Chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis is on a journey.
He is searching for his own soul, in a way, but also the soul of the Lowcountry and all of South Carolina. Pretty much the world, too, if you think about it.
The 38-year-old Charleston native has discovered enough to become a leading ambassador of Gullah-Geechee cuisine.
It’s not easy finding the roots and essence of an Africa-rooted cuisine often overlooked and seldom documented. It has taken him to St. Thomas, where people heard his Lowcountry accent and asked if he were from down island; and to Trinidad, where he saw rice that was cultivated here 150 years ago and thought to be lost forever.
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This week, the ambassador comes to Hilton Head Island for a series of pop-up dinners open to the public. He will be given the keys to the kitchen at the Lucky Rooster Kitchen & Bar, where he will team with chef and owner Clayton Rollison and Charleston chef Digby Stridiron (Parcel 32) to showcase true Gullah food Tuesday through Saturday, Oct. 17-21.
It brings to the white tablecloths of a restaurant that bills itself as “American bistro, Southern soul” the sweet tastes of a culture that permeates the Lowcountry but nobody knows it.
The big show is on Tuesday, when he will interact with the diners, explaining the appetizers followed by a five-course dinner with paired wines or mocktails. The dinner will benefit Greener Grass, a non-profit that helps willing addicts and alcoholics get long-term treatment.
I see on the menu things like “Berbere spiced pork sausage with tomato, gravy with oysters, rye and crème fraiche,” “Oyster soufflé baked Awendaw,” and “Braised oxtail with Hoppin’ John croquette and peanut and coconut creamed sweet potato leaves.”
I asked him the main thing he wants people to know about Gullah food.
“It’s not a fried chicken and macaroni and cheese cuisine in its truest form,” he said.
It’s lots of seafood — shrimp, oysters, crab, whiting. It’s lots of rice and other grains. It’s many more greens than collard greens. It’s peas and beans and tiny benne seeds. It’s peppers that not only open the palette, but cool the brow.
It’s not the whitewashed Gullah food of tricked up shrimp and grits.
Rollison said, “What most people think is Gullah-Geechee food is soul food. That is so far from what it is. Soul food is one element of it.”
Dennis started his career as a dishwasher at Hyman’s Seafood in Charleston. He got a culinary degree from Trident Technical College. He worked his way up. He was influenced by older black cooks at Hyman’s, including Nigel Drayton who now owns two Nigel’s Good Food restaurants.
When Dennis worked at Hank’s Seafood in Charleston, founding chef Frank McMahon breezed by on a busy Friday before service began and said, “I’m going to make a chef out of you.”
Today, Dennis is a personal chef and caterer, who last month served 900 at the 100th anniversary gala of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP. And he does lots of pop-up meals — serving Gullah food for a night in someone else’s restaurant.
Last week, it was an Italian restaurant in Charleston where the chef was enthusiastic about the cuisine. But when Dennis asked the servers if they knew about Gullah, not a single hand was raised.
Charleston is a dining mecca, but the chefs aren’t from the Lowcountry.
Dennis is peeling back the layers of the onion to taste and smell the hidden influences of African foodways, which often came to the Lowcountry by way of the Caribbean, and were then influenced here by the Huguenots. It’s an influence that stretches over thousands of years and covers the planet, but somehow came out of a pot on his grandmother’s stove.
“Gullah-Geechee food is a lot of the basis not only of South Carolina food, but Southern food, and the original food culture of the New World,” Dennis said.
He said his journey is “a search for a history never written or documented. So much we lost and are now rediscovering. Even for people in the culture, we have become so disconnected from the land and the old foodways. Even my grandfather was not doing the things his grandfather did.”
Dennis said it was not a pretty circumstance that brought African influences into white society. But Gullah culture — language, cuisine, music — nevertheless shaped South Carolina in ways we don’t even yet know.
And today, Dennis gets diverse crowds at his pop-up dinners.
That’s a sweet spot in his life’s journey.
“We’re able to bring people together around the table,” he said.
If you go
Gullah-Geechee pop-up dinner series
▪ Oct. 17-21 at Lucky Rooster, 841 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island. A special a la carte menu paying homage to this cuisine with West African heritage will be available Wednesday through Saturday. Guests may select from chef BJ Dennis’s Gullah-Geechee specialties including appetizers, entrees, desserts and specialty cocktails.
▪ The week begins Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 6:30 p.m. with a special seating for a five-course dinner with paired wines or mocktails.
▪ To make reservations call 843-681-3474.