When you get down to it, Palmetto Bluff's Music To Your Mouth Festival is essentially a chef play date. Because at this event, the chefs get to enjoy themselves as much as the guests.
But this isn't a gaggle of amateurs bumping spatulas for the first time. The cadre of culinary A-listers might surprise those who are unfamiliar with Music to Your Mouth, now in its seventh year.
The event began Nov. 19 with an invite-only dinner soiree and continues this week with river cruises, chef showdowns, cooking classes, bonfires and live music.
Five James Beard Award Winning Chefs -- Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, Chris Hastings of Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala., Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, Mike Lata of FIG in Charleston and Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia in Atlanta -- will serve up some of the region's best Southern cuisine.
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Other guest chefs include Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner in Raleigh, N.C., Ford Fry of JCT Kitchen in Atlanta and Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh in Charleston.
"It's a who's who of chefs in the Southeast," said Brandon Carter, Music to Your Mouth's executive chef.
Since his arrival at Palmetto Bluff three years ago, Carter has been tasked with ensuring guests have the best food and beverage experience possible, and that the chefs have a good time.
"One of the things we really pride ourselves on is how well we take care of the people who come and participate. (The chefs) prepare these incredible dishes, but then they all get the chance to get together and hang out," Carter said.
As word has gotten out, more chefs and more guests are scrambling to be a part of Music to Your Mouth. To keep the atmosphere intimate and to encourage chef and guest interaction, the event was capped this year at 2,200 people, said Courtney Hampson, the festival's marketing manager. Every event is sold out.
"When we went live with general ticket sales in June we sold more tickets in June than we did in all of 2012," Hampson said.
The Chef Showdown, James Beard Dinner, Stink & Drink Cruise, and Bacon & Bourbon Cruises sold out in a day. The Whole Hog packages, which allow entry into every event, were sold out within the week. Every available inn cottage and home in Palmetto Bluff is also booked.
"It's still the same event as last year, but nobody knew about it before," Carter said. "It was our little secret. Now that we're gaining so much attention and recognition for it, the expectation is greater."
As swanky as the event is (tickets to the Nov. 23 Culinary Festival are $250 a pop) the event maintains an air of playfulness.
At the Nov. 20 Chef Showdown with Carter pitted against and San Francisco chef Gary Danko, the tie-breaker will go to whoever can shotgun a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer the fastest.
"I feel like I've been training for this my whole life. Gary Danko should be worried," Carter said.
At last year's Saturday night Oyster Roast, the pinnacle of the Whole Hog Weekend, attendees had to slurp up a whiskey shot from an ice luge shaped like a pig before entering. Chef shenanigans have even resulted in a few golf carts being compromised, Carter said. Use your imagination on that one.
As chefs mingle with guests, it's natural for James Beard-winning chef Sean Brock to whip out a flask and share a swig of whiskey.
"It's a rare event to get to know guests on a personal level," Brock said. "You get to meet new people and build those networks."
This will be Brock's fourth Music to Your Mouth event. He said Palmetto Bluff is one of his favorite places.
"For me its like a Boy Scout trip. You're out there and it's the time of year where fires are built and everyone has conversations around the fire."
The warmth and friendliness of Music to Your Mouth facilitates what is the hallmark of any Southern chef.
"This is what we do," Carter said. "That is what the festival is all about.
"It continues to evolve, but at the end of the day it's a celebration of good Southern food and hospitality and great drinks."
Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.