You know the words, you hear them every day — artisanal, craft, house-made and farm-to-table. While the foodstuffs that sustain us have remained relatively constant over the ages — grains, animals, vegetables — the ways in which we describe and evoke them has undergone ceaseless evolution.
Charleston's drinking and dining scene is, of course, no exception. In recent years, words like bespoke, sustainable, heirloom, and grass-fed, have overtaken menus both on and off the peninsula. This is naturally due to the exceptional local farms and fisheries that have long spoiled Charlestonians with high-quality produce and seafood. But there is also a social function to these words, and others.
Just as humans love to eat, they are also driven by the desire for a feeling of belonging. As the use (and abuse) of these terms has exploded almost everywhere in the greater American culinary landscape, it's worth a look back to see just how much the way we talk and think about food in Charleston has changed.
Frank McMahon has been executive chef at the award-winning Hank's Seafood since it opened in 1999 (following a stint at Le Bernardin in NYC), and over the years he has watched numerous culinary trends come and go. Of the buzzwords that were en vogue at the turn of the millennium, Chef McMahon recalls a particularly strong proliferation of "reduction, fusion, foam, emulsion, and obviously everything Lowcountry. Oh, and don't forget medley and succotash." With McMahon at the helm, Hank's revived iconic, old-school plates from the late Henry's restaurant — locally known dishes like Flounder Gherardi and Seafood à la Wando ("Although," he says, "Gherardi bit the dust years ago.") — while simultaneously maintaining a focus on more contemporary treatments. "The tuna tartare," he notes, "is one of the more modern approaches that has been on [our] menu from day one."
Today, the menus at Hank's and Brasserie Gigi — McMahon's lively joint on North Market Street — are conspicuously devoid of hip vocabulary. Aside from a judicious sprinkling of the word "local," you will not find the same cacophony of adjectives and sourcing notes that can be seen at newer Charleston haunts. McMahon explains, "Hank's and Brasserie Gigi are classic, enduring, timeless concepts, so I feel that trendy descriptors just don't have too much relevance. In my opinion it should be a given that, where you can, you source locally." Judging by the enduring success that McMahon has enjoyed, it seems that many diners emphatically agree.
Steve Palmer, who also had an early hand in Hank's Seafood, has been an integral part of Charleston's contemporary gastronomic scene. As co-owner and founder of Indigo Road — the restaurant group that has brought us Oak Steakhouse, The Macintosh, O-Ku, and their newest, Indaco — Palmer has acted as a catalyst for the current state of Charleston dining. He notes how much Charleston's culinary landscape has changed since 1997, when the celebrated Peninsula Grill first opened its doors. "We were the first restaurant to be curing foie gras in town," Palmer says. "We were serving caviar on fried green tomatoes instead of toast points, and we were pouring Dom Perignon by the glass. So the beginning of the '90s was sort of all about luxury. It was all about opulence, and over-the-top. And now it's more about 'where did my food come from? Have I met the farmer that pulled those squash blossoms out of the ground?'"
The language of dining, then, has seemingly merged with the language of farming and production. Citing the market crash of 2008 as a turning point that turned fine diners into comfort-foodies, Palmer has found one constant in the midst of so much change. "If you look at the restaurants that are turning a 100 [years old], they're all steakhouses," he says. "So there's something, I think, fundamental that will never go away in the hospitality of a steakhouse. You walk in, it's kind of like Norm going to Cheers, you know? Everybody knows your name." Relating this concept to the customer service found in his own restaurants, Palmer says he's "come to appreciate the timelessness of that classic, old hospitality."
While standards of high-end hospitality may have stayed the same, Charleston's fine-dining demographic has unquestionably evolved over the last 15 years, particularly along the parameter of age. While 20-somethings in the early '90s were typically drawn to sports bars and comfort food, Palmer notes that diners in their 20s today are just as comfortable around a charcuterie plate and a glass of Burgundy. "At The Macintosh, we're seeing young kids who are like 'Oh, I was at Daniel in New York City the other night,'" he says. "Ten years ago [this] age group wouldn't even have known who Daniel was. So I think the accessibility is a real, real positive."
Eaters of all ages also seem to arrive at the table with a higher level of knowledge and interest in the food that they eat. "I always joke and say 'The Food Network killed the maître d','" quips Palmer. "The Food Network has made the chefs rock stars and has forever changed the level of education that exists."
Palmer has his own feelings on the evolution and current state of the gastronomic lexicon, and they extend from his stalwart focus on making sure diners feel comfortable. "I think there are terms that started with the best of intentions in our business. Then they sort of faded into marketing terms, and now the cool kids use [them] in a real elitist way," he says. He cites the terms "authentic," "soulful," and "honest" as prime examples of such abused descriptors. "It's all these sort of exclusive words, like 'Oh, I'm over here eating this food that's so much more honest than what you're over there eating,' or something," he says. "You know, just those kind of elitist words — you read about them in Garden & Gun magazine, and then everybody's using them." The restaurateur attributes the preponderance of such terminology to an unfortunate sense of exclusivity that has crept into particular sectors of the food and beverage industry. "It's like, you wear certain clothes, you say a certain thing, you drink a certain beer, or you order a certain wine, not because you particularly love that wine but because you just read that everybody's drinking that wine, and there's this real sort of 'cool factor' in our business that I kind of rebel against. I want our places to be inclusive. I want everyone to feel welcome," he says.
