A Bluffton, South Carolina chef brings a Latin spin to the local bounty
Just steps outside his restaurant FARM in Bluffton, South Carolina, chef Brandon Carter can smell salt in the air. The tidal May River is half a mile away, but a spring breeze carries the scents of oysters, crabs, pluff mud, and spartina grass. The breeze sweeps across long-defunct rice fields, across great stretches of marsh, over palm-studded hummock islands, past fishermen, over the river’s bluff and northward into the heart of the historic village.
If the chef were to walk down Calhoun Street to the river’s edge, he could throw crab traps off a friend’s dock and return later in the evening to haul up dozens of feisty little pinchers. If he were to take his son out on an oystering colleague’s boat by night, (as he has done and will do again) and shine a spotlight into the shallows to reveal the telltale sparkle of flounder eyes looking up at him, he could gig more than his fair share. If he were to cast a line on coastal creeks, with luck he could snag a striped bass, spotted seatrout, sheepshead, or red drum—luck being the key word, for Carter admits his kitchen skills far outweigh his fishing skills.
“It’s a good thing I can cook,” he laughs. “I take my son fishing, and we get skunked all the time. But luckily, I can partner with people who fish, farm, and forage. I can call the Bluffton Oyster Company and find out how many boats they’ve got on the water. I can source the freshest blue crab, expertly hand picked by Gullah women who have been picking crabs for twenty or thirty years. If I tried it myself, it would take me all day and yield less meat.”
Time is precious indeed for a chef intent on feeding a growing community of sophisticated palates. The once sleepy coastal town raised eyebrows when the 2010 census identified it as the fastest growing municipality in South Carolina. Visitors clamor here from far-flung locales in search of Bluffton’s signature blend of grace and luxury with small-town intimacy and Southern swagger. Many who make the pilgrimage stay at the world-class Palmetto Bluff Resort just across the river, where Carter was chef de cuisine, then executive chef for six years before leaving to helm his forty-five-seat rustic restaurant FARM in the heart of Old Town. When tourists get an itch to buy property in the area, realtors send them to dine at FARM’s chef’s counter to experience Carter’s extraordinary cuisine—his knack for taking the familiar and making it seem exotic, often through international inspirations and techniques. Local flounder comes interpreted through a Peruvian lens (find his ceviche recipe here). Shrimp might take a Spanish or Latin American turn. Sweet peas give a playful nod to Mexico.
At the heart of it all are genuine Lowcountry ingredients. The restaurant came by its name organically, for its founding visionary was a farmer, not a chef. Ryan Williamson and his wife run Lowcountry Farms, a boutique operation a few miles away. Williamson supplied Carter with fresh produce at Palmetto Bluff, where the two geeked out over radishes, greens, and seed catalogues. Williamson dreamt of one day owning a restaurant that would feature his own produce, and when the Old Town property became available, he jumped on it, inviting Carter to join him in the endeavor. The two then engaged friend, forager, and cocktail veteran Josh Heaton to lead the front-of-the-house as their third partner—an impressive trinity of talent and passion.
Many of the dishes and cocktails build upon ingredients straight from Williamson’s farm and Heaton’s backyard garden, but even better, when you are the shining locavore eatery in a relatively small town, people find you. Residents bring Carter exotic varieties of citrus from their own yards. A small goat dairy supplies him with feta. A local crabber delivers live blues from the Coosawhatchie River in exchange for cold beer. A rural gentleman from Hampton County supplies home-boiled cane syrup and field-harvested San Marzano tomatoes.
For Carter, it’s all about these relationships. With the advent of spring, his coastal community will be delivering plenty of fresh and vibrant ingredients from sea, creek, and land directly to his door. “And now,” says Carter, taking a brief moment to savor the coastal air, “I have all these different toys to play with!”
South Carolina meets Spain: These tapas-inspired shrimp are seared and topped with garlic, chiles, herbs, and lemon. Serve them with sourdough toast to mop up the juices.
As a teenager working in restaurants in Atlanta, Carter drew inspiration from Mexican co-workers with whom he worked the line and shared meals. This sweet pea dish is a Southern take on refried beans.
Carter brings unexpected texture to this traditional dish by garnishing it with peanuts and fried shallots. It has all the usual suspects, but with a great creamy-crunchy balance.
Spanish in origin, escabeche can be served hot or cold. Carter’s approach is similar to pickled shrimp and makes a beautiful salad.
Carter uses stoneground grits from a Savannah farmer whose family operates a grist mill in upper Georgia. Here, he adds the unexpected flavors of local feta and Basque peppers.
Carter comes from pie royalty. Both his mother and grandmother are renowned for their home-baked creations, and Carter pledged that he would always have a hand pie on his menu, with constantly changing seasonal fillings and toppings. His take on pecan pie incorporates a local cauldron-boiled cane syrup that has a caramel quality you can’t find in generic corn syrup.
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