It's a great time to be eating in Charleston. Not only is it summer, when the treasures of our sea and soil are available in abundance, but the possibilities for good eating are richer and more diverse than ever before.
At least three forces intersect to define the Charleston dining scene: history, natural resources, and money. Each provides its own form of wealth.
Our food culture is based upon a genuine culinary history. At a time when chefs and diners are increasingly interested in traditional ingredients and preparations, this history provides a strong foundation for a unique regional cuisine. We have a wealth of natural resources to draw upon, too, including the Atlantic Ocean with its bounty of shrimp and local fish as well as the nearby farmlands on Johns and Wadmalaw islands, which provide a steady stream of high-quality produce. And, finally, there's sufficient financial wealth — from long-time residents, the booming tourist trade, and an influx of rich people moving in from other parts of the country — to support a vibrant restaurant industry.
There's been much to celebrate so far this year. The 2009 Charleston Wine + Food Festival was the biggest yet, drawing over 15,000 guests to sample the fare that has made Charleston the culinary capital of the South. The statistics underscore the city's role as a dining destination: almost half of the attendees were from out of town, and of those, 13.6 percent had never visited our city before.
Charleston brought home the James Beard Award for the Best Chef Southeast again, too, with this year's nod going to the very deserving Mike Lata of FIG.
But those are really just old investments still paying off. Looking forward, it seems that Charleston is entering a new phase in its culinary life, one that has the potential to transform the city's dining culture once again.
It's based upon two related ideas: perfection and bounty. It may seem contradictory to talk about such concepts in an era of rising unemployment and falling expectations, but it's wealth of a different sort than the flashy, conspicuous consumption that had us jetting Kobe beef to shiny palaces in the middle of deserts. It's simpler, more elemental, and more refined.
All restaurateurs have had to rethink and adapt during the past year. Lata's response to the troubling climate has been to buckle down and focus, insisting on perfection at every step, from the care with which the food is prepared to the proper arrangement of each element on the plate.
"We have always placed consistency as our highest priority," he says. "At times like this, I have to believe you only have one chance at earning or keeping a repeat customer ... I think more people are going with the sure bets these days. That's why every plate has to be delicious."
That perfect experience begins with the quality of the meat, fish, and produce that come in through the back door. And that's where the bounty comes in.
Local purveyors have started synchronizing their schedules so they don't all call on the same restaurant on the same day, resulting in a reliable, steady supply of top-quality local produce. Charleston chefs, in turn, are not only buying more of their produce locally but also starting to change their whole philosophy of purchasing.
Sean Brock at McCrady's (himself a Beard finalist for Rising Star Chef again this year) calls it "blow out buying." When something local and fresh is available, Brock now buys 10 times as much of it as he did before — hundreds of pounds of beans, cucumbers, and onions at a time — and that doesn't even include the weekly flash flood of whatever crops have just been harvested at McCrady's own farm.
It's not just vegetables. Anthony Gray of High Cotton was a pioneer of breaking down whole hogs, using nothing but paring knives to butcher 200-pound heirloom breeds from the Upstate Farmers Alliance. More and more chefs are rising to the challenge of using every bit of a whole animal, and a few have branched out even further into dry-aged, grass fed beef — half a cow at a time — from Celeste Albers on Wadmalaw or from MiBeck Farms in Barnwell. Fresh fish devotees like Ben Berryhill of Red Drum Gastropub and Jeremiah Bacon of Carolina's have helped sustain new sources of fresh and varied local seafood, and more of their colleagues are joining them each month.
It creates a delicious virtuous circle. Restaurants buy more locally, which provides more money to the farmers and fishermen so that they can not only stay in the trade and keep fresh things flowing but also branch out and try new varieties. Suddenly, chefs are inundated with new ingredients, which create new challenges. It's not just a matter any more of ordering the same thing week in and week out. Instead, you're suddenly hit with, say, a hundred pounds of ramps, and you have to find something to do with them. Chefs are returning to traditional preservation techniques — salting, smoking, pickling, curing — to consume the bounty, which bodes well for our menus well into the winter months.
They are also creating new, agile methods for ensuring a consistent, reliable dishes even as the supply of ingredients is highly variable. At FIG, Lata has come up with a fish and shrimp succotash pattern that allows him to use whatever is fresh in a consistent preparation that his kitchen can turn out equally well, day in and day out, even though the ingredients might vary greatly. The fish could be trigger one night and beeliner snapper the next, and the blackeyed peas and okra from one week may be replaced by limas and farro the next. Brock takes a similar approach with his pistou of summer vegetables, which blends whatever is fresh from the farm into a fragrant, delightful green broth. "I think that style will always have a spot on our menu," he says. "It really lets us show off the vegetables we are so passionate about."
This sort of creative reinvention is part of the forces at work in the larger culinary environment. The tough economy brought a steady stream of restaurant closings — both established, respected places and newer ventures living too far out on the margins. But the ecosystem is fundamentally sound. Almost as fast as one business would close its doors another seemed to take its place, and the city has seen the continuous appearance of new hopefuls. My informal tally of restaurants opening since last fall shows styles encompassing country cooking, burger joints, barbecue, seafood, tapas, sushi, Asian fusion, international street food, classic steakhouse, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, Mediterranean, and even fine dining out at Folly Beach. In just the past six months, in fact, Folly has sprouted enough new, exciting restaurants for food critic Jeff Allen to suggest we're seeing the "start of a full-on cultural renaissance for the sultry beach isle."
The pending retirement of Robert Dickson after more than 30 years at the helm of Robert's has the loyalists lining up for a few more special occasion dinners highlighted by show tunes and arias. But the announcement that created the most local buzz was the departure of Bob Waggoner from Charleston Grill and the ascension of Michelle Weaver — the longtime sous — to take his place.
But change is to be expected. Once a food culture reaches a critical mass, the ecosystem will support any number of variants, even those far removed from the core cuisine. Local residents have become accustomed to eating adventurously and eating well, and Charleston's reputation draws an ever growing stream of visiting diners with curious palates. The steady inflow of new residents from distant places — Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and Eastern Europe — continues to expand our palette of ingredients and stimulate the imaginations of chefs and home cooks alike. The geographical scope of our food scene is expanding, too, and you can now find top-quality restaurants way out on Johns Island to the south, in the upper reaches of Mt. Pleasant to the north, and clear out to Summerville to the west.
Add it all up, and it makes for a remarkable time for those who love to eat.