for. The hotel gives me carte-blanche to order whatever I need. I am supported by a great kitchen staff, led by sous chefs Andy Champion and Chuck Smithson, and I work with front-of-the-house stars like Mickey Bakst, Rick Rubel, and Ed Lischer.
The city of Charleston has a quality of life hard to beat anywhere else. I am surrounded by an exceptional group of friends, whom I consider my family. Whether we meet at the Farmers Market to pick up things for dinner or we get together for taco truck day, there are always things to do.
As the new executive chef of the Charleston Grill, I look forward to creating great food inspired by the city that I’ve come to love. Does that sound corny? It doesn’t matter, because it’s true.