CHARLESTON’S WINE + FOOD FESTIVAL BRINGS TOGETHER SOUTHERN TALENT THROUGH SIGNATURE DINNERS
John Ondo [JO] / When the folks at Charleston Wine + Food wanted me to do a Signature Dinner and they suggested partnering with you, I thought, “OK, cool, let’s do it. We’ll figure it out later.” That was in the fall. Then I got back to watching a lot of English football. But now we’re nearing the festival and I don’t know what ingredients are going to be around. We’ll be right at the tail end of winter, just before spring hits, so it’s gonna be pretty much…nothing. I am almost so sick and tired of root vegetables that I really can’t see straight.
Matt McCallister [MM] / We do something with root vegetables to try to make them a little more exciting. We take the vegetable, run it through a steam juicer, and harvest this cooked, steamed juice from the vegetable, then reduce it down and turn it into caramel so that we can make it into syrup. So we’ll serve the actual vegetable in its own syrup. It takes sixteen hours to make, so I’ll bring that with me.
JO: Sounds great. Much better than the time this guest chef FedExed me his parsley and shallots. It looked like he had cut them with a hammer. He sent them two days before the dinner, so by the time the dinner rolls around the stuff’s useless. Then I’ve got to pay for the shipping on top of that. Don’t FedEx me any of your parsley, Matt! Believe it or not, I can get Italian flatleaf parsley too, man! [both laugh]
MM: We host guest chef dinners essentially once a month. Most of mine have been good experiences. A challenging one was when I did a monochromatic themed eleven-course menu; it started with white and ended in black, each course solid in color. It just turned into a giant fighting match over plating and what should go where and took forever. But everything was great. At least, the food was gorgeous.
JO: We’ll alternate our dishes. It usually falls on the host chef to do dessert.
“Most savory chefs aren’t budding pastry chefs, but I’ve got a little pastry chef in me that’s screaming to come out every now and again.” – John Ondo
MM: I try to keep it real focused: three components, no more than five per dish. Well composed, easy to plate, and easy to execute. You never really know what kitchen you’re walking into. My kitchen’s set up to lay out a bunch of plates and do a bunch of intricate stuff if we want to, but some kitchens are tiny and you can’t pull it off.
JO: Our kitchen is very tiny. It’s a three-man line, and the fourth guy steps on everybody else’s toes. So we’ll help expedite each other’s courses, and my two sous will help plate. Collaboration like that has always been fun. I’d say my favorites to come through here have been John Currence, Celina Tio, and Tandy Wilson. I was nervous when Currence came in, just nominated for the Beard Award. It was my first dinner for the festival, and I was kind of stressed out because the festival only picks so many chefs to host signature dinners. But Currence was just laid-back and super helpful. Celina was an absolute blast. I think she can outdrink me, and I can drink a lot. And then Tandy was just a lot of fun. We have similar tastes in antique pickup trucks. We both had old Fords at the time. My wife called it the best-looking, most useless thing she’s ever seen.
MM: I really enjoyed the one I did with Alex Stupak and DJ [drummer Damian Higgins a.k.a. Dieselboy]. Alex and I knew each other, and I grew up with DJ as a kid. He was in town doing a set and he likes going to nice restaurants and he’s a pretty good home cook. We started talking and somehow we came up with this whole collaborative nine-course dinner where we each did three courses. The dinner wound up being awesome, with an old-school underground rave after-party in a warehouse. The craziest and most challenging was the dinner I did with Brandon Baltzley with no electricity. We decided not to use any modern forms of cooking. It was a candlelit dinner, and we cooked everything on my friend’s woodburning mobile pizza truck in the parking lot. I would never do that again, it was so hectic. But it was amazing. It was like, “Dude, we totally pulled that off!”
JO: I’ve always learned something from every collaboration, something that I’ve put into play here at Lana or taken and put on a back burner for another project. Tandy Wilson showed me how to make garam masala dressing, and I love it. It’s the greatest thing ever. All the guys and girls that I’ve worked with have pretty much all blown me away with their food. Everybody’s got a different style, so if you can pick something up from somebody else, somebody that’s coming through and working with you, it expands your repertoire.
MM: I always walk away learning different stuff, different techniques, just a different way of looking at things. One cool thing is that when our restaurant closes down for one week, all my chefs will go stage at whatever restaurant or chef was their favorite. It’s good for everybody.
JO: Then there’s post-collaboration. At the festival, we always have the after-parties which are fun, like big fraternity parties. They’re hectic. It’s all about liver preservation after a certain point. If you have too much fun one night, then you’re screwed for the rest of the weekend. Or at least that’s me because I’m getting old now. It’s not cool if you’re teaching a cooking class luncheon the next day. At an after-party a couple of years back, everyone was hammered and [name deleted] was walking around with no shirt on. Dancing. I’m like, “Wow.”
MM: He’s a beast, man! And the next day, he’s ready to roll. Something like that would probably cost me $100. My wife has me on a sliding scale for inappropriate behavior with marks getting a cash penalty. So showing my belly is twenty bucks, my shirt off would be $100.
Sean Brock [SB] / I came to Blackberry Farm [where Fleer was executive chef for fourteen years] and applied for a job in 1999 or 2000. I remember sitting there in the office. That’s about as nervous as I’ve ever been.
John Fleer [JF] / I didn’t give you a job. And you went off and became an incredible chef on your own. So I think that was probably a good thing.
SB: Time flies.
JF: It certainly does.
SB: We do an event each year at McCrady’s as part of the festival. It’s a really special opportunity to think about who we’d like to have it with; I always try to pick chefs that might not have cooked a million times in Charleston, someone Charleston should experience, someone who I really admire and want to cook with. It’s something we look forward to every year. And this year, we wanted Chef Fleer.
