We all know the story. It’s sad — the inevitable ebb and flow of the restaurant industry waste to the underprepared, the cocky, the lazy. It’s triumphant — hardworking, consistent concepts are gifted with constantly turning tables and solid staff. It’s unfair — the little guy with an edge is forsaken in favor of the big guy with a safety net. No matter the end of the tale, the beginning is always the same. The pressure builds, like a pot of pasta left too long to boil, fit to burst.
In 2019, anyone involved in a cuisine-related project feels this pressure the moment the words ‘new concept’ uttered — where is it, what’s the theme, what’s the menu, what about permitting and parking and what was that I spied on your 10 second Instagram story? But the opening of some restaurants is so eagerly anticipated that questions carry the weight of the world. In 2011, The New York Times wrote, “Husk was hailed as possibly the most important restaurant in the history of Southern cooking, even before it opened in November.” Chefs, diners, historians — everyone wanted to know. What would Husk do for Southern cuisine? And what did it mean for Charleston?
Forty cases of cauliflower
“Honestly at that I was pretty overwhelmed,” Husk executive chef Travis Grimes says of the early days of Husk. Between the think pieces and the excitement building to a shrill in Charleston, there was the reality of opening. When Husk opened in late 2010, Grimes was chef de cuisine under Sean Brock, the tatted-up, pork-loving locavore-committed Southern chef.
“Up to the opening there were such high expectations — Sean was super stressed. There’s a story about 2,000 pounds of tomatoes — that was all real — we were trying to make ketchup, trying to do all of this stuff on top of finishing up construction, it was frightening.”
As second in command at a restaurant that was wildly popular before it even opened or released its menu, Grimes had to hustle. “I was trying to deal with all of the stresses of opening as well as tracking down local ingredients — we were trying to find everything. We didn’t have GrowFood, we had to touch base with every farmer individually.”
Both young, ambitious, and like-minded — Southern food and Southern food only — Grimes said he and Sean would “get our signals mixed.” “I’m a lot like Sean; if I’m having a conversation with a farmer and if they have something cool we will bring it in and figure out what to do with it.” Both having the proclivity for impulse purchases, Grimes said they’d often find themselves in a bind. “It pushed us to figure out how to be more creative in our preservation — when you’re looking at 40 cases of cauliflower you can build a fort out of…”
Grimes was well equipped to man the day-to-day, even if he found himself buried in cauliflower. Before Husk, Grimes was at McCrady’s, there before Brock, actually. Before that? “I can’t say I have any ingrained food culture from early childhood,” he says. Grimes’ dad was in the military, so the family bounced around from Belgium to North Dakota to New Hampshire. They settled in the Charleston area when Grimes was nine, and he’s been here ever since.
It wasn’t until Grimes was a teen working in kitchens at places like Noisy Oyster and Olive Garden that he really started to appreciate the nuances of Southern cuisine. And to subsequently screw them up.
“My earliest kitchen yelling was not from James Beard award-winning chefs,” says Grimes. “Ladies like Miss Tessie, Miss Doris, they’d yell at me and tell me I don’t know what I’m doing and I need to keep my mouth shut and eyes open. I learned how to make proper red rice and butter beans, braise collard greens. Southern food, soul food — that was my earliest introduction.”
Grimes kept his mouth shut and continued to absorb everything he could about the food coming from the farms and waters and wizened cooks of the Lowcountry. He studied at Johnson and Wales, worked at Hank’s, and helped open Cypress before moving to McCrady’s. When Brock took over as executive chef in 2006, Grimes says the vibe immediately shifted.
“It was a really exciting time with Sean coming on, it was something so extreme and so different for me. It was like hitting the reset button.” Grimes says seeing Brock bring in new techniques and “half-built circulators he bought off eBay” lit him up, instilling in him the mantra he still embraces today. “It was basically if your imagination can dream it up, if we can think it, we can make it.”
In a 2016 City Paper interview, Brock explained the difference between his two babies, molecular McCrady’s and larger-than-life Husk: “McCrady’s will always be to me — my hub to constantly evolve where there are no limits and no rules and no because Husk is very disciplined by design. It always will be. There’s no bending of the rules there. So McCrady’s will always be the place where I can bend the rules and express that part of my brain.”
Grimes witnessed Brock’s approach evolve firsthand; when they started Husk, Grimes says Brock came in “guns blazing.” “I saw him out on the farms and saw what he was going through and the way he was changing his philosophy, and he was imparting that philosophy to me. He’s preaching the gospel; as he was developing and changing his mindset, he was changing my mind.”
Like any proselytizer worth his salt, Brock kept his message simple and deliberate: Let the ingredients shine. Grimes says the preparation of indigenous foods is part of this mission, but it’s evolved over the years.
