Tough economic times are all around us, but as JFK pointed out way back when the world was innocent, crisis and opportunity are inextricably linked. Those willing to roll up their sleeves, trim the fat, and cut the bone are bound to rise above.
The willingness and desire to work as long and hard as the job demands, plus some, is a common characteristic of the chefs discussed here — along with an abundance of natural talent and creativity, of course.
The Library Restaurant at Vendue Inn Downtown. 23 Vendue Range (843) 577-7970
Long before arriving at the Library at Vendue, Sara Carter found her calling in a place called Humble Pie. Back in the early 1990s, this Raleigh, N.C., restaurant had a groovy, organic vibe, and locals were happy to wait in line for a table night after night.
Carter started on the wait staff, but ended up on the line in the kitchen, eventually buying fresh produce and fish at the farmer's market and learning step by step how a meal comes together.
From that point on, a career in the culinary arts was a given. Specifically, she craved the heat of the kitchen. "I like the pace of the line, the action," she says. With a laugh, she adds: "In the summertime, you could lose five pounds a night on the line."
At the urging of a mentor, Carter applied to culinary school. She was accepted into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), but decided against the New York school after reading a description of students doing ice carvings on the Hudson River. "My southern bones weren't going to take that," she says. Instead, she attended the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Program at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in the far warmer climes of Arizona.
Charleston's southern element attracted her to town along with the city's rapidly growing reputation in the culinary world.
Carter worked at Carolina's and Duvall Catering prior to taking her current position in the summer of 2008. She has already caught the attention of many a food lover with outstanding presentations of classics like shrimp and grits and crab cakes. But that's just the beginning, she reminds us.
"I'm ready to gain more recognition for the kitchen here at Library at Vendue," she says. "I'm a southern girl, so that's going to be reflected in the menu, but I'd also like to bring in some real creativity as well."
Tristan Downtown. 55 S. Market St. (843) 534-2155
Born in Morganton, N.C., Aaron Deal learned the art and science of southern hospitality from an early age.
"The feeling I want to convey to guests is this: you're in good hands," he says. "So much more goes into the dining experience than just the food."
With that said, of course, Deal does care very much about the food itself. "I'm continually looking for the best, most exciting ingredients."
Deal began at Tristan as chef de cuisine and rapidly earned recognition for his creativity and drive — traits he has vcarried over into his new role as executive chef. "Writing new menus is very exciting for me," he says. "As the seasons change, I start thinking about the new produce that will be available and how I can incorporate it. That's the most exciting aspect of the job."
His explorations run the gamut from rarefied delicacies such as red miso in a classic braise and Meyer lemon curd with lamb to old-fashioned comfort foods. He scored exceptionally well at the 2008 Charleston Food + Wine Festival, winning two competitions, and has presented at both the National Restaurant Show in Chicago and the James Beard House in New York City.
"Once you have the best, most exciting ingredients, you focus on the extra touches," he says. "When you add in that special something, the extra service and attention, the anticipation of needs, that's what really gives a dining experience a sense of value."
The Dining Room at Woodlands Resort & Inn Summerville. 125 Parsons Road (843) 875-2600
Early experience in the kitchen with an Italian grandmother and later studies in French culinary techniques gave Nathan Whiting a solid foundation for his career.
"That's what really stuck with me," he says. "The love of getting up early in the morning and working with food, thinking about food, taking notice of its qualities. I believe it is important to stay humble and always keep learning."
Educated at Johnson & Wales, the upstate New York native quickly gained prominence under the tutelage of Chef Robert Carter at Peninsula Grill. While refining his kitchen technique in Charleston, Whiting took notice of Woodlands, which has five stars from Mobil and five diamonds from AAA.
For a talented and ambitious chef, the excellent reputation of Woodlands was alluring indeed. He made the move to a sous chef position, working with Tarver King, and made executive chef in fall 2008.
Along the way, he staged at restaurants in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Bergamo, Italy, gathering experience and mastering techniques.
He can craft a stunning display of Muscovy duck breast with ruby grapefruit, poppy seed galette, and braised endive, but still expresses equal admiration for the simple joys of pasta, risotto, and vegetables.
Recent renovations at Woodlands have Whiting especially fired up.
"I'm already excited about the new equipment and kitchen spaces," he says. "We're going to be able to focus more than ever on providing the absolute best in food and dining. In the next few months, people are really going to be amazed."
Muse Downtown. 82 Society St. (843) 577-1102
Jason Houser's travels through the Mediterranean greatly influenced his early development as a chef, but these days, he's finding inspiration closer to home, in the farmers of Johns Island and the sheep herders of the upstate.
"As a culture, we've spent so much time exploring the world," he says. "But it's also important to recognize and support the people who are all around you. To at least take steps in that direction."
Which is not to say that he's giving up traveling altogether. Recent trips have taken him back to the Mediterranean and also to Mexico, where he gained a further appreciation for the spices, chiles, and less common cuts of meats used in Mexican cuisine.
His fascination with diverse foods and spices, tempered by an appreciation for the time-honored techniques of food preparation, has earned him recognition, including a nod from the James Beard Foundation. But the reward of satisfying guests with succulent dishes night after night at Muse is just as gratifying to him.
Simple, affordable, local, and seasonal — these are the words to remember for the very near future when crafting menus, he advises.
"Our menu at Muse is Mediterranean, of course, because that's who we are," he says. "But it's really exciting to put your creativity in drive and work with local and seasonal ingredients, to constantly be exploring new ways to bring the freshest and the best tastes to the plate."