The Charleston Wine + Food Festival, which kicks off March 4, proudly touts the number of out-of-town visitors it attracts to the city each year — almost 12,000 of them in 2019. Equally notable is the number of chefs and culinary professionals it draws from other cities, too.
For festival attendees, the appeal of guest chefs is clear. It’s a chance to experience the skills and styles of renowned cooks from all over the country alongside the top talent of Charleston. But what’s in it for the chefs?
Cooking at festivals is not easy. Out-of-town participants have to lug equipment and supplies with them, work in unfamiliar kitchens, and prep and serve small dishes to potentially hundreds of guests at a time. The festival may offset some costs through donated supplies and services, but the chefs aren’t getting paid for their time and they foot most travel and food costs themselves.
So why keep coming back? The answers vary depending upon where each chef comes from and where they are in their careers, but they share some common themes.
Matthew Register from Garland, N.C. is still an up-and-comer on the Southern food scene. He and his wife Jessica opened Southern Smoke BBQ in 2014, and they have quickly made a name for themselves not just for traditional wood-cooked barbecue but also upscale Southern sides and a thriving catering operation.
“This is my fourth [festival],” Register says. “That is hard to believe.”
For Register, just being invited to cook at Wine + Food was an achievement in and of itself. “For so long,” he says. “I just wanted to be a part of that and feel that energy and say, ‘Hey, we do Charleston.’ ”
Now that he’s a festival regular, Register keeps coming back in part because of the cachet of the event. “You see everyone at Charleston Wine + Food,” he says. “It’s an honor.”
Whitney Otawka is the chef at Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia — it’s the sole commercial establishment on the isolated 18-mile island. Otawka says she’s attracted by the city itself. “Charleston is a great city to go eat in and be inspired by,” she says.
In addition to her events, she plans to do a lot of dining while in town. “I’ll try to hit up FIG or the Ordinary while I’m there,” Otawka says. “I like Xiao Bao, and I want to try Melfi’s … We chefs love to eat all day.”
Register and Otawka are both still relatively new to the game, so participating in out-of-town events helps get their names out and boost their culinary reputations. Michael Anthony, the executive chef of New York’s Gramercy Tavern already has a shelf of James Beard Foundation Awards, including Best Chef: New York City in 2012 and national Outstanding Chef in 2015. What keeps an established chef like Anthony coming back?
His first appearance was in 2011. “I was invited to do a dinner at McCrady’s,” he says. “I hadn’t set foot in Charleston before. I didn’t know what to expect.”
The experience blew him away. “The natural beauty of the city caught me by surprise,” Anthony says, “I was really impressed by how well the festival is integrated into the restaurant industry and the community as a whole … I loved the restaurants that I visited, and I was overwhelmed by the quality of the meals. I walked away with some great friendships.”
After he flew back to New York, Anthony says, “I sent an email the next day begging to be invited back the next year. I loved the connections and the community building that was going on there.”
This year, Anthony is cooking at two of the more high-end events, the Supper Club at Carrie’s on Thursday night, which takes place in the home of Carrie Morey of Callie’s Charleston Biscuits, and out at Mike Lata’s home on James Island for Mike’s Porch Party.
The benefits do come at a cost. “It is a lot of work,” Register admits. These days, he’s doing a lot fewer festivals than in the past so he can focus on projects back home in Garland. But he makes an exception for Charleston.
“It’s still a really big deal for us,” he says. He’ll arrive in a Chevy Suburban loaded to the roof with food and towing his barbecue pit on a trailer loaded down with Yeti coolers.
“We bring most of our [ingredients],” Register says. “One of the reasons I do that is that we bring local products … Our tomatoes will be local, our pork belly will be local — we’re bringing greens and those kinds of things, too. That’s the products we use in our restaurant.”
But Register has learned not to overcommit. This year he signed up for just two events, the Black Tie BBQ at Riverfront Park on Saturday night and the Culinary Village on Sunday afternoon.
Otawka was initially slated to do three events, but she also scaled back to two. “You have the opportunity to say no,” she says, “and you don’t want to take on too much.”
Both her events this year — Corkscrew + Campfires on Johns Island and Sunday’s Feast + Fire 2.0 out on Goat Island — involve live-fire outdoor cookery. The festival will set her team up with what they need in terms of campfire gear and fuel, but Otawka says she’ll bring everything else with her.
All three of these out-of-town chefs are bullish on Charleston as a food city, and getting another taste of the local scene is a big part of the draw.
“I think the events at Charleston Wine + Food are always quite unique,” Otawka says. “It is one of the most lovely food events that happens in the country. It’s a great opportunity for people to get out and taste some dishes and interact with some chefs who are usually in a happy place,” meaning not getting crushed on a restaurant line during the dinner rush.
Even for a New York pro like Michael Anthony, dining in Charleston is a treat.
“I love the creativity that can happen in a sort of slightly smaller market,” Anthony says. He cites the experience at Xiao Bao Biscuit and their approach of “cooking food that is personalized and delicious … All I want to do is go back and see what’s happening in Charleston.
“It’s the kind of place where you can dig into the past as well as look forward to the future,” he adds. “I gravitate toward places where people take having fun and eating food seriously, and there’s probably no better place in the world for that than Charleston.”