Conservation concerns cultivate Charleston cuisine
As Charleston has become a global culinary mecca, media attention has focused on our talented chefs. However, there are others who have played crucial roles in promoting our gastronomic excellence.
Dana Beach may not be the first person you think of when you consider Charleston’s amazing gastronomic renaissance, however he has been involved with it for several decades.
Dana founded The Coastal Conservation League in 1990. It is focused on protecting the environment of the state, which includes agricultural aspects and protecting South Carolina’s small farmers.
One of the League’s most successful programs is GrowFood Carolina, which was created in 2011. It is a food hub that markets and distributes the products of South Carolina’s small farmers.
Those small farmers became popular with local chefs in the 1990s. Word spread in the national media. Charleston was one of the first communities in America to be celebrated for embracing locavorism.
Before GrowFood, farmers would personally drive into town and deliver to individual restaurants. That took them away from actually tending the farm. GrowFood makes it possible for farmers to make just one delivery, directly to them. It has been a smashing success and has grown from five producers to more than 85. It is estimated that some $5 million has been returned to small family farmers in South Carolina.
Sara Clow, manager of GrowFood, is pleased they are able to bridge the gap between local farmers and local markets, which benefits the community and the environment.
Glenn Roberts is another idealist who led Charleston’s culinary renaissance and who has been crucial to our global fame as well.
In 1997 Glenn was managing Anson Restaurant. The first time I interviewed Glenn, I heard over the phone an intense passion I had never heard before.
Glenn went on and on about the importance of reviving heirloom ingredients. It was clear that he intended to do something about it. His mother had constantly talked about how much she missed the food of her childhood. Modern versions of rice and grits were not acceptable. Glenn recognized a need to bring back heirloom flavors.
The New York Times saw the importance of reviving our historic rice, too. In 1988 the Times printed a major article about a plantation in Savannah that was producing the rice for sale — “Carolina Gold: A Rare Harvest.” We were living in New York at the time and began serving Carolina Gold at dinner parties to great acclaim from our northern friends.
In 1998 Glenn followed his dream of reviving heirloom grains and founded Anson Mills. He arranged for Carolina Gold to be widely grown again and mills it and other grains for chefs all over the world.
Another major contribution Glenn has made to our culinary scene is finding and luring one of today’s greatest culinary talents to Charleston. Glenn was seeking a chef for Anson restaurant who would share his passion for excellence. He found that kindred spirit in Atlanta — Mike Lata was executive chef at an upscale restaurant there. Mike agreed to come to Anson’s only after Mike took him to the farm of Celeste Albers.
It was her turnips that did it.
In the mid-1990s Celeste Albers was the only organic farmer in the state of South Carolina. She was selling vegetables at a small vegetable stand in the Saturday farmers market in Marion Square. However, most of her produce was shipped to savvy chefs in Georgia.
When we moved here, I was so happy to find Celeste in the farmers market. We had lived in New York City where I had become spoiled by all the fresh and organic food Greenmarket there. Is it possible now to believe that one could not find arugula for sale here in Charleston in 1994?
Charleston’s culinary renaissance was just beginning then. Only a few chefs appreciated the excellence of Celeste’s produce. She credits such chefs as Mike Lata (when he was at Anson restaurant) and Frank Lee, former chef at SNOB, with enabling her to survive. Celeste is still in the farmers market, now featuring raw milk and grass-fed beef.
Mike saw himself as a vegetable chef back in the 1990s when the focus was on proteins. As executive chef of Ciboulette in Atlanta, he celebrated vegetables with weekly degustations that attracted national media attention on CNN.
Other chefs once made fun of Mike’s reverence for veggies, calling him “veggie boy.” Mike is now the chef/owner of FIG and The Ordinary. His celebration of vegetables at FIG has contributed to the restaurant’s popularity and success.
Shishito peppers are one of the veggies not to be missed at FIG. The yummiest potatoes star in a Nicola puree. Another special dish you are not likely to encounter at other restaurants is pasta with bottarga. You may become addicted, as I have, to the flavor of this Italian delicacy of salted cured fish roe.
Mike has won innumerable awards. Among them, he received a Best Chef Southeast award from James Beard Foundation in 2009.
Ingredients are crucial
There is increasing demand for organic products. Even the huge organization, Tyson Foods Inc., is now buying and distributing organic fresh chicken products. There is competition from U..S poultry producers to build up their presence in the fast-growing organic segment according to the Wall Street Journal. Chefs who value organic products often list sources on their menus. The menu at Palmetto Café includes two organic coffees. Sean Brock has a huge blackboard in the entrance lobby of Husk restaurant.
Peg Moore may be reached at email@example.com.