On the eve of Charleston’s tenth BB&T Wine + Food Festival, we selected ten Southern chefs who will be cooking special Signature Dinners at the festival and asked them to let us eavesdrop on their plans and musings. We printed three of the interviews in the March issue of The Local Palate, But here and ONLINE ONLY are what two other chef pairings had to say about culinary collaboration:
Jeremiah Bacon [JB] / You and I first met at SFA [Southern Foodways Alliance]. That was my first time at the symposium. It was exciting for me to meet so many chefs from the region.
Kelly English [KE] / And since then, we’ve done a couple events together, like the Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital annual fundraiser in Memphis with a big party at Iris. Or the pop-up at City Grit in New York. That was one of my favorites. There were five of us at that dinner. It was a real exercise in collaboration because we had to look at the whole meal, to be really mindful of each other’s dishes, to go through a progression of both ingredients and boldness of flavors and temperatures and whatnot. I had a really good time in New York both cooking that dinner and hanging out with each other.
JB: The City Grit kitchen was a little challenging. I think we just had a fixed burner and two ovens between five chefs, so you have to coordinate. You start talking to people: “Who’s going to be working where? What do you need? How many birds do you have? You let me know when I can jump on, put this on, pull this off, then the water goes back on…”
KE: At that dinner, I wanted to fry soft shell crabs, and we got there, and there’s nothing but a tabletop home KitchenAid fryer. So we had to pan-fry all of them, which was fine, just takes a little longer. People were frying soft shell crabs way before there were fryers, so no big deal. But when you walk into a kitchen, you have to think about economics of space, what everybody needs for each of their courses.
JB: It’s always good to get the walk-through in the day before, and go “OK, cool.” You get in your head what you’ll be doing, what you’re walking into. That’s half the battle. You have a great dish, but if you can’t put fifty of them out really fast, then it’s going to affect the dinner.
KE: So we’ve already started talking about this upcoming dinner for the festival. We talked about celebrating the nuances between the New Orleans region that I grew up in and Charleston. And just the difference in what Creole cooking is and from place to place. When I think about what we do at Iris, I like to think that we cook what Creoles would have done if they settled in Memphis, and you can really apply the Lowcountry or the Creole style of cooking anywhere. It’s really all about passion, and about what the ingredients are there right now. I think that from the idea that the collaborative spirit is strong in what we’re trying to do.
JB: We have tasting notes on the wines, but we haven’t tasted them. The notes themselves are a huge help. It allows us to get some structure. Then we’ll get the wines in, try them, and it’s like, “Yep, that’ll work,” or “OK, I think I need to change the starch or some element in this dish.”
“The kitchen is a creative place. There’s nothing you can’t make happen.” – Kelly English
KE: The kitchen is a creative place. There’s nothing you can’t make happen. And one of the beautiful things about going to a place like Charleston is that there are great resources of food, especially seafood.
JB: Most chefs don’t have to ship in. We’re fortunate enough to be able to source anything you might want, unless you want to bring something regionally specific, whether it’s local caviar or cheese or rare spices.
KE: I’m just ready to get to Charleston.
JB: We’re actually having an after-party Thursday night at The Macintosh. We haven’t done one there yet. I think we did three in a row at Oak a few years back. One year was getting pretty wild. Saturday night tends to be the most rowdy one. But they’re a lot of fun. It’s great having all the visiting chefs, cookbook writers, winemakers, people in the industry, come to your restaurant asking what you’re doing and that kind of stuff. It’s such a great spirit, the festival. It’s something we look forward to every time each year.
KE: Are there any new spots where I should eat?
KE: I definitely want to go drink one of Jayce’s cocktails [Jayce McConnell, head bartender at Edmund’s Oast].
JB: His happy hours are just absolutely fantastic. He’s got a great palate and a great creative spirit.
KE: Great mustache, too!
Donald Drake [DD] / So people might not know that the last time you were here, you still had braces.
