What does Charleston's culinary renaissance mean for Beaufort County?

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 5, 2013 

FOOD SHRIMP-GRITS 1 CH

The rise in prominence of chefs such as Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Craig Deihl and Jeremiah Bacon and the James Beard awards and nominations heaped upon them has helped make Charleston one of the nation's premiere culinary destinations and advanced the perception of Lowcountry cuisine as being about more than just shrimp and grits, she-crab soup and Frogmore Stew.

T. ORTEGA GAINES — McClatchy-Tribune News Service

  • Yuri Gow, CQ's Restaurant, Hilton Head Island

  • Robert Irvine, Robert Irvine's Eat, Hilton Head Island

  • Christopher Johnson, Michael Anthony's, Hilton Head Island

  • Matt Jording, Sage Room Restaurant, Hilton Head Island

  • Tony Pope, Checheesee Creek Club, Okatie

  • Clayton Rollison, WiseGuys, Hilton Head Island

  • John Soulia, Hampton Hall Country Club, Bluffton

  • Robert Wysong, Colleton River Plantation Club, Bluffton

The A-list chefs, gourmands and nationally known writers who descended on Charleston this past weekend for the city's popular wine and food festival were further evidence -- as if anyone needed additional convincing -- that this is the Holy City's culinary moment.

The rise in prominence of chefs such as Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Craig Deihl and Jeremiah Bacon and the James Beard awards and nominations heaped upon them has helped make Charleston one of the nation's premiere culinary destinations and advanced the perception of Lowcountry cuisine as being about more than just shrimp and grits, she-crab soup and Frogmore Stew.

Putting aside the city's buzzworthy chefs and eateries and an annual food festival that attracts more than 20,000 people, many still wonder if Charleston's culinary influence can extend beyond Rainbow Row to other parts of the state, including Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island.

For example, would a talented sous chef or chef de cuisine at one of Charleston's top restaurants seeking to make a name for himself flee the Holy City for comparatively more remote parts of the state?s

Matt and Ted Lee, two of Charleston's most notable culinary personalities and the authors of the recently released "Charleston Kitchen" seem to think so.

"I could absolutely see more and more young, creative people, especially people who have worked in kitchens in Charleston ... choosing to set up shop in more rural parts of the state," Ted said. "I mean, there have always been great food all over South Carolina. Whether it's Harold's in Yemassee or a place like The Mill Pond Steakhouse in Boykin, which, for decades, has been doing a fantastic job."

As one might expect, the recognized culinary talent in Charleston currently dwarfs that of Beaufort County, according to the 2013 edition of "Best Chefs America," a recently released, 400-page list of the nation's best chefs as voted on by their peers.

About 28 Charleston chefs are featured in the book versus just eight from Bluffton, Hilton Head and Okatie. No Beaufort chefs were featured in the book.

Chef Russell Keane of NEO, a farm-to-table restaurant which opened last year near Moss Creek in Bluffton, said a key demographic missing from Beaufort County will likely prevent Charleston's culinary renaissance from having too big of an influence on the restaurant scene locally.

"What we don't have here is college-aged kids with disposable income, and we're missing the 25- to 35-year-olds that they have in Charleston and Greenville," Keane said. "When you have that demographic, you can charge a little bit more and you're able to do things that you just can't do here. But that's how it goes. Trends will always catch on quicker in a metro area like Charleston than they do here."

Because of those conditions, Keane said, restaurants like his, with a focus on organic and local ingredients, must adjust their menus and their prices accordingly -- or operate for months in the red.

"What we're doing is very, very expensive," Keane said. "We're buying organic flour that's three times the price of conventional flour and fresh, non-homogenized butter that is five times as expensive as the other stuff.

"I'm just on a moral crusade at this point and trying to do the right thing for our food system."

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