by Craig Deihl
Photography by Rick McKee
A few months ago, in a back meeting room at the North Charleston Convention Center, a group of chefs gathered for an intimate party after the Lowcountry Chef's Feast. They were tired from preparing plates for literally hundreds of people, and they were ready to relax and hang out with their peers, drink some beer, and eat some seafood.
At one point, Cypress Executive Chef Craig Deihl pulled out a copy of his hefty new cookbook to show to his friends, and a small crowd gathered around. Sean Brock of McCrady's and some others flipped through the substantial pages, eyeing the full-color photography and complimenting Deihl on his accomplishment. His face flushed, you could see the suppressed pride bubbling to the surface.
Cypress is something to be proud of, with more than 200 pages of lush photographs, handy tips, and tempting recipes. It's also a story of success told in food and pictures.
"It's not a cookbook," says Deihl. "It's my life."
And it is. The book starts at the beginning of Deihl's career with forewords by Hospitality Management Group (Cypress/Blossom/Magnolias) president Tom Parsell and founding executive chef Donald Barickman, the two men who believed in the young chef and gave him the keys to Cypress when he was a mere 23 years old.
At that point, Deihl had already been cooking half his life. He grew up cooking at the side of his mother, got his first kitchen mixer at the age of 14, started working at his first restaurant at 15, went to a vocational high school where he competed in national cooking competitions, and came to Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales on scholarship at the age of 17. Wanting to work part time, he asked around about good kitchen jobs and found himself at Magnolias, learning the business from the bottom of the kitchen totem pole. Eventually, Parsell says, Deihl became the star behind Magnolias Executive Chef Don Drake.
When Parsell and Barickman began planning their new venture a few doors down from Magnolias, right in the heart of restaurant row, they let Deihl have a voice in the menu and the design. The initial Cypress menu consisted of specials Deihl had created for Magnolias, and six months after the restaurant opened, they asked him to run the kitchen. He's been there ever since.
The restaurant and the cookbook embody Deihl's style — food that looks as good as it tastes. In the introduction, he promises readers they will discover his culinary philosophy: "that each new encounter with an ingredient is unique, and that there is no 'right' way to cook."
Inside, Cypress goes beyond simple recipes and reads like a high-end manual on how to make good food. it begins with a how-to on stocking the perfect pantry with recipes for Asian condiments, explanations of the different types of salt and how they can be used, and a guide to infused oils and compound butters.
His creativity and resourcefulness as a chef jump off the page. Squash blossom butter takes unsalted butter, squash blossoms, sea salt, white pepper, and honey and mixes them all together for one unique concoction.
The next chapter is dedicated to stocks, "the backbone of the cuisine at Cypress." While professional kitchens have duck carcasses and veal bones ready to be thrown into a giant pot and simmered with the rest of the kitchen scraps, a home cook might be challenged to find such ingredients. While Deihl recognizes that fact — "I know! I know! You're thinking that veal bones are expensive and hard to find" — he still pushes his readers to take the time to make his flavorful recipes and use them when cooking. "There really isn't a substitute," he writes.
The remaining pages cover raw food, appetizers, salads and cheese, soups and stews, fish and shellfish, poultry and fowl, meats, accompaniments, and desserts. He dedicates the final chapters to cooking techniques, testing and measurements, and wine pairings.
Charleston cooks will be excited to see that Deihl sources all of the purveyors from whom he gets high-quality ingredients, including Anson Mills in Columbia, Split Creek Farms in Anderson, and Kennerty Farms on Johns Island.
The cookbook took two years to compile and create. During that time Deihl put in 60 hour-weeks in the kitchen while working with photographer Rick McKee, pastry chef Kelly Wilson, and writer Anne Pope. He also married his supportive and understanding fiancée and spent what little spare time he had reading books about food and collecting ideas for his cuisine.
He doesn't expect a lot of people will actually take the time to make his recipes unless they're serious foodies. "People are busy," he says. But Cypress would be just as at home on a coffee table, waiting to be picked up on a lazy Sunday and flipped through for gastronomic inspiration.
"Recipes weren't meant to be secrets," he says. His recipes are there for the taking and he's inviting you to cook something tonight. Since it's soft shell crab season, we thought we'd reproduce that recipe here, with permission.
Avocado and Soft-Shell Crab Roll with Black Spanish Radish and Black Bean Soy
1 gallon peanut or canola oil
2 scallions (green tops only)
1 black Spanish radish (can substitute daikon radish)
1 avocado (peeled, pitted, and cut into quarters)
4 soft-shell crabs
Tempura Batter (see cookbook for recipe)
Fine sea salt
Black Bean Soy (see cookbook for recipe)
Come soft-shell crab season (April and early Sept.), this variation of a sushi roll can be found on Cypress's appetizer specials menu.
1. Place oil in a large pot. Attach a thermometer to the side of the pot and heat oil to 350 degrees.
2. Cut scallion tops into 2-inch lengths. Julienne tops thinly and place in cold water. The scallions will curl as they get cold. Using a mandolin or a chiba slicer, slice radish into long, paper-thin strips. You will need at least eight slices. Soak the slices in water.
3. Place the avocado quarters on a cutting board and slice into strips, lengthwise.
4. Clean the soft-shell crabs using kitchen shears. Cut off the face by half an inch. Remove the lungs on both sides by pulling up on each side of the soft shell andcutting them out. Remove the skirt on the bottom of the crab. Press the stomach and calcium deposits out of the crab through the opening where the face was removed.
5. Place the soft-shell crabs on paper towels and then press them dry. Keep refrigerated until ready to use.
6. Line a small bowl with paper towels.
7. Holding the hind legs, dip crabs in tempura batter and carefully add to hot oil. Be sure not to overcrowd the pan. You may need to cook in two batches. Cook for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, flipping the crabs as needed.
8. Remove crabs from oil and place in a bowl with paper towels to absorb excess oil. Season with fine sea salt.
9. Lay the radish slices in groups of two and place the avocado in the middle. Lay the crabs on top and roll tightly.
10. Cut the rolled soft-shell crabs in half.
11. On the four serving plates, place 2 tablespoons Black Bean Soy in the center of each plate. Place the rolls, one on top of the other, over the Black Bean Soy. Garnish with scallion curls.
Yields four servings.