So, which is more impressive: flame-kissed haunches of meat oozing juices over an open wood fire or the humble grains simmering alongside in cast iron pots?
That was the question put forward implicitly on October 26, when three dozen acclaimed chefs and over 500 hungry diners descended upon Bowens Island for BBQ Perspectives, an outdoor feast that capped the week-long Cook It Raw event.
Rodney Scott and his crew brought their signature burn barrel down from Hemingway to provide a foundation of classic South Carolina whole hog barbecue. The visiting chefs — a mix of heavy-hitters from as far off as Singapore and Sydney — created their takes on barbecue and other regional specialities, drawing upon their week-long immersion in the Lowcountry.
Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of Calgary’s Charcut tried their hands at Hoppin’ John, which they served alongside a smoked Ossabaw hog that had been stuffed with Carolina red rice. Matthew Jennings of Farmstead in Providence, R.I., Brandon Baltzey of the soon-to-open TMIP in rural Laporte County, Ind., and JP McMahon of Galway, Ireland’s EAT Gastropub collaborated on a unique version of a Lowcountry boil that included confit potatoes, fermented corn, and pig’s head, plus a garnish of foraged juniper.
Fire-cooking primitivist Eric Werner of Tulum, Mexico, spent three days constructing a giant brick grill with oyster shells embedded in the mortar, then he and Albert Adria — the Albert Adria formerly of Spain’s El Bulli — used it to roast a giant amberjack and a bunch of veggies.
The nine chefs of Team Canada turned out what was perhaps the most impressive (and definitely the most alliterative) dish by the international contingent: sea buckthorn berry barbecued beef tongue with puffed grains and a delicious “pecan BBQ beans,” in which crisp roasted pecans took the place of the traditional beans.
Our own local chefs stepped up, too. Josh Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder had a standout dish, layering smoked rose veal pastrami with “brussels kraut” (fermented brussels sprouts) and horseradish mustard aioli atop a slice of rye bread from Brown’s Court Bakery. Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca and Coda del Pesce knocked out a splendid smoked cobia with balsamic white beans — an Italian version of barbecue baked beans.
Among all the offerings from the international and local chefs, though, the consensus favorite for tastiest bite was Mike Lata’s hay-smoked oysters with fennel butter — a simple creation with a huge burst of flavor packed into a single bite.
As the guests peeled off their jackets in the warm October sun, Bill Murray made the rounds and beer from Westbrook flowed. Brooks Reitz of the Ordinary teamed up with Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT to concoct bourbon cocktails served in Mason jars — Reitz’s charged with homemade cola and Meehan’s tinged with Charleston Sercial Madeira and maple syrup.
It was a fitting finale for what had been for the visiting chefs a weeklong experience that was part conference, part adventure, and part roving cocktail party.
They were headquartered for the week at Middleton Place but struck out by bus all across the Lowcountry. Along the way, they were showered with deviled eggs, country ham, and boiled peanuts. They learned about the region’s culinary history from USC’s David Shields and Anson Mills’s Glenn Roberts. They ate chicken from Bertha’s, hunted alligators, drank beers at the Griffon, nibbled beauty berries, and learned to salt watermelon.
It was the first American event held by the Copenhagen-based Cook It Raw organization, and it was dreamed up by director Alessandro Porcelli and Charleston’s own Sean Brock, who had participated in the 2011 gathering in Japan.
At first, Brock says, their idea was to do a two-week road trip through the South, covering every region along the way. But the logistics proved unworkable, and they decided to focus only on coastal South Carolina, which turned out to be the right move.
“It really shows how special Charleston is, and how diverse the South is,” Brock says. “At first they think the South is one culture, one cuisine ... but, the South is the size of Europe, for Christ’s sake!”
“It causes them to say, damn, this isn’t what I thought Southern cuisine was.”
At the public event on Saturday, barbecue was front and center — the flashy, elemental appeal of meat roasting over open wood fires, a lure that’s been bringing people together for celebration and fellowship for over three centuries in the South.
But it wasn’t the fire and the meat that most surprised the chefs visiting from overseas, Brock says. Instead it was something much more subtle. “Going into the field, spending a day with Glenn Roberts in a rice field, cutting it, seeing what it means to grow rice.”
They cooked that rice over an open fire at Turnbridge Plantation, with just salt and red bay in the water. In the end, Brock says, “Everyone left saying, ‘I’ll never look at rice the same again.’”
Thanks to the efforts of Roberts and others, the almost-extinct Carolina Gold has been readily available for more than a decade, but rice has been conspicuously absent from the repertoire of high-end chefs.
Brock has a simple explanation for this. “People take it for granted,” he says. “There’s not a huge market in doing something creative with something you take for granted.”
But he sees that starting to change. With events like September’s Lowcountry Rice Forum and now Cook It Raw, it appears that rice is on the verge of a renaissance.
“It’s going to be the center of inspiration in a lot of kitchens just like it used to be,” Brock predicts. He notes that, despite rice's being one of the world’s most widely consumed grains, many of the Cook It Raw chefs said they were “tasting rice again for the first time.”
“It’s amazing, “ he says. “People from all over the world came here and said, ‘This is the best rice I’ve ever eaten.’”
And that, ultimately, might be the lasting legacy of the Charleston incarnation of Cook It Raw.