“It’s low tide, so you have to jump.”
It’s a little after 2 p.m. on a Monday and the wooden shrimp trawler, built in 1969, sits low in the water at the Wando Dock on Shem Creek. Emily Hahn takes the leap first, nimbly navigating the portside of the Miss Paula in her clunky fishing boots, leaning one deeply tanned arm against a cable as she nods toward the galley. “Ironically the only place I couldn’t be the first few times I went out shrimping was the galley, I would get so sea sick.”
The irony that a former Top Chef contestant would not be able to swing it in the boat’s kitchen makes Hahn smile. She’s smiling a lot, actually, for someone standing dead center in the blazing sun, sans sunglasses — “I usually wear my prescription glasses, I don’t have contacts.” Hahn says that after a few months of full-time shrimping, she finally has her sea legs, and she’s been able to wean off her daily dose of Dramamine.
“We’ve been making some pretty epic crew food: shrimp and grits, ceviche, fried fish tacos, eggs in a hole with fried onions and bacon.” The crew was understandably happy when they discovered their new mate’s skills, “they’re like ‘Oh — you can really cook!”
Yes, Hahn can cook, and she’s made quite a name for herself doing so. Originally from Lynchburg, Va., Hahn has been working in professional kitchens for 16 years now — since she was 21 — living in Charleston on and off since 2005. Her first big local gig was at FIG: “I drove straight through from Montpelier, Vt. to Charleston with 24 hours to spend and told Mike Lata I had no time for a stage he just had to trust that I would live up to his standards,” she says.
Hahn would go on to work under Jeremiah Bacon and Jill Mathias at Carolina’s before working with the teams at Warehouse and Parlor Deluxe within a five year span, “under much chaos,” she says.
“Being a first-time executive chef, I learned a lot about who I was as a cook.” After leaving Warehouse, Hahn pursued a passion project on King Street, The Getaway, cooking food inspired by time spent in Patagonia, “a culinary oasis.”
The Getaway, though, did not turn out to be the oasis Hahn sought (the space has changed concepts twice since the restaurant’s sudden shuttering in Aug. 2018), and she found refuge with a longtime inspiration, Cindy Tarvin.
“Mark Marhefka introduced me to Cindy years ago when I was at Warehouse … I dug she was a lady hauling in this shrimp,” says Hahn. “I called her and said ‘Hi, can I work there a couple days?’ At first I was spending a lot of time looking and watching.”
Cindy’s son, and captain of the Miss Paula, Vasa Tarvin is the one who hooked the family on shrimping. He began crewing for longtime Shem Creek shrimper Wayne Magwood on the Winds of Fortune when he was only 12 years old. The Tarvins started their company on the creek, purchasing the Miss Paula in 2011 (originally named the Laura Anne) and more recently adding the spiffy steel-hulled trawler Carolina Breeze to their fleet.
“I started learning on the Carolina Breeze, knowing it wasn’t my forever home on a boat, but soaked in everything I could to make me a stronger candidate for full time crew on the Miss Paula,” says Hahn.
When she’s not on the Miss Paula, Hahn is still popping up in other facets of Charleston’s F&B scene. On her terms.
“Since I decided to step back from running kitchens I have been helping my amazing friends,” says Hahn. She works with Amanda Click, who runs popular wood-fired pizza oven pop-up First Name Basis, as well as Karen Moran of Sweet Lulu’s Bakery and Cocktail Caravan, “who is teaching me the ins and outs of running a bar on wheels.” Hahn’s sleek website, chefemhahn.com, features professional photos of her culinary creations: squid ink pasta, roasted carrot farfalle, rudderfish crudo.
An aspiring old salt, Hahn admits that when she does something — like asking Lata to go ahead and trust her skills, or curating an on-brand website — she gives it her all. And she wants to be damn good at whatever it is she’s pursuing. “I’m an overachiever by nature, I want to be great,” says Hahn.
But the scripture of the water is not written in the same language as the rules of the land. Most (good) chefs will probably tell you they are kind of control freaks — at least in the kitchen, where their livelihood and reputations are staked on their product and prep and plating. They have a system that works for them, even when it’s 7 p.m. on a Friday and they’re six feet deep in the weeds.
Hahn says on the water, she has to loosen up, even if it means accepting that she won’t be the best at every task, from hauling in shrimp to going down into the engine room to fix jammed parts, “I’m feeling a bit more confident, but there are still these mishaps that are happening and you’re like ‘Well, shit. Guess I’m gonna learn this today!'”
She speaks with gusto, like a college freshman getting their mind blown by an intro philosophy course. It’s a steep learning curve for anyone, at any age, finding sea legs on a 50-year-old wooden boat.
“How often do people get to change their careers?,” asks Hahn. “And it’s not even a career change, it’s a slight shift so I can be a better human being and more passionate about the next venture.”
As romantic as a seafaring life can seem, the fishing and shrimping industry is still old-school and dangerous, especially on the rickety docks of Shem Creek, where luxe air conditioned powerboats and paddle boards and tipsy kayakers crowd the channel, making too much wake and way too much noise. The context of the commercial maritime industry in Charleston has changed dramatically, but the act of people pulling in the bounty from the sea, well, that hasn’t changed very much at all.
An excerpt from a News and Courier article published July 3, 1885:
“The men who fish in the ‘mosquito fleet,’ or the small boats, are steady, sober, and industrious, and are fearless and hardy. They fish between tides, that is, on the change of the tide from flood to ebb or from ebb to flood … it often happens that the wind blows from the east. When it does the fishermen never attempt to reach the banks, as the fish will not bite in an easterly wind.”
