If you had to sum up the year in food, it'd be hard not to say it was the year of Sean Brock. The dude was everywhere. Once Husk opened, and the national media got a taste, there was no stopping him. He made appearances and cooked all over the country. He traveled the world, keeping company with high-profile chefs (and Anthony Bourdain) in places like Japan and Copenhagen. He popped up on the cover of Bon Appétit when Husk was named the best new restaurant in the country. And as Brock ascended to stratospheric heights, so did Charleston. Every week it seemed we topped yet another listicle. In the end, it turns out we're the booziest, best-looking, tastiest, and friendliest city out there. It's been a good year. As we ring in 2012, it seems appropriate to toast Chef Brock along with the trends of the year. Let's see where we've been and try to figure out where we're heading.
The Year of the Producer. 2011 was all about food producers, a catch-all term that encompasses farmers, fishermen, and artisan food vendors: those who grow, catch, grind, bake, boil, can, and preserve the products of our local soil and waters. From CSAs to farmers markets every day of the week, local produce is more available than ever before. Restaurant chalkboards celebrate the producers and purveyors of the day the way they once announced the blue plate special. This year, the Southern Foodways Alliance organized their annual symposium around producers, calling it "The Cultivated South" and showcasing Southern farmers and the fruits of their labor. GrowFood Carolina opened as a distribution spot for area farmers. Here at the City Paper, we launched our inaugural issue of Dirt, a guide to Lowcountry food, focusing not on the hot restaurants and star chefs but on the farmers and fishermen supplying their kitchens. One of our food writers, Jeff Allen, even bought some land down in Ravenel and is starting his own farm. Making a living from the soil is still a hard, unpredictable line of work, but, this year, there's at least a little celebrity in it.
Rodney Scott. There was a time when the only people who knew about Scott's Variety Store and the barbecue it served were those in the narrow proximity of Hemingway, S.C., plus a few select pilgrims from farther off who somehow managed to stumble upon the secret. Not anymore. The boys at the Southern Foodways Alliance spilled the beans back in 2009 with a New York Times profile by John T. Edge and a short film by Joe York. But 2011 was the real breakout year for Scott, with features in Saveur, Time, and Garden & Gun, plus guest appearances on the food festival circuit, including cooking whole hog at Charleston Wine + Food and at the Music to Your Mouth festival down in Bluffton. In July, Scott headed north with Sean Brock to wow the New York culinary crowd, taking home "Best in Show" honors at the Meatopia event. It may be a bit too soon for Scott to announce his candidacy for governor, but when he does, we're jumping on the bandwagon with both feet.
Big, Fat, Medium-Rare, Bacon-and-Egg-Topped Burgers Everywhere. It used to be that the hamburger was a menu backstop, something tacked on at the bottom of the page so that even the grumpus great-uncle who doesn't like anything could find something to order. People have been taking their burgers more and more seriously in recent years, and in 2011 burgers hit that tipping point, moving out front and center in the serious restaurant world. A slew of ambitious burger joints hung out their shingles this year: Big Gun Burger Shop, HoM, and Burger Babies downtown, and Vino Burgerz in Mt. P (paired with a wine shop, of all things). The Macintosh has a signature burger on the menu that's decadent and delicious. Countless more cafés and bistros upgraded their offerings, adding house-ground patties, fresh-baked brioche buns, and toppings ranging from housemade pimento cheese to slabs of foie gras. A half-pound burger with bacon and a yolk-oozing fried egg is now de rigueur. And, best of all, wall signs recommend if not outright insist that patrons order their patties pink in the middle. Ron Swanson would be proud.
Empire Building. This past year, we witnessed a remarkable expansion of local restaurants and chefs into new locations. Triangle Char + Bar, Juanita Greenberg's Nacho Royale, Basil, and Sesame all ventured east of the Cooper to open new locations in Mt. Pleasant. Jack's Cosmic Dogs went the other direction, opening a new West Ashley spot, while Sermet Aslan ventured out from King Street all the way to a secluded courtyard on Daniel Island. Some of the city's more noted chefs expanded their footprints, too, adding new chef-driven ventures while keeping their original restaurants. Jeremiah Bacon of Oak Steakhouse created The Macintosh, Patrick Owens of Langdon's opened Opal, and Ben Berryhill of Red Drum launched Next Door. For local diners, it means more good food in more places. In an era when most U.S. cities are defined by the Anywhere U.S.A. dreck of national chains, it's an encouraging sign of resurgence in our distinctive local restaurant scene.
Brussels Sprouts. When burger joints start serving up Brussels sprouts in place of french fries, you know a vegetable has reached a point of popularity. And seriously, who would have thought that Brussels sprouts would ever be popular? They're not sweet like beets. They're bitter and kind of ugly and something we probably all hated as children. But this year, they popped up all over the place. They even got a boost from celebuchef Hugh Acheson, who champions them in his cookbook A New Turn in the South. Around town you can find them everywhere. Big Gun fries them up. Butcher & Bee roasts them. And McCrady's uses their leaves as pretty (and tasty) decoration on winter vegetable plates.
Local Breweries. Two new breweries came on the scene this year — Westbrook and Holy City — and really bolstered the local offerings on taps around town, joining COAST and Palmetto. It's exciting to enjoy beer that's produced with great care in small batches, and we can finally stop feeling envious when we see all the local varieties they have up in North Carolina. We're getting there. We hope more locals will follow their passion, since we seem to have bottomless stomachs when it comes to our appetite for good beer.
