I once got into an argument with a New Yorker about who had the most restaurants per capita (downtown Chucktown or Manhattan), and I'm still convinced we win, even though I never took the time to figure out the correct answer. We are a food town, built on tourism and grits and addictive little sesame wafers, and Charleston holds its culinary heritage in high esteem. Locals defend their favorite spots with a fervor normally associated with professional sports teams or political parties. After all, we are the epicenter of southern food, right? While that passion may have been optimistic or even misplaced in the past, this year local chefs have taken the city to a new level of accomplishment, one that truly places Charleston's food scene at the apex of the southern culinary circuit.
Of course, we've claimed culinary excellence for a long time, almost oblivious to the outside world. We've told ourselves, and anyone else listening, that Charleston is the greatest of southern culinary cities, pound for pound the most delicious spot south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It certainly seems that way to us; you can't walk five feet and not run into an exemplary eatery of one kind or another.
Five or 10 years ago, anyone interested in southern food, especially those outside the Southeastern region, would have inevitably pointed all compasses to New Orleans. After all, it was cosmopolitan, energetic, multicultural, and celebratory, with a creative zest and big stars like Paul Prudhomme and his blackened redfish and the "Bam!" man himself, Emeril Lagasse.
New Orleans was a gumbo pot of goodness that shadowed the rest of the South, even if we had our own Charleston gumbo tradition that never saw the light of the media-driven day.
Despite the valiant efforts of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which has worked tirelessly from its Mississippi headquarters to document and promote New Orleans' post-Katrina rebirth, progress in New Orleans has been disappointingly slow, and if it ever returns to its former glory, it will unquestionably be a very different place than before.
In the wake of such loss, southern foodies have turned to other contributors, and Charleston is a new star. Additions to the landscape, like the soulful offerings of Virginia's on King, are supplying a more authentic cuisine. Following in the wake of trailblazers such as Robert Stehling at Hominy Grill, they have revitalized culinary traditions like okra soup and the purloos of the rice kingdom rather than merely hawking recreations of shrimp and grits.
Local growers and chefs, such as Celeste Albers, Shawn Thackery, Mike Lata, and Sean Brock have reconnected the fertile fields of the historical plantation economy with Charleston's haute cuisine, and in doing so developed a distinctive terroir that forges a modern take on what it means to cook, eat, and live in the Lowcountry. As I argued to my friend from New York, what we lack in size and population, we more than make up for in appetite and attitude.
It has been refreshing to see Charleston find the recognition that it has long sought from none other than the Big Apple itself, the late Johnny Apple that is.
Back in 2005, the preeminent journalist and renowned epicurean, R.W. Apple, was asked to name his favorite cities during an interview on the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour. Most pleasurable (as in hedonistic): New Orleans. For historical value: the Holy City of Charleston.
His wife was from Charleston, and he wrote of us often, as a hidden moss-draped jewel, a place with restrained romance and a graceful style that must be lived to be understood, and he brought attention and marketability through his wide appeal. He wrote of small dives, like the See Wee Restaurant, and urban haunts, like FIG and Hominy Grill. He added weight to what we knew all along — that the flame of Lowcountry history, sparked in our unique landscape and stoked by visionaries such as Louis Osteen, has the potential to drive a much larger recognition of our city's past, present, and promising future (and if Osteen has his way, we'll conquer Las Vegas as well).
Apple's various musings in the New York Times must have been no surprise to Matt and Ted Lee, whose own big city careers began by attacking Manhattan with boiled peanuts. Their formative years in Charleston (they were token Yankees, transplanted South of Broad as kids) imbued them with the same understanding of the culture that drew in Mr. Apple. In the 589 pages of culinary prose that make up The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, they elevate southern cookery to stand beside other great world cuisines. Country ham laces carbonara, the hard leftover heel grated like Sicilian bottarga, and as you read, you realize that Charleston has grown up along with them. The Lees speak of the ebb and flow of the tide and understand how it, and a ratty old cast net, intimately connects the landscape with the food. Like our star chefs, last year they took home a Beard Award for the cookbook, and hosted the media awards in New York this year.
Increasingly, the haute cuisine of Charleston moves toward an intimate connection between the land, its history, and the people who have shaped it. Eating the food of Lata, Brock, and Stehling, the brightest of Charleston's culinary stars, showcases that maturity. Where just a few years ago the city's offerings were monolithic outlays — a simulacra of shrimp, grits, and fried fish platters across town — we now find a wonderful diversity of interests spun into a distinctive and cosmopolitan web of its own. By doing so, they have established Charleston as the most innovative of Southern cities. Where we once looked backward to a mythic past, we now look forward with the promise of novel new flavor — tastes that are attracting attention from the loftiest of culinary pedestals.
Charleston has garnered James Beard nominations and wins over the years. Osteen and Bob Waggoner have both won, and Bowen's Island took home an honorary award just a couple of years before it suffered a devastating fire. But this year we had three chefs in the finals: Stehling of Hominy Grill won Best Chef: Southeast while Lata of FIG was a finalist in the same category, and Brock of McCrady's was a finalist for the Rising Star Chef of the Year award. No doubt, Charleston is filled with talent and has a rich, untapped tapestry of flavor to showcase to the culinary world, and names like Jason Houser, David Szlam, Anthony Gray, Jeremiah Bacon, and Aaron Deal will soon follow.
Charleston represents the new shining Southern star, and this brings great promise to a struggling restaurant economy. In a place that has barely plumbed the considerable depth of its culinary history and traditions, such a future looks bright indeed. For a town our size, we garner tremendous acclaim, and that carries great opportunity for our chefs and restaurateurs. For being the new epicenter of southern foodways carries with it the ability to shape the national image of an entire region.