Reid Henninger rests his forearms against a makeshift retail counter next to a cooler of ice and a table of freshly cleaned fish. Customers pull up in their Audis and Mercedes and golf carts, looking for grouper, flounder, sheepshead. We’ve found a bit of shade — it’s another sunny day on the creek, and Henninger, who crews for famed monger Mark Marhefka on the Amy Marie, mulls over the idea of fishing itself. A College of Charleston alum who studied oil painting and sculpture, the chef/fisherman/maker sinks into a reverie:
“When you drop a line for grouper you’re fighting the current, the boat has to be driven while you’re fishing it to maintain some accuracy in the whole ordeal.
You drop a line, say it’s 700 feet down, and the current is taking your line another 200 feet in one direction laterally, so you’re essentially standing on a 50 story building and [your line is] half a football field away and you’re going to catch a couple 20-pound groupers? Pretty wild to think about the fact that that is even possible. And a few days later, it’s an entree at The Ordinary.”
Like Hahn, Henninger has been devoting quite a bit of his time to the sea. He works approximately 60 hours a week between Marhefka’s Abundant Seafood, Babas on Cannon, and Kinfolk, a new spot on Johns Island. “I like to stay busy,” he shrugs. Before this, Henninger’s most recent restaurant gig was serving as exec chef at the revamped Monza. Hahn was the chef de cuisine during the same time. They both parted ways with the restaurant this spring.
“Being under fluorescent lights for most of my 20s, this makes me feel alive,” he says.
And like Hahn, Henninger kicked off his Holy City culinary career at a Lata joint. “I staged at The Ordinary — I was there for a few minutes and I was like, ‘I don’t want to work anywhere else, this place is legit.’ I think it’s the best kitchen in Charleston for sure and that was a great educational experience.”
The Ordinary’s Instagram is a shrine to local purveyors: scroll through for Barrier Island Sea Cloud oysters; Clammer Dave littlenecks with pancetta and rouille; Miss Paula’s peel and eat; and of course, Abundant Seafood flounder with lemon, horseradish, and trout roe. It’s full circle for Henninger: he spends two to four days out on the water with Marhefka and another brave soul, fighting Mother Nature for hours upon hours, working the Amy Marie’s four rusty reels.
“Think of the equation — there are three guys on here, when all is said and done about two and a half days of fishing and if it’s a good trip then you come back with say, 1,200 pounds of fish and you’re bringing them up one at a time, two at a time at most. You bring a fish in, it’s fighting for its life, if a barracuda doesn’t want to tear it to shreds on its way up, then you’re throwing it in the boat, ripping the hook off, the fish is spreading guts all over. After a certain amount of time, then you’re doing that on repeat.”
If they hit a hotspot, Henninger says it can get fun, not exactly sport fishing-fun, but distracting enough so that they “forget about the fact they’re filthy, every bone in their body hurts, and they’re like an inch away from heat exhaustion.”
Despite the brutal body beatdown, Henninger, who also served as Edmund’s Oast executive chef for two-and-a-half years, can’t seem to stay away from the Amy Marie, Abundant Seafood’s only full-time vessel. Built in Key West in 1985, the 39-foot fiberglass boat is … well-loved. The Tarvins’ Carolina Breeze looks like a yacht compared to old Amy. But she gets the job done, chugging along steadily at 7 knots until Marhefka and crew are far enough offshore that they can start bottom fishing.
“It’s like every Christmas card your grandma ever got you, if you found out she had to climb Mount Everest to get it,” Henninger analogizes. Before spending days and (mostly) sleepless nights on the 39-foot, 34-year-old boat, Henninger says his relationship with his purveyors was “text messages at midnight with fish availability and me just replying ‘I’ll take 50 pounds of this.’ It’s an industry. It’s not what it once was as far as size and breadth and everything, but it’s still alive.”
July 5, 1970. A News and Courier headline: “Shrimping Tops in Seafood Industry.” The article reads, “It would be almost impossible to find out how much money is spent each year in Charleston on fishing. Suffice to say that the fishing industry — and it is an industry — contributes substantially to the economy of the Port City. First, there is the commercial shrimping business with its annual catch worth several million dollars … the shrimper’s day is often under way before 4 a.m. and when the season is in swing, the boats don’t return until sundown. Shrimping calls for long hours with no guaranteed salary for the trawlers’ crew.”
Hahn says Henninger busts her chops about the “leisurely” pace of shrimping compared to the 100 meter dash pace of offshore commercial fishing. But like the fishers and shrimpers of yore, she’s still up at dawn, on the boat all day, hauling in shrimp that will be tagged on social media by her friends and chef peers — Kwei Fei, Babas, Maison. Heck, if she spends enough time learning from Captain Tarvin, maybe one day Henninger will crew for her on her own boat.
“I’ll always be a chef,” Hahn says. But also, “I don’t miss being in the kitchen.” For now, she’s still contributing with a lot of sweat, and a deep appreciation, renewed daily, for the source of our city’s list-topping fare.
“What I’m learning about this is there is a right way to fix things, but it’s the same as cooking with a limited amount of ingredients — you’re kind of just slicing cables together, there’s no real magic that happens. It’s hands-on, hard work, and that’s kind of what I was built for.”