Apparently, knowing that the greens on our plate came from a local farmer may not be "as good as it gets" in terms of foodie bliss. These days some area restaurants are taking the local food movement one step further by growing their own produce. At McCrady's, cooks and servers are planting and weeding, and the chef is falling asleep reading seed catalogs instead of cookbooks. As a widespread trend it's probably a long way from taking root, but even in its infancy the restaurant garden movement intrigues and simply makes sense. Furthermore, it's delicious.
Middleton Place Restaurant
West Ashley. 4300 Ashley River Road.
As winter wanes, Chef Brandon Buck looks forward to spring and then summer when he will have a plentiful supply of fresh produce to use at Middleton Place Restaurant. Here, fresh takes on a new meaning since the vegetables are grown on the same land as the restaurant.
Many have long visited Middleton Place for its beautiful flowers and shrubs, but over the past few years the property's vice president of horticulture, Sidney Frazier, has turned his attention to vegetables. Frazier grew up on a farm and believes in fresh, chemical-free produce.
Buck loves knowing where his vegetables come from and uses them as a muse for dishes like his summertime crab cake entrée. He serves the crab cake alongside okra and tomatoes that come straight from the Middleton garden. To further the local connection, the bed of the dish happens to be Carolina Gold rice from South Carolina's own Anson Mills (read about other local rice dishes on page 22).
Buck recognizes that Middleton Place Restaurant happens to be more of a tourist destination during the day, and consequently the menu needs to be bit more fixed. Yet he still incorporates Frazier's harvest, specifically collards and rutabagas. At night when the menu tends to be more high end, Buck uses all that the garden provides — Bibb lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli, to name a few.
Downtown. 10 Exchange St.
Chef Jeremiah Bacon learned about the integrity of ingredients from some of the nation's top chefs. While living in New York City for seven years, he worked under Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller at Per Se. Now, Bacon has come home to the Lowcountry and brings these standards to Carolina's. The timing could not be more perfect as Crew Carolina (the parent company of Carolina's and the Boathouse restaurants) is breaking ground on its own major farming project.
Crew Carolina's Richard Stoney owns Kensington Plantation (along with several other family members), and over the past few years he's decided to revitalize the agricultural roots of the land that lies along the Cooper River just north of Charleston. Working with his marketing director and close friend Batt Humphries, Stoney developed a small garden plot that provided Carolina's with some organic produce and herbs in 2007.
Bacon used heirloom collards and okra throughout last summer. After finely chiffonading the collards he gives them a quick sauté and serves them alongside grilled quail (which is also locally raised). Bacon especially enjoys frying tiny okra with a tempura batter and plating them with a red pepper caramel sauce. As spring approaches he looks forward to the possibility of planting some more unusual varieties of vegetables like purple cauliflower.
In addition to its vegetable garden, Crew Carolina plans to plant 15 acres of Carolina Gold rice, bringing the former rice plantation's history full circle. The rice will be used in its restaurants and sold to Anson Mills.
Daniel Island. 901 Island Park Drive.
Owning a restaurant outside of downtown has its benefits, says Chef Ken Vedrinski of Sienna. Namely, you have room to garden. Vedrinksi has half an acre behind his Daniel Island restaurant and plenty of beds around it to plant a variety of vegetables and herbs.
He remembers last summer when some diners wanted roasted eggplant. Vedrinski did not have any prepared at the time, but he simply went to the garden and picked some to roast on the spot. Similarly, when a customer orders a cocktail featuring lime, the bartender will often excuse himself for a moment to grab one right off the tree.
At the height of the season, Vedrinksi harvests and preserves as many vegetables as possible. A January special featured tomatoes that he dried slightly and then canned with olive oil and herbs. He used these tomatoes along with calamarata pasta, local blue crab, and fresh oregano to create a stunning garden-inspired dish.
Downtown. 2 Unity Alley.
Growing up in Wise, Va., Chef Sean Brock ate from his family's garden out of necessity. There were almost no restaurants in town, and they had a bounty of food that they grew themselves. Today, Brock uses seeds that his grandmother has saved since she was a young girl to plant a plot of land that McCrady's leases on Wadmalaw Island. "When I told her this, she cried her eyes out," says Brock.
His grandmother's seeds and many other rare, heirloom seeds form the foundation for Brock's farming project. He began working the three-acre plot in late October using strictly biodynamic practices. (This takes the organic approach to another level using the lunar calendar as a guide.) Despite his late start, Brock still managed to bring in a plentiful fall/winter harvest of radishes, beets, turnips, greens, and more. By January, the land was providing McCrady's with all of its produce except for lemons and limes.
Brock features the harvest throughout his menu but spotlights them on his tuna dish: "Seared Hawaiian tuna with winter vegetables from our garden, saffron-vegetable juice emulsion." In January, the vegetables covered a colorful spectrum: six types of radishes, four types of turnips, two types of carrots, and that's just the beginning. Brock would like to serve the vegetables alone without a protein but feels that the average diner is not ready for such a presentation.
He hopes that day will come soon as people develop a better understanding of how everyone benefits from a connection to the land. At McCrady's most of the staff helps out in the garden, and Brock sees this as a powerful tool. "When a server is on his hands and knees weeding for two hours, he has a story to tell you [the diner]."
Furthermore, Brock believes that his physical contact with the raw product is changing his approach in the kitchen. Basically, he feels that the scientific understanding that comes from the growing process results in his cooking with more precision.
As spring approaches, Brock looks forward to planting over 100 varieties of tomatoes and even further ahead to when McCrady's might have its own plantation. There, he would like to raise livestock along with the vegetables and thereby create a truly sustainable restaurant.
Kiawah Island. 1 Sanctuary Beach Drive.
The abundance of land at Kiawah Island Resort caught the attention of Chef Nathan Thurston, who presides over the Jasmine Porch restaurant. Thurston planted a small garden last summer where he grew herbs, peppers, and tomatoes, and realized that with a larger plot of land they could eventually sustain all of the restaurants at the resort. The powers that be granted Thurston his wish in the form of 19 acres that they will begin to cultivate this spring.
Thurston will work with the grounds director to hunt down local heirloom seeds for tomatoes, potatoes, and such. Their top priority will be keeping the crops as local as possible. Thurston sees a genuine interest from guests wanting to learn more about the true culinary traditions of the Lowcountry and thrills at the thought of serving an entirely Kiawah-grown salad of heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, and housemade mozzarella.