Craft Cocktails, Housemade Bitters, and Locally Produced Mixers. The drinking craze continued as new places like The Cocktail Club and The Belmont opened and existing restaurants expanded their cocktail programs. Even James Beard acknowledged the trend by adding it as a category to their prestigious awards. Joe Raya, owner of the Gin Joint, is on the cutting edge of this trend and crafts mind-blowing cocktails with ingredients like tobacco leaves, carpano antica vermouth, and housemade snake oil tobacco bitters. Over at Husk, even the soda is made in-house. Then there are the mixers that are made locally, like Jack Rudy Artisan Tonic, Fat & Juicy, Scales, and the Charleston Mix, which Garden & Gun awarded best food in their Made in the South awards issue.
Boutique Booze. Thanks to Firefly lobbying to change distillery fees a couple years ago, making liquor in these parts doesn't require a still in the woods anymore. Shoot, you don't even have to start your own distillery. You can head to Terressentia in North Charleston and work with them to formulate your own vanity label. Maverick Southern Kitchens did it. And David Szlam has done it too with Virgil Kaine, a ginger-infused bourbon that should be hitting the market soon. We're thinking about making a City Paper liquor. It will be called Fishwrapper.
FroYo. Frozen yogurt bars, a concept that began in Asia and along the West Coast, took Charleston like Godzilla took Tokyo. We are now coated in an abundance of flavors and mounds of toppings from luscious fruit to indulgent fudge. Freshberry, Yogurt Mountain, and 32 Degrees are within spitting distance of each other on King Street, and FroYo shops are spreading to the 'burbs too. The question is, how long will this trend last? And when will we get a FroYo food truck that plays Japanese cutie-pie music as it drives down our street?
Food Trucks. Speaking of food trucks, this trend came to Charleston a little bit late, but it swept over us last year and doesn't look like it will be abating anytime soon. Hello My Name Is ... BBQ, Roti Rolls, Geechee Island, Diggity Doughnuts, Happy Camper Snoballs, Tokyo Crepes, Strada Cucina, Pot Kettle Black, and Carolina Creole rounded themselves up as the Charleston Food Truck Federation and started throwing rodeos seemingly every week. New food trucks are taking to the streets practically every day. We've seen a truck parked on Calhoun Street that looks like a Brazilian food outlet. We met a guy the other night who is starting Whisk, a breakfast truck. There's another one called the Magic Cheese Truck, and we expect to see many more, which leads us to our predictions for 2012. Read on.
The Coming War Over Food Trucks. This year's surge of local food trucks, we predict, will cruise into troubled waters in 2012. While local diners discovered that plenty of tasty treats can be purchased from the roving food trucks, municipal officials have realized that there are few regulations on the books to govern where these new rolling enterprises can park and dish out their wares. Already there've been a few skirmishes, with a row over food truck parking in Mt. Pleasant. Town Administrator Eric DeMoura observed that it's "the wild, wild West" right now. That freedom seems unlikely to last much longer. Expect a fight, and with bricks-and-mortar restaurants serving as the largest employers in suburban communities like Mt. Pleasant, it seems likely that the little guys will have a hard time of it.
Fins to Gills. In recent years, it was all about the pig, with restaurants embracing the snout-to-tail trend and serving everything from pork bellies to pig ears. This year, we expect chefs to turn their attention to the surrounding waters and dive a little deeper. Whole fish entrées are a cornerstone of the menu at The Grocery, a new spot on Upper King Street. Grouper throats have made an appearance on Butcher & Bee's sandwiches, and Mike Lata at FIG has been experimenting with all sorts of fishy things including Atlantic creolefish, banded rudderfish, local octopus and squid, and beeliner roe. Indeed, Lata is so focused on seafood that he and Adam Nemirow have plans to open a seafood-centric restaurant in the next year. Expect the trend to be set.
Canned Craft Beer Westbrook Brewing Company has started canning their IPA and White Thai, and we dig it. Not only because the cans protect beer from taste-tarnishing light, but they're environmentally friendly and oh-so-easy to bring to the beach. It's an expensive process, but we think you'll see more of this in the future.
Cooking with Wood. Once upon a time, Red Drum's Ben Berryhill, with his massive custom-made wood-burning grill, was pretty much the only chef in town who worried about getting his hands on a reliable supply of cordwood. Pizza joints like Vespa and EVO were first to join the hardwood trend, installing ceramic wood-fired ovens that char pie crusts at high temperatures. When Sean Brock made a massive ceramic oven the centerpiece of his kitchen at Husk, it was a sign of a trend ready to burst into full flower. Two new ventures, Heart Woodfire Kitchen, which just opened out on James Island, and The Grocery, the handiwork of Kevin Johnson (formerly of Anson), are putting similar ovens front and center. They won't be the last, and for good reason. Hearkening back two centuries before the rise of cast iron stoves, cooking in a wood-fired brick oven imparts a magnificent smoky richness to everything from chicken and fish to vegetables and cornbread. Expect wood smoke to be one of the defining flavors of 2012 Charleston cooking.
Cookbooks. Sean Brock is writing one, slated for a 2013 publication date, and we hear that Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill is working on his. Fellow Beard Award winner Mike Lata has to be thinking of tackling his own. This might be a better prediction for 2013, but mark our words. You'll be seeing local chefs putting out cookbooks in the future.