It’s almost impossible to believe, but prior to 2006, Charleston, SC was food festival-less. Angel Postell and her formidable team changed all that in the spring of 2006 with the advent of what’s now called The BB&T Charleston Wine & Food Festival.
The timing was impeccable. While Charleston restaurants have been on the food world’s radar for some twenty five years, it’s in just the past few six or seven years that it’s gotten smokin’ hot in Charleston’s restaurant kitchens. Since then, not one but three local chefs have taken home James Beard awards, many others have been nominated, Sean Brock’s newest restaurant, Husk, has been deemed the best new restaurant of the year, and more amazing restaurants are popping up (particularly on Upper King Street) than mushrooms after a rain storm. So, it seems absolutely fitting that we have a world-class festival to showcase our own local culinary talent, as well as that of the entire nation.
As the 7th festival prepares to kick off this week, March 1 – March 4, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on festival’s past, especially the very first festival. The final planning for the festival happened to coincide with my recent resignation as a restaurant critic and food writer for The Post and Courier, Charleston’s local daily newspaper. Thus,for the first time in nearly a decade, I was able to step out and away from the mandated cloud of absolute anonymity around local chefs, and into the front lines of all the fun.
I remember sitting around Nathalie Dupree’s dining room table with a group of about twelve people on the planning committee putting the finishing touches on the last frantic rounds of planning. That very same week, I made a trip with a few other brave soldiers to a local restaurant supply store armed with a very long list of items to purchase for the demo and prep kitchens, filling at least four carts along the way. A few days before the festival, myself and a tiny group worked unpacking those very items along with a huge collection of Le Crueset pots and pans to set up the prep kitchen. There was laughter, there was a lot of wind flapping the wings of the tents, and there were a lot of raw nerves. But, when it was all said and done, the first festival came and went amazingly smoothly and was generally well-received. And, in subsequent years, they have only gotten better.
Over the years, some memories stand out more than others. The year of the “gale,” when driving wind and copious amounts of rain practically drowned the opening night gala tent. The year the Le Crueset wall in the demo tent came tumbling down. The year a slightly sodden stalker followed me relentlessly all around the tasting tent. The year I ran all around Marion Square, twice, to try and find a fresh, whole head of garlic for the always gentlemanly Frank Stitt. The year a slightly pampered chef (who shall remain un-named) had a melt down over roasted beets and some apparent errors in his demo basket preparation. The year of my first book signing. And, then there was the year I covered the festival’s headlining event, Food & Wine with a View, starring Daniel Boulud.
Because I trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu, French chefs have always ranked very high on my list of people I admire. It’s the way the work, the way they speak, the way they create – when well done, it’s captivating, inspiring, and delicious. My job on this night was simple – watch, listen, eat, drink and eventually, write about it. It was the dream assignment! Watching Chef Boulud and his team orchestrate the preparation of the feast was like watching poetry in motion, a perfectly executed performance of culinary theater. Even though it’s been over two years, every morsel of the entire evening is permanently etched in my mind.
But, of all the events, food, wine, glamor, it’s being down in the trenches, behind the scenes in the decidedly unglamorous (but highly functional) demo prep kitchen where I love being best. This is where the action is – bulk chopping and dicing, the unique camaraderie that exists between fellow chefs and cooks, hard, manual labor, and, usually some amazing rocking tunes to set it all off blaring from a remote corner of the tent.
That’s where I’ll be in just a few days. It can’t get here soon enough!
For more information and/or tickets to the BB&T Charleston Wine & Food Festival, visit www.charlestonwineandfood.com