Former Turner South Home Plate host Marvin Woods is a ball of energy. From the minute he says hello, he's off and talking about his passion for southern cuisine, combating childhood obesity, and his bid for the White House.
You read that right — if Obama wins the presidency, Woods is angling to become White House chef. "I haven't done too much yet, but I have some people that are working for me on it," says Woods. And why not? Woods has more than 20 years of gourmet experience, having worked in such esteemed restaurants as The Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center, New York's Café Beulah, and the National Hotel in South Beach. But his real claim to fame is his cookbook, The New Lowcountry Cooking, which solidified his reputation for innovating with traditional southern flavors.
"New Lowcountry cooking is putting the old with the new," says Woods. "I got started doing Lowcountry in '94 in Manhattan, and it came about because I applied for a chef job, and the owner was from Beaufort, S.C." Although he had six years of experience in the kitchen, Woods was honest about his lack of experience in the southern arts. "He said, 'Don't worry,' and gave me some 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century cookbooks. He just said, 'Borrow these, and you'll find your way.'" Woods found more than his way; he found an entire history of his ancestors.
"It was an awakening. One of the reasons why I'm still very excited about the Lowcountry is because I feel a direct connection to American and African ancestry. That's what I didn't learn in culinary school until I worked in this particular restaurant."
When Woods left New York City, he took some of the Mediterranean fusion trends so popular at the time and applied those elements to Lowcountry cuisine.
Though his stint on Home Plate is over, Woods hasn't lost any enthusiasm. Now his efforts are going in a different direction, fighting childhood obesity and educating teens and youth.
The energetic chef goes into elementary and high schools and teaches students about the importance of healthy living. "Moderation, all in moderation. You have to drink six to eight eight-ounce glasses of water. They need to consume anywhere from nine to 13 veggies. I run down a list of grains — wheat berry, barley — and explain nutritional values," says Woods, excitedly taking on the cheerleader persona he embodies for the program.
His elementary school series is the most intense. "The kids are quicker. We have mascots from the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Flashers and we go in and put on a pep rally, and the mascots cover reading and exercise and I cover food."
Woods says the excitement of talking at schools gives him chills. "Childhood obesity is such a huge problem. I did roundtables with kids to see what they knew about food and who did shopping; 88 to 90 percent had an influence on what goes into the cart. If you teach them what to eat, you'll see change."
Guests of the Charleston Food + Wine Festival can appreciate Woods' enthusiasm themselves as he emcees the chef cooking competition on Saturday afternoon in the main tent on Marion Square (Culinary Village passes required). We can't guarantee any high fives, but we're sure it'll be a good time.