Maybe, at first, when Brock was shattering stilted shrimp and grits expectations, the ingredients looked like Jimmy Red Corn and benne seeds. “It can be that aspect of rediscovering what real Southern ingredients are,” says Grimes. “The other side as simple as showcasing radishes and heirloom tomatoes … I think that was a lot of what [Brock] was trying to say — it’s not just about collards and ham hocks and over-cooked lima beans. A Southern ingredient can be Tennessee truffles, we have caviar from North Carolina.”
They have vinegar from , too. Husk sources vinegar — everything from to honeysuckle to heirloom pepper — from Lindera Farms, a company that takes produce and ferments it into wine then ages it into vinegar. “If you look into most chef pantries, locality goes out the window,” says Lindera Farms owner Daniel Liberson. “Olive oil, balsamic, soy sauce — if you’re trying to emphasize locality it’s anathema.” Liberson started in the industry as a and even staged at Husk. When he got into the vinegar making biz, Liberson knew it would be right up Brock’s alley. “I went down to talk to Travis, who didn’t remember me at all,” laughs Liberson. “So it was basically a cold call.”
A cold call that would result in the successful (polyamorous) relationship between Virginia honeysuckle vinegar and Spade and Clover radishes, heirloom pepper vinegar and White Stone oysters. “Lindera is a nexus between the two ideas — how do you make a product that these chefs want to use in a model that actually works for the farmers,” says Liberson, who sources produce from Virginia and Maryland and salt from West Virginia — “There’s so much unexplored territory everywhere in the lower 50 states.”
This unexplored territory keeps Grimes busy, even almost nine years on, with a menu that changes daily. He’s not burned out. The dishes haven’t gotten tired or boring or bland. Grimes is still excited, and as farms like Lindera continue to innovate, Grimes wants to incorporate that innovation into Husk, disciplined by design, as Brock said, to celebrate Southern cuisine. “Our support of them [the farms] feeds back into our philosophy of changing peoples’ perceptions of what it means to eat Southern, without having to take away from the classics,” says Grimes. “That food is wonderful [the classics] but our mission is to highlight and celebrate different aspects of ingredients that have been available and lost to us, and we’re trying to bring products being produced by local artisans.”
Any given day, for lunch or dinner or brunch on the weekends, you’ll see names in bold that indicate they’re local, or at least produced by small-time, savvy producers. Johns Island mini farm Spade and Clover is a frequent flyer, and owner/farmer John Warren says Husk is one of the farm’s core clients — “Husk orients the kitchen to be flexible for what they can get. It won’t be as consistent as a grocery, and they know that.” That’s part of the fun.
A Wednesday night in December
“Sometimes it takes one new ingredient or the most delicious carrot you ever tasted that will spark so much passion and inspiration that drives you and motivates you, that makes you want to do something wonderful.”
We visit Husk on a Wednesday night in early December. Too early for resolutions, too late to try and fit into that holiday dress, we feast: Spade and Clover radishes beautiful on their own; White Stone oysters with sweet pork butter, cornbread, apple, Andouille, topped with heirloom pepper vinegar, “like Thanksgiving” Grimes informs us; Royal Red shrimp and grits in mini cast iron pans with a gravy so rich you might just stop there, but you don’t; grouper and mushrooms, Carolina heritage pork, eggnog creme brulee.
It was busy in the restaurant, and I hadn’t dined there since 2013 when my mother brought me for a special dinner, shortly after I’d moved to Charleston, just the two of us. It was eye-opening, then, to eat at the famed spot. When I moved out of downtown in 2015 and could no longer walk to R Kitchen or Kudu or the Bar at Husk, I became acclimated to solid neighborhood joints and takeout, as one does. Going out to eat meant trying new places only, educating myself about the ever-evolving food scene. So going to Husk (not new, so far from it that it could even be deemed archaic in my mind) on a Wednesday night in December, well, I was wary.
There’s is a triumphant story, though, despite the staffing crisis, the proliferation of farm-to-table restaurants, the competitive food scene, rising rents. Husk is as good as ever, with attentive and thoughtful service, spirit-forward cocktails, and simply damn delicious dishes that honor local farmers above all else.
“It’s hard to master knowing how many different ingredients you want in a dish, to know what can be stripped away to show it’s purity,” says Grimes. “I have lots of veteran cooks and impressionable cooks when they want to jump in there and create they’re grabbing 50 different things, I’m trying to teach them the art of restraint.” Grimes says after doing the thing at McCrady’s, and making food that was “very complicated, maybe more complicated then it needed to be, just for the sake of doing, not because we should,” he’s finally settled into the philosophy he and Brock both came to, standing in the middle of farms. “At this it’s about how to do simple beautiful [dishes] to have that relationship with farmers and artisans — they’re turning over great responsibility to you. Your job is to present their work, showcase their hard work. They’ve been growing it for months you put it on a plate in a matter of hours. Show some respect.”