When Chef Bob Waggoner first came to the Lowcountry from The Wild Boar in Nashville, he was surprised by what was missing from menus around town. "I found that restaurant businesses couldn't really use local game. I said, 'What the heck?'" says Waggoner, the host of PBS's U Cook with Chef Bob and the former kitchen head at Charleston Grill. "I guess they didn't want Billy Bob bringing it in the back of a restaurant."
Ten years later, game is very much on the menu so long as it passes USDA approval and all government regulations. And this week, Waggoner and others will showcase their cooking-with-wild-game skills during SEWE's Wild in the Kitchen series.
But wild game isn't the only star at this event. So is local produce.
During the wild kitchen demo, Waggoner and company will show off their skills with local ingredients in the Certified South Carolina tent outside the Gaillard Auditorium. The chefs are members of Fresh on the Menu, a statewide commitment to offer at least 25 percent Certified S.C. foods to restaurant customers.
"We have a bounty of products that the average person in our state might not know about," says Waggoner. "We've been working with local farmers, helping them out in winter time by making sure their produce, like cabbages and Brussels sprouts, are on the menu."
The chef adds, "This is a wake up call. It's about building a relationship, looking a farmer in the eye who's cut peppers off a vine or pulled potatoes out of the ground himself. It's a chance to talk to a person raising chickens for the eggs."
With a wealth of products to work with, the Wild in the Kitchen roster is a who's who of Charleston chefs: Eddie Moran from Mercato, Marc Collins from Circa 1886, Jeremiah Bacon of Carolina's, Steve Lusvy at 82 Queen, Jason Houser formerly of Muse, and Michelle Weaver from Charleston Grill are just some of the local experts conducting demos.
Regional farming is big business. According to Martin Eubanks, director of marketing for the Agricultural Services Division of the S.C. Department of Agriculture, "Agribusiness, which includes foresting and related industries, is a huge economic engine at $34 billion a year. We want that to grow to $50 billion by 2020."
One of the ways to do that is to develop programs like Fresh on the Menu and Wild in the Kitchen to educate consumers. SEWE approached the Department of Agriculture to partner with them for the event. "We can reach a large audience in a short period," Eubanks explains, "let them know about all our certified members and all the fine products we have throughout the state."
Certified South Carolina was created as a consumer awareness program, a call to action to support local agriculture. The program encourages restaurants to buy locally and gives consumers an opportunity to support local agriculture.
The program seems to be paying off. Eubanks states that demand for local produce has skyrocketed over recent years, "with an economic benefit to local businesses and a positive impact throughout rural areas." That particularly interests Chef Bob.
"We're on the right road," Waggoner says, "but we need to keep waking people up. We need to grow and eat our food locally, not shrimp raised on antibiotics or in water you wouldn't let your dog jump into. You have a choice when you buy your food. You might pay a couple of extra bucks, but you don't get cancer."
Chef Bob Waggoner's Simple Venison Tenderloin
• 8 oz. venison
• 2 shallots
• 2 cups port
• 2 Tbsp. cold butter
• ½ cup blueberries
• Sweet potato purée
1) Sear four 2 oz. venison medallions in butter for 1 min. on each side. 2) Remove and bake at 400˚ F for 4 mins. 3) Add 2 chopped shallots to the same pan and sauté on medium heat for 1 min. Deglaze the pan with 2 cups port and reduce to a half cup liquid. 4) Stir in 2 Tbsp. cold butter to thicken the port reduction, finish by adding a ½ cup blueberries to the port sauce. 5) Serve the medallions over a sweet potato purée and gently spoon some of the blueberry port sauce over each medallion.
SERVING TIP: Serve with Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon.