Jacques Larson is a humble man. If he were a plate of food, he'd be his very own tagliatelle alla bolognese — a simple dish. One that contains no fancy microgreens or foams, but each and every bite reveals a hearty burst of authenticity
"Jacques has a passion for cooking — a strong passion. He's good and he's consistent," says Fat Hen's Fred Neuville, a fan of Larson since the days of Union Hall (which became Cintra a few years in). Neuville fell in love with Larson's veal cheek ravioli and ended up following him to Mercato before reeling him in to work for him at Wild Olive. "When Wild Olive first opened, I hired Jacques to help with prep during the day, and I eventually hired him as chef de cuisine," says Neuville. "Shortly after I brought him on, I remember holding a meeting with the team to go over online reviews. A few reviews said the food was too salty. After the meeting, Jacques came to me and said, 'Don't worry, I'll correct this.' He was determined. He went straight to the kitchen and trained the staff, and it worked. The food came out less salty."
Before Wild Olive, Larson made his Charleston debut as sous chef at Peninsula Grill (formerly Planter's Café) when it opened under the guidance of Robert Carter. From there he moved on to Union Hall as executive chef, and in 2006, he spent six months working in Mario Batali's restaurants in New York City and in the Piedmont region of Italy.
He returned to Charleston to take over as executive chef at Mercato, but the restaurant was serving the needs of a tourist market, putting out the greatest hits of Italian-American fare and not the more rustic Italian plates favored by Larson. Early reports observed: "The menu seems strangely blasé," and, "Larson shows glints of distinctiveness, originality, and innovation, but for all the fanfare surrounding the opening, cooking with Mario Batali in New York, and the journey through numerous Italian kitchens, it is rather clear that he has yet to be unleashed."
And though Larson was held captive by tourists, his dedication and culinary talent did not go unnoticed. Neuville wasn't the only one following him. Ken Vedrinski, chef/owner of Trattoria Lucca and Coda del Pesce and a master of Italian food in his own right, recognized Larson's talent at Mercato. "One of the best pasta dishes I've had was at Mercato at midnight. Not only did it taste great, but it came to the table warm. I was so impressed that someone gave a shit that late that I sent Jacques a letter letting him know how much I enjoyed it. I never send notes, but I did that week. I was so happy that someone cared."
It's been five years since Wild Olive opened, and Larson has never wavered from cooking sensible, smart food. "What most people don't realize is that Italian cooking is ethnic cooking," says Vedrinski. "People have Italian food in their own cities. The tourist factor of Italian food in Charleston is zero. It's 100 percent local and to make it work you have to really be on top of it. That's why I have great respect for Jacques. He's made a name for himself and Wild Olive. There's a loyal following."
What's special about Wild Olive is that it's not downtown. It's in the heart of farm country. "It was a bit of a transition for me after having cooked downtown since 1996. But at the same time, the town went from focusing on fine dining for tourists to a more localized farming community," says Larson. "And we're in the heart of the farming community. The produce is not just being cooked here, it's being grown here." His loyalty to neighboring farms shows with framed pictures of local produce and nearby farms, like Legare and Ambrose, decorating the walls of the dining room.
The local sustainable approach is apparent, but Wild Olive also has a firm commitment to the environment. With the help of what Larson considers to be a team of unsung heroes, Wild Olive earned Green Certification in 2011, which means they focus on water efficiency, wasted reduction and recycling, and energy efficiency.
But we can't forget the food. "It's hearty food with influence from Northern Italy," says Larson, who learned much from his travels. "We like to treat the Lowcountry as if it's a region in Italy. We're surrounded by a great farming community, so we use local product as much as we can. Sometimes we improvise." Think butterbeans instead of fava beans and ham hocks instead of guanciale. It's the fresh, Lowcountry influence that really distinguishes the food. Local beets and goat cheese get stuffed in ravioli topped with dried orange butter, a touch of pistachio, and aged balsamic vinegar. Veal scallopine gets the royal treatment with Mepkin Abbey mushrooms, local peas, and mashed potatoes. Local shrimp sit on a Geechie Boy polenta cake with nduja, oven-roasted tomatoes, and spinach. "I really like that Jacques is able to take fresh ingredients from all the farms and meld it with true Italian cooking to make it his own," says Vedrinski.
Even with proven success, they're still coming up with new ideas at Wild Olive. "There's a brewery next door that's in the works, and we'd like to expand and maybe do a wine bar and small plates," says Larson. "I'd really like a temperature-controlled meat cooler so we can produce more house-cured meats."
Maybe we'll see some of that charcuterie on Sullivan's Island at the Wild Olive Restaurant Group's new venture, the Obstinate Daughter, which is taking over the old Alanticville space. "We'll be serving pizza, pasta, and small plates," Larson says. "There will be a raw bar — it will be seafood-centric. We're going to have a hyper-local chalkboard. It's not only going to change daily, but sometimes hourly. If we get some stone crab claws in, we'll put 'em on the board, but they won't last long, so the board will be wiped down and something else will go on special."
The Obstinate Daughter is slated to open in a couple weeks, but, in the meantime, Larson will be showcasing his skills on Thursday at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival Opening Night Party. Here's something to look forward to: pan-seared N.C. scallop with celery root puree, pancetta, and parsley. And if he runs out before you get to taste his fare, make plans to eat at Wild Olive soon. It's like a trip to Charleston's own Little Italy.