Arguably one of the Lowcountry’s first “celebrity chefs” (the first in the state of South Carolina to win a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast), Louis Osteen has dished up the finest in coastal cuisine for many decades, beginning with his restaurant Louis’s Charleston Grill in the Charleston Place Hotel in 1979, followed by Louis’s on Meeting Street also in Charleston, and many years cooking in restaurants on Pawley’s Island. The author of Louis Osteen’s Charleston Cuisine (2001), he is currently writing a new chapter in life. We caught up with him fresh on the heels of his move to the North Carolina mountains to get the scoop.
TLP: We think of you as forever tied to the South Carolina coast since the majority of your career has been spent between restaurants in Charleston and Pawley’s Island. What possessed you to move to Cashiers, North Carolina?
Louis Osteen (LO): Reasons aren’t simple sometimes. You’d have to go back to 1940 when I was born. I was born in Anderson, in the Piedmont section of South Carolina. When I was a kid, they would do the local news at eleven or eleven thirty every night, and the very last thing they did every day was to call up to Mr. Edwards in Highlands, North Carolina, and ask him, “Mr. Edwards, what’s the weather like? Can I head up to Highlands in the morning?” Every night. So I’ve been coming to Highlands for about forty or fifty years. We used to ice skate, which I never could do but I kept trying. Cashiers is only ten miles down the road, and their climate is less severe. It’s a good location.
TLP: We heard you retired from the restaurant business to get into restaurant consulting. Are you working on any projects?
LO: I was just talking this morning to a man who wants to do a restaurant up here, but we haven’t worked out the details yet. Really, we moved up to the mountains to be closer to our co-packer in Waynesville near Asheville. I’ve started a little company called Louis’s Lowcountry Larder that makes some products for retail. We’ve got our first commercial run of Louis’s Lemonade coming up. I’m heading over there soon to taste. They’re making sixty dozen quarts.
TLP: Tell us the inspiration for the lemonade mixer.
LO: The recipe was given to me, or taught to me, or observed by me when I was cooking at Le Versailles restaurant in Atlanta in the seventies. The French chef there made a pot or two of the lemonade one summer for his family (without the vodka, of course!).
TLP: What makes it special?
LO: It’s made concentrated, so you put 1/3 lemonade, 1/3 vodka, and 1/3 soda, then stir it up. The way it’s made is that as you reach the bottom, you don’t notice a dilution of the lemonade flavor from the ice melting. It’s a great summertime drink.
TLP: You were the first chef in our state to win a James Beard “Best Chef” Award. How did that make you feel?
LO: It makes you feel both proud and humble. It makes you feel good.
TLP: Who inspired you most in your own career?
LO: My career certainly wouldn’t be what it is today or has been or was if it hadn’t been for my wife. A good man usually has a good wife. Well, I’ve got one, Marlene, and she’s good most of the time. If she’s not back there behind me, she’s back there pushing me, shoving me, hard. Shoving me, hard. She’s a powerhouse. She’s been hugely instrumental in what I’ve done over time.
TLP: Decades ago, everyone associated fine dining with French cuisine, and in fact, that’s where your career started. Was there a point at which chefs turned to more regional classics?
LO: There was. But first, I should say that French technique is the language of the kitchen. I haven’t changed techniques. I’ve just changed the food. In the early eighties, there were these two fellows, Phillip Cooke and Daniel Maye, who didn’t cook a damn thing but were instrumental in our nation’s defining American food. They hosted a series of events called Symposium on American Cuisine. It was right at that time that people started thinking about food in America as being American food. They would argue, “Why is it? What is it?” The definition became that American food should be regional. You wouldn’t go to New York to eat grits—which happens now, but back then, that was the wrong thing to do. It still kind of is, I think. I think you have to have certain credentials to make certain kinds of food. Like I would never be able to open an Italian restaurant, although I cook pretty good Italian. I’m from the South, and Southern food is as good a food as you’ll find on the planet.
TLP: Let’s hear it for the South!
LO: Okay, I’m on my soapbox now. The South is important because every bit of the country’s original music came from the South. It came from the slaves picking cotton, and that begat blues. Blues got to New Orleans and all hell broke loose. Then those folks in the mountains that came from Scotland and Ireland, their music turned into bluegrass. And so from that came all the music in this country. Bang. That’s it. That’s all. We’ve got the juiciest food, the best food. We have great Southern writers, Eudora Welty, Faulkner, etc. You don’t see Southerners retiring to Ohio and New Jersey, but folks from there flock down here and they retire in the South. Sometimes they complain, and I say, “Go back. Why the hell are you down here?” And another thing, you don’t have to shovel humidity. I’m off my soapbox for now.