As 2013 opened, I wondered about the future of Charleston cuisine and how much longer it could maintain its position at the forefront of the Southern food world and its trendiness on the national scene. Since that time we've seen encouraging signs that our city's culinary reputation still has plenty of legs. If anything, its cachet is now expanding beyond the bounds of the South and beginning to reach a broad international audience.
Cook It Raw, which is coming to town next week, is an exciting confirmation of this renewed prominence. It's an annual, invitation-only event that brings together some of the most inventive, avant-garde chefs from around the world and immerses them in the food culture of a particular place. Previous gatherings have taken place in such diverse locations as Poland, Lapland, and the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan.
This year, Charleston has been selected as the distinctive setting. "I had in mind to come to the U.S.," says Alessandro Porcelli, the event's founder and director. "I wanted to find a place that was unusual and in a way up and coming. I always look for something unique."
Porcelli cites the sheer number of talented chefs concentrated in a single small city as well as the deep connection with the land felt by Lowcountry farmers like Celeste Albers and producers like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, famous for heirloom corn and rice products.
Chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's was an important factor, too. "I knew Sean from [the Cook it Raw event in] Japan," Porcelli says. "I thought he was doing something very interesting ... trying to reboot the local cuisine through his own interpretation."
This year's 16 invitees amount to an international culinary dream team. They include, to name just a few, Spain's Albert Adria, who made his name alongside his brother Ferran at elBulli, plus Andre Chiang from Singapore's Restaurant Andre, James Lowe of the Young Turks in London, and Ben Shewry from Attica in Melbourne, Australia.
The chefs will arrive Sun., Oct. 20, for a fully packed week. Cook It Raw is by no means a typical industry conference. "Normally, conferences are hosted within four walls," Porcellis says, "and you don't see much of the country."
Cook It Raw is far more ambitious. The chefs will hunt, fish, and forage their way across the Lowcountry. They'll visit local growers like Ambrose Farms to pick vegetables, harvest rice at Turnbridge Plantation, and learn traditional fishing and preservation techniques in Gullah communities.
Glenn Roberts and David Shields will provide their unique insights into the legacy of rice and heirloom grains, while John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance will be on hand to help frame it all in the larger context of Southern cuisine. And they'll spend plenty of time eating their way around downtown restaurants, exploring the work of the chefs that Porcelli calls "part of Charleston's revolution."
At the center of the event will be Rodney Scott, Hemingway's famous barbecue king, who will introduce the visiting chefs to the fine South Carolina art of slow cooking whole hogs over oak and hickory.
As with previous Cook It Raw events, the week will culminate with a private dinner at McCrady's, where each of the chefs will prepare a single course that captures what they've learned and have been inspired by during the week.
This year, Cook It Raw has added a public event for the first time, a four-hour feast called BBQ Perspectives, which will be staged at Bowen's Island starting at noon on Saturday. The international chefs from the conference will be joined by nine of Charleston's most prominent cooks, and each will prepare their own interpretation of barbecue.
The new public event, Porcelli says, "came together with this idea of expanding what Cook It Raw means. It had been a closed event because, basically, I didn't have a clue about where I wanted to bring Cook It Raw."
Now that he's had a chance to reflect on the first few years, Porcelli has realized that the organization needs to reach a broader audience to further advance its four core principles: environment, sustainability, collaboration, and tradition. "It's not just about bringing urban chefs with the rural people and the academics," he says. "Through the power of food you can make a lot of changes in a democratic, collaborative way."
In one final twist, there will be a delegation of nine chefs from Toronto cooking at Bowens Island, too. The reason is simple: Alessandro Porcelli really likes what's going on in Toronto. "The restaurant scene in Toronto is something unique," he says. "I wanted to give them a chance to introduce them to the world, basically, because what they are doing is very much in line with the principles of Raw."
And, by "raw," he doesn't necessarily mean uncooked. It's more about purity, depth, and elemental intensity, a concept perfectly aligned with old-school fire-cooked barbecue. "We wanted to choose a theme that was kind of simple and understood by everybody," Porcelli says, "and ask the chefs to give their own interpretation of what barbecue is for them. We wanted them to play with it and see what they can come up with."
So what should be expected by those who were fortunate enough to get their hands on tickets for the now sold-out event? "They should expect to be blown away by how barbecue can be interpreted and in how many different ways it can be interpreted," Porcelli says.
"Why don't we use cereals?" he asks. "Anson Mills has so many. What about fish, what about methods of cooking all of these ingredients?"
A week and a half from now, having immersed themselves in the Lowcountry's unique culinary traditions, dozens of the world's most innovative and influential chefs will return to their home countries and their home kitchens with new ingredients, new ideas, and new inspirations.
It's a confirmation of the uniqueness and compellingness of Lowcountry foodways. Might it be the beginning of a new level of prominence for Charleston on a global scale? Time will tell.