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
In many ways, 2011 was a truly calamitous and difficult year, a year many of us would rather forget. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, war, and the ongoing drudgery of the economy seemed to bombard the world with relentless, reckless cruelty and destruction.
This had to have had a powerful effect on our collective humanity consciousness. I feel like levels of compassion, kindness, and simple goodness were higher than I’ve sensed in a long time, and a lot of that was expressed through the many restaurant kitchens and meals I enjoyed this past year. Let’s face it – there was a lot on my plate in 2011 and a lot of mandatory eating in both Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA as I was researching Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah and the upcoming Savannah Chef’s Table.
Time and again, my palate kept going back to simple things. The stuff that really wowed me was not necessarily “haute”, but down-home, done really, really right. Think fried chicken and panna cotta, burgers and pimento, crispy, crunch salads, pickles and fried pig skin, and you’re sort of on the same track I’ve been following all year here in the south. I call the style “Southern rustica” and I’m thrilled that chefs like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Craig Deihl and so many other are bringing it home, again and at last. Local, national, and international chefs heard our collective call for comfort and answered with a potent brew of meticulously sourced produce/products, prepared with simplicity and precision, and a generous dash of love.
I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite dishes that I’ve eaten this year, and the dishes that follow below are the ones that I’m still thinking about, in some cases, many months later. That’s some powerful goodness. Thank you to all who helped make that happen!
What is it about this cooked cream that almost immediately transports me to that cocoon of safety and comfort that was my childhood? It seems like it was everywhere this year and that is a good thing. I don’t have a photo of the creamy, just right panna cotta layered with silky butterscotch and a mountain of whipped cream that I enjoyed at Husk, just a few short weeks ago, but it’s one of the best things I had all year. A close second was this slightly more elegant version I had at sister restaurant, McCrady’s.
The panna cotta barely quivered, just as it should, and was infused with the subtlety of bay leaf. Crunchy bites of freeze dried white chocolate and ruby red, tart/sweet pomegranate seeds were exquisite, and talk about beautiful to look at.
Simply Salads and Crab Cakes
EVO in Park Circle, North Charleston is nationally celebrated for their amazing, wood-fired pizzas, but their salads, always composed of the freshest ingredients from local purveyors and idyllically dressed, are some of the best around. This white melon beauty, dressed ever so slightly with ribbons of salty, savory prosciutto, fruity, extra virgin olive oil and a dash of freshly ground black pepper, was a late summer menu special that remains perfectly fresh in my mind some six months later.
Another memorable salad moment was enjoyed on the sunny, back porch of The Starland Cafe on a hot, hot August day in Savannah, GA. This colorfully painted Victorian house on the south side of town is widely recognized for its veggie/vegan magic, and The Kitchen Sink salad, dressed in a succulent Tomato Oil Infused Buttermilk, miraculously marries ingredients as diverse as red grapes, artichoke hearts, asparagus, golden raisins, red onion, green apple, crunchy noodles, fire roasted tomatoes and more into a unified, heaping bowl of garden fresh deliciousness.
Just because, I’ve indulged in Michelle Weaver’s of Charleston Grill fame quite-possibly very-best-in-the-world crab cake on several occasions this past year. Binding-free chunks of sweet lump crab with a crackling, crunchy, caramelized sear and a puddle of a silky beurre blanc, fresh herbs and candy sweet tomatoes are all great reasons to give this beauty a try!
Crazy for Fried Chicken
Though I was born in ‘Bama, I was deprived of real-deal fried chicken until I moved to Charleston 11 years ago. Its prevalence and perfection in these parts is one of the reasons why I personally thank God I live here at least 12 times a year, and that usually happens after I’ve visited Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, or Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah. One as succulent as the other, both are custom made to order, have a light, yielding but toothsome crunch, and are deeply seasoned down to the very last bite.
This year, Husk and The Glass Onion, started doing their own versions of the stuff. I haven’t sampled either yet, but the crispy fried chicken leg at The Glass Onion is always delicious and one of the best things I ate this year. Perched on a generous bed of whipped mashed potatoes and sauteed turnip greens, it’s as good as fried and served piping hot from the pan with a zippy sauce that changes with the day and what’s available.
Brandade Puffs and Alabama Barbecue Sauce
Brandade, a virtual French peasant food composed of salt cod and potatoes, takes on a new, rustic, elegant twist at The Macintosh, one of Charleston’s newest and best restaurants. In the hands of super talented executive chef Jeremiah Bacon, the brandade is formed into individual little balls and puffed into ethereal lightness, breaded and fried. Served with a creamy, vinegar rich sauce, it’s another one of the best things I had the pleasure of eating this year.
Some of the best things in life are surprises, and that includes finding exquisite food at a time and a place you weren’t really expecting it. That happened to me this year in a big way at the brand new Butcher & Bee. Predominantly a sandwich shop with a hyper fresh and local angle situated well uptown, I visited on a sleepy, lazy Sunday for what turned out to be the best meal I had all year, and with two of the best dishes in ONE place. The artist in the kitchen? Chef/Partner Stuart Tracy, and does he ever know and love his cooking stuff.
