Charleston has its rock stars. The chefs you all recognize whose names are dropped in the press on a regular basis, who win awards and accolades on the national stage. But what about the ones who, night after night, turn out exceptional plates of food at restaurants that don't necessarily get a ton of attention? These are the ones who give our food scene remarkable depth. You can find a table here a lot easier, but the food is no simple matter. Their talent and hard work deserve some attention too, so we've identified a handful of our favorite chefs working under the radar. There are plenty more out there. If we neglected to recognize your favorite, comment at the bottom of this page, letting us know who we missed.
Our idea for under-the-radar chefs was actually inspired by Nate Whiting, a chef who has five-star fine dining experience, having manned the kitchen at Woodlands Dining Room after the departure of Tarver King before heading downtown to take over Tristan when Aaron Deal left for Chicago. During the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, I ate at Tristan for the Friday night Perfectly Paired dinner, which featured celebuchefs George Mendes of Aldea in New York and Hugh Acheson of Empire State South in Atlanta and Five and Ten in Athens. The multi-course meal was wonderful, but Chef Whiting, who had only one course, really shined. His lobster and veal marrow agnolotti with pomelo cells and sea urchin and ginger espuma had serious flavor and exceptional technique. He also showed us that he doesn't mind sharing the spotlight, letting his pastry chef send out two fantastic dessert courses. In the end, we left that meal impressed with Whiting's quietly confident talent. —Stephanie Barna
If there's a dark horse in the race for rising star chefs in Charleson, it's Carolina's Jill Mathias. She came to the Holy City via the Scandinavia-influenced border of Minnesota and North Dakota. Her favorite vegetables are radishes, and most importantly, she brings a different sensibility to the plate, something lacking in our city's cuisine. During the Wine + Food Festival this year, she teamed with Ashley Christensen of Raleigh's Poole's Diner, and the duo showcased the purity that Mathias flaunts as the hallmark of her-well developed cuisine. Plates at that dinner lacked the usual focus on big proteins, emerging instead as delightfully balanced constructions, full of subtlety and interplay. In the place of a well-marbled hunk of meat or a well-crusted chunk of fish, we saw composed dishes with three or four themes intertwined. Yet within that diversity of theme, there always ran a very clean line of simplicity. Such a notion lacks overt egocentrism, and perhaps gives a prescient glimpse into how different Southern cuisine might look in a place not dominated by pork fat and men. After a few years of being mentored by Jeremiah Bacon, Mathias is more than ready to make a strong mark, and she is an important culinarian to watch in Charleston. —Jeff Allen
After training under John Marshall at Al di La, Michael Scognamiglio generated a small rustle of attention in 2007 when he set out over the Ravenel Bridge and opened Bacco in Mt. Pleasant. Since then, he's kept his head down and focused on turning out a steady stream of unbelievable Italian dishes. He first got my attention with his fresh-pulled fior di latte mozzarella and brilliant fire-roasted olives, which happened to be the first two things I tasted at Bacco. Scognamiglio's got the classics mastered — delicate pastas, flawless risotto, and a pillowy ricotta gnocchi — and there's always something intriguing popping up on the "Secondi" section of the menu: grilled quail, braised pork shanks, and fried risotto balls stuffed with pesto or shredded veal. Scognamiglio was roasting veggies in a wood-fired oven long before it became the hot new trend, and his slow-braised and grilled octopus is magically tender. It's time more folks made the trek across the bridge to taste what's going on at Bacco. —Robert Moss
Let's be honest, the first things that come to mind when we think about Halls Chophouse are the big, juicy, dry-aged rib-eyes and the attentive service. When we walk in the door, we expect a big welcome from a member of the Hall family in addition to some excellent food. But most people don't have a clue who's responsible for running the kitchen at Halls. It's time we pay respect to Executive Chef Matthew Niessner, a guy who can cook more than just a steak. The menu regularly features a variety of creations: braised Maple Leaf Farm duck with fingerling potatoes, pan-roasted chicken with Sea Island Red Pea succotash, and, most recently, a cornmeal and Old Bay-dusted soft-shell crab on white bean, corn, green bean, and roasted tomato succotash, finished with a creole remoulade. Oh, and we can't forget about the long list of side dishes, which stand up as some of the best in town, proving that Niessner's talents go way beyond red meat. —Eric Doksa
Born and raised in Hanahan, Chef Brannon Florie knows a thing or two about Southern ingredients and the region's rich and natural food sources. At 17 North, he's got a garden in the back growing various vegetables and herbs to ensure dishes are seasonal and fresh — last summer he had eight different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Every two weeks, Florie brings in 100 pounds of pork belly to make bacon, tasso ham, and pancetta, and he's going to local fishermen to get their best fish, stone crabs, and shrimp. He's cooking Southern dishes with bold flavors, like a recent plate of grilled shrimp with pimento cheese gritcake, tasso gravy, and sweet peppers, or the huge house-smoked pork chop with braised Carolina collard greens and creamy macaroni and cheese. To fully experience what Florie can do, we suggest signing up for one of his beer or wine dinners, or settle for a three-for-$30 dinner, which the chef creates using the latest fresh ingredients. Eric Doksa
82 Queen has been a staple in Charleston for almost 30 years, and it's the traditional Lowcountry fare, stunning dining rooms, and tree-covered patio that keep bringing people back for a true Southern experience. After working as sous chef for four years, Steven Lusby quietly took over as executive chef in 2010. A lot of the traditional dishes remain the same, such as the award winning she-crab soup, but we shouldn't underestimate the quality of food that Lusby brings to the table. During the Wine + Food Festival, he put together a stunning lineup of dishes to pair with a variety of Widmer Bros. Brewing Company beers. He served dishes like duck bratwurst with braised cabbage on marble rye with green peppercorn dijon and apple-smoked venison short ribs with acorn gratin and Brussels sprouts. You don't typically see something like that on the 82 Queen menu, but it shows the breadth of Lusby's talent. Recently, the menu featured seasonal specials like grilled local wahoo with pineapple chutney, curry rice, and vegetables, and fried soft-shell crab with roasted corn, tomato salad, and tartar sauce. These dishes stand out, and we hope to see a lot more of Lusby's creativity in the near future. Eric Doksa