While Charleston's dining community has perennially blessed so many loyal and prolific restaurateurs with success and fame, it has also extended a warm welcome to newcomers with great ideas. Brooks Reitz, a Kentucky native and one of the masterminds behind Leon's Oyster Shop, made his bones as general manager at FIG in the late Aughts, where he began producing and serving his signature Handmade Tonic. A star of Charleston cocktail culture and the founder of Jack Rudy Cocktail Company, Reitz shares Palmer's take on misused and exhausted gastronomic marketing terms. "So many buzzwords quickly lose their meaning, or are adopted by someone that doesn't necessarily represent the things they stand for," he says. What are the words that mean the most to Reitz? "These are the things that are most important: healthy, accessible, value," explains Reitz. "Unfortunately, words like 'artisanal' and 'small batch' have lost their meaning."
Despite the anemia afflicting certain adjectives in use today, Reitz has nevertheless noted positive developments in Charleston's eaters. "I think people are becoming more in tune to space, experience, aesthetics, and the soul of a restaurant — they are able to assess beyond what is on the plate," he says. "They are more interested, which is exciting. I think their expectations are higher, as well."
Along with such high expectations on the part of the consumer, the purveyors of bites and beverages apparently have elevated their own expectations of the customer, offering cocktail and wine "programs" rather than the customary list of options. Reitz is decidedly against such a pedantic turn of phrase. "Calling anything a 'program' has become quite tiresome," he explains, "and that is a buzzword I wish would die a quick death. The distinction is that a restaurant that says they have a 'cocktail program' probably takes themselves too seriously and is probably not much fun to enjoy a simple night out with friends. It's not a classroom — it's food and drink!"
As for what should constitute a cocktail that carries the by-now de rigueur designation of "craft," Reitz, a devoted student of the handmade cocktail, says, "I assume they are using freshly squeezed juices, thoughtfully selected spirits, proper techniques, and are generally ensuring the offering in the glass is treated as carefully as the offering on the plate."
McMahon, Palmer, and Reitz have each contributed enormously to Charleston's culinary landscape and have been able to watch the changes of recent years unfold from the inside. But what can be said for those of us who live outside of the industry, who simply crave a good meal and stiff drink made with care by those who know how to do so better than us? Should we assume that an artisanal sandwich is tastier or better for us than just a regular sandwich? Or, worse yet, if we order and enjoy a regular sandwich, is our experience diminished for having chosen a meal that was not made artisanally? If the genesis of our mint julep does not follow the trajectory of farm-to-shaker, will we savor it less? Will we be judged by those around us for our pedestrian taste and lack of sophistication?
Let's hope not. While we could easily wax at length on certain social theories of the late 1970s — like the Theory of Class Distinction, which address the role of cultural symbols (in this case, anything from boutique pork to imported yuzu) as principles of differentiation and distinction or the fetishization of cultural signifiers as a means of demonstrating membership in a particular group or class — all it would prove is what we already feel, anyway. Such principles were accurate in 1999, with the proof staring back at us from those foams and reductions and fusions. Those same principles apply now, too; an online retailer called Flavor Gallery, for example, sells celebrity-chef-endorsed apparel that screams "Fresh & Local," "Food is the New Rock!" and — by far their most gleefully pithy option — "Offal: It's the Meat of Champions." By literally wearing our aspirations toward elite gastronomic status on our sleeves and talking the talk of trendy gastronomic marketing, we communicate to those around us our membership in a particular group, to either exclusive or inclusive ends. And by using the right phrases and terminology on menus — words that may or may not accurately describe the food and drink being served — restaurateurs can also attract us in droves.
Since 1999, Charleston's restaurant scene has evolved symmetrically with those of other locales on both of America's coasts, with many chefs, mixologists and owners adopting and embracing a commitment to cleaner, safer, more responsible products that are made with care and artistry. Other chefs, owners, and mixologists have not made the same commitment, but have nevertheless appropriated the lexicon of this movement and employed it to generate a valuable aesthetic. The way that Charlestonians talk about food has evolved as well, and savvy diners are more able than ever to discuss what is on their plate in a way that is thoughtful and informed. We've rolled from gourmet to organic, from terroir to auquoir, from sit-down to pop-up. And regardless of why we make the dining choices that we do, we eaters of Charleston appear to be in good hands. Based on what our chefs and restaurateurs are up to, it seems that inclusivity, value, and a commitment to quality remain the hallmarks of Charleston's varied and vibrant cuisine.