The burger, a softly packed patty of grass-fed beef is sandwiched between oven-fresh brioche they bake in house (along with many other types of bread) and topped with an oozing layer of gorgeous pimento cheese and an inch of cold, crunchy, tangy pickles. It is insanely delicious. I think it’s the best burger I’ve ever had in my life.
As if all that weren’t enough, the ketchup is made in-house!
Before the burger, I enjoyed a gorgeous plate of nutty, roasted Brussel sprouts graced with a bit of bacon, crispy, tart Granny Smith apple slices, browned butter, a dusting of salty peanuts and a sweet/spicy vinegar.
Dessert was a cream puff dream. C’mon! Talk about comfort done right.
It’s been a wonderful year for food and friends. Thank goodness, they’re always there for us, even when the rest of the world gets crazy. Wishing you a healthy, happy and delicious 2012!
Book Give-Away – Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah
What were your favorite food finds in 2011? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section here. The most compelling entry, submitted before the end of New Year’s Day, January 1, 2012, will receive a signed copy of my just released new book. The winner will be notified on this blog.
Food Favorites in order of appearance in this blog post:
Nothing makes me happier to see talent and hard work finally get their due. For a decade in New York and another near decade subsequently in Charleston, Jeremiah Bacon has been quietly and diligently honing his craft and defining his style. Locally, first at Carolina’s, where he made a deserved splash, but it wasn’t big enough to turn the James Beard heads in New York, as the respective splashes of local super chef talents Mike Lata (FIG), Sean Brock (Husk and McCrady’s) and Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) have in recent years. Then, Bacon took over the reins at OAK, where once again, he carved a niche in the steak kitchen, etching it with his extreme dedication to locally-sourced product and pristine classic French technique. Tongues started wagging in deserved praise. But, it wasn’t until the opening of The Macintosh six weeks ago, that Bacon finally donned his ultimate culinary crown, his very own restaurant baby where he can truly stretch his personal chef legs and showcase his immense talent.
Bravo to The Macintosh’s Managing Partner Steve Palmer for recognizing Bacon’s huge talent and helping create this spotlight under which he can shine. As Executive Chef, Jeremiah Bacon orchestrates a small army of hand-picked talent (many coming over from his days at Carolina’s) in a kitchen-in-the-round that operates like a well-conducted orchestra. It’s all visible from the dining room, a beautiful blend of rustic, antique wood tables and copper and mirrors, the latter elements providing just the right urban edge to render Macintosh equal parts rustic and equal parts urban. It’s the perfect balance mixture of visual and mood candy on this block of increasingly hip and sophisticated Upper King Street.
Though The Macintosh serves a more steak and seafood-intensive dinner and late night menu (also slightly more pricey with entrees running from $19-$28), I visited for Sunday brunch, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.
At 1:30 p.m., the house was packed, with a lively, mostly young and local crowd, clamoring for the Bloody Mary bar, Bottomless Mimosa’s, and, of course, Bacon’s stick-to-your-ribs fare with a go-ever-so-lightly, classical touch that is the soul of his culinary style. For example, the grouper brandade ($8), pictured above. Typically a rustic French dish prepared with salt cod and potatoes and served in a gratin dish, the Johns Island native puts a local twist on the matter, using local, fresh grouper (which is briefly brined in salt), purees until chunky smooth and folds it into the lightest, whipped potatoes. These get rolled into chunky balls, lightly rolled in breading, and are fried to order. The result, especially when dipped in the creamy, vinegar-laced, slightly garlicky Alabama white sauce, is absolute flavor and texture nirvana. And, like so many things at The Macintosh, they come served in precious, fire-engine red, miniature Le Creuset Dutch ovens.
Bacon’s “Mac Attack” ($13), which features his signature bone marrow bread pudding, pork belly, and a quivering poached fresh egg, heaping plates of fried chicken served with waffles ($12), and sizzling plates of Bacon’s (also) signature Pecorino truffle frites ($5) were being plated and served literally left and right. All looked and smelled divine, but my appetite was leaning towards lighter, so I ordered the Sauteed Scallops with Cauliflower Puree, Arugula and Brown Butter Meuniere ($13).
Pure beauty, this dish is Bacon’s style personified: restrained perfection with major over-tones of his classical training swirled with youthful whimsy and homegrown roots. The scallop, sweet, milky and massive, was so fresh it could not have been off the local boat for more than a few hours. The gorgeous seared, caramelized crust yielded sensuously to pressure from my fork to an opaque cushion of crustacean deliciousness. The cauliflower base, simply roasted and ultra-aerated with a bit of cream, was practically as light as a souffle, but bore the deep, rich flavors of autumn. A flash saute of green in the peppery arugula and a swath of nutty brown beurre Meuniere sealed the entire dish with huge aplomb.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sean Brock and Jeremiah Bacon. Both young, both Southerner’s, both humble, passionate, talented and extremely hard-working, both overseeing two kitchens and restaurants, and both backed by successful restaurant groups with proven track records, their paths have been similar. Like Brock, I do believe it’s Bacon’s time to shine and he’s found his ultimate polish at The Macintosh.
479-B King Street (near the corner of Ann Street)
Charleston, SC 29403