Jeremy Ashby [JA] / I was eighteen or nineteen years old when I came down to Magnolia’s to work. Just one generation away from hillbilly up here in Kentucky, going down to a place like Magnolia’s whose reputation blew my mind. Such an intimidating place for a young chef. I remember asking for Chef Don Drake, meeting you, and the first thing you said was, “Just call me Vito.” Then on the way from the front of the house to the kitchen, you basically told me how the next five or ten years of my career was going to work.
You said, “Keep your head down, get your stuff together, put in overtime, get your chops here, and make things right.” I felt welcome.
DD: I’m excited to see you. It’s like having one of the kids come home from college—a proud parent moment, to see you being so successful and get a chance to work with you.
JA: You’ve developed so much talent through your kitchen. If I went through my Facebook friends, all the guys who worked at Mags, and what they’re doing now, I mean, it’s staggering.
DD: We had such a unique group in the kitchen with Johnson & Wales being here. I still have pictures of you and the guys over at the house for Thanksgiving dinner. We’d drink bourbon out by the fire in the backyard. For those who couldn’t drive home, I’d stick them in a lounge chair, put a blanket over them, and just call it a night.
JA: That’s how it was—just a family. At Thanksgiving at the restaurant, we’d crank out some covers, but after we got done, we’d be at your house, and you’d cook for us.
DD: Now you get to come control the kitchen for the night. I’ll act as host, do the hors d’oeuvres and dessert, supply the man power, and act as support. What do you have in mind?
JA: My plan is to show where I come from: Kentucky roots influenced by where I’ve been (Florida, New York, and nouveau cuisine, with Caribbean and African roots). Right now I’m obsessed with Kentucky things like the hot brown, lots of bourbon, two- and three-year-old country hams, burgoo. When I moved from Kentucky to Charleston, I felt that much of Kentucky food was still caught in the Stone Ages, and that the past hundred years did it no justice. Mags was on the cusp of this whole renaissance of Southern food, approaching it with fresh ingredients. You taught me how to stratify flavors, to get those really deep good homey Southern flavors but with a lighter approach. I still wake up craving your eggrolls at 2:00 a.m.
DD: I never get tired of a classic: chicken, tasso, collard greens, a little peach chutney, and some spicy mustard.
JA: It’s just one of those things. It’s so damned good. I look forward to seeing what’s in your basket (produce, seafood, etc.) and putting a Kentucky spin on it. I will definitely bring some country ham. We usually cure about forty hams a year here, the old-fashioned way, in a salt coffin for four weeks then hung in an attic for two years, not smoked. Sorghum will be on the top of the list. And we have our own beehives at Azur, so I’ll bring a bunch of our own honey and some fennel pollen. So I’ll put all those in a little sack on my shoulder along with some cast iron skillets and bring you treasures from the Bluegrass State. One thing I’m excited about right now is a mash from the Bourbon Barrel Foods guys in Louisville. They make small-batch barrel-aged soy sauce, and this really neat mash comes out of the waste of the soybeans. It’s black and rustic, and after it’s been aged in bourbon barrels for a few years, it has these smoky, cherry undertones and this miso umami. It gives dishes a finish that you can’t put your finger on, mysterious but familiar in some way.
DD: Do you have any crazy collaboration stories?
JA: Well, there was this one time at a honky-tonk in Nashville. Something may have happened. But nothing suitable for print. How about you?
DD: I think mine personally would be the time I was cooking a dinner at an undisclosed resort in Florida with ten world-class chefs. After the dinner, there were six of us riding around in a golf cart, and we lost our way. Before we knew it, we were down on the beach, and the cart got stuck. We couldn’t make it budge, so we thought, “We’ll get it later.” The next morning at breakfast, right in front of the dining room window, the golf cart is there and waves are breaking on top of it. That was fifteen years ago. No one ever fessed up.
JA: You once gave me some terrific advice. It was right at the end of my shift. I had made a batch of Charleston red rice that didn’t come out good. I wanted to go, but you looked at me and said, “You can leave if you want, or you can stay and make it right.” I thought about it, stayed, and made it right. And you said, “You made the right decision. Don’t ever sell yourself short.” That meant the world to me. And the lesson learned has come up over and over in my career. It’s OK to make mistakes, but you put in a little bit more effort, with drive and passion. Do it right. No regrets. Thanks, Vito!