JF: I was certainly very flattered when you sent me the invite. It also made me think of the last time I was at Charleston Wine + Food, which was the very first one, and we actually had time to hang out. So in addition to having the opportunity to cook with you, getting the chance to hang out again will bring back great memories. I believe it was your birthday that night.
SB: Oh, dear! [Both laugh.] I hear we had a good time.
JF: I hear we all did.
SB: We should talk about what we’re gonna cook. I’ve always thought that this type of event is a cook’s stage, a platform to tell stories that highlight your food. That’s actually one of the first things that really struck me about you. When I was nineteen or maybe twenty years old, I came to Blackberry that winter, and I just remember you coming out and telling stories about the ingredients, dishes, culture, and region. The art of storytelling. That stuck with me.
JF: Well, I think both of us continue to try to tell the story of this region in different ways—stories that need to be told and need to be repeated.
SB: For our Signature Dinner, I want you to cook whatever you’re excited about. I’ll just fill in the rest of the dishes, trying to keep it similar. Bring whatever you want to bring.
JF: I tend to travel with a lot of product. I did a huge dinner in DC at the beginning of last year, and I was essentially representing Asheville for this travel destination conference. I probably could have made it a lot easier on myself, but I trekked up there with a bunch of very large coolers full of products like produce, Sunburst Trout caviar, and all the stuff that we had preserved over the course of the previous fall. When I pulled into the convention center, some of the hosting chefs were like, “Wow!” They lined up to see what I was doing. Clearly, I would feel lost if I didn’t have my staples.
SB: I did that in Australia once, smuggled everything in the luggage. You can’t cook without some things. It’s pointless. I learned my lesson the hard way: when cooking in Brazil, they promised me that their cornmeal was amazing, and it just ground like cardboard. I’ll never do that again.
JF: There are always surprises. I was at a symposium in Spain eight or nine years ago and stupidly put peanut butter as a part of my demonstration. It was an element of a dish, and the Spanish just don’t understand peanut butter, at least then. I think there is a lot more cross-pollination a decade later. I don’t think it ended up being a disaster, but it did end up being quite a challenge.
SB: Typically a lot of the big disasters happen in airports.
JF: That’s why I drive everywhere! I’m glad Charleston is so close.
SB: I remember the first SFA Symposium [Southern Foodways Alliance]. I got invited to do a demo where I was teaching people how to make bacon-flavored cotton candy. You have to have all these crazy emulsifiers to do that. I packaged up the stuff in a Styrofoam box. When I got to Memphis waiting for the luggage, the belt started going, and I started seeing pieces of Styrofoam, then all these vacuum-packed bags full of white powder coming down the belt. I had to explain that to TSA. That was fun.
JF: As time has passed, I have chosen to do less and less traveling. I don’t relish the opportunity of spending a lot of time away from both of my restaurants and my family—if I travel it is going to be fun, enriching, something very worthwhile for me. But when you have an opportunity to do something like this, it feels exciting.
SB: One of the things I love about the festival circuit is that you always meet one person that you stay in touch with forever. You’re almost guaranteed to pick up a lifelong friend. I still cook for guests that I met at the Stone Crab Festival in Florida years ago. Having the opportunity to hang out means something; there’s this connection that lasts for a long time. You stay in touch. It’s pretty cool.
SB: I’m just super excited and counting the days down.
JF: As am I.
SB: We’ll feed you some tacos.
JF: We’ll visit some hole-in-the-walls. Under decent circumstances!
Matt Bolus of The 404 Kitchen / Nashville, TN
Matt Bolus [MB] / You might not remember this, but the first time I met you was in 2004 when I first moved to Charleston. I was working on Kiawah and one of my fellow kitchen grunts and I went out to eat downtown. We had our last few bites at Union Hall when you were the chef. The guy I was with had worked with you before so we ended our evening in the kitchen for some special bites of food that you prepared specially for us.
Jacques Larson [JL] / The memory I have was a little later, my first vivid memory, that is. I had just started up at Wild Olive. We were in the process of transitioning the menu, and I was tasting every one of the proposed new dishes. You were good friends with Chef Fred Neuville and would come to visit him a good bit at Wild Olive, to learn and absorb what it took to own and operate a successful restaurant. You were also baking bread and would bring us the most wonderful samples. On one of those late-night visits, you were chatting with Fred. I could not wait for you to try the new ricotta gnocchi. I had made it myself and knew it was spot-on, texturally. I remember watching you take a bite and seeing your face wince. I was shocked and offended. How could you not like my gnocchi? Come to find out, it wasn’t the gnocchi, but the sauce it was paired with was very salty. I was embarrassed. I wanted to kill the pasta cook who had overseasoned the dish. It was a good lesson, though. I learned that it was going to take time to get my new kitchen staff dialed in to my liking, and that I should always try to personally taste something that I am having someone else eat. I also learned that you would not tell me that something was right when it wasn’t.
MB: It’s a little early to start talking specifics about our Signature Dinner for the festival. We’ll just email back and forth, constantly reimagining, until both of us come to the realization that we have created the perfect selection for the event. The first step is just deciding what the overall theme will be.
“I’ll call you when I’ve had my next epicurean epiphany! ” – Jacques Larson
JL: I’ll call you when I’ve had my next epicurean epiphany! For me, once the first component is placed, everything else just seems to fall into place. I truly want this dinner to be special. People are spending good money with us to experience this event, and I am looking forward to being able to do some things that we normally don’t do because of our price point at Wild Olive.
MB: I look forward to cooking with you. It should be fun—I love humor in the kitchen. Some might say I don’t take things seriously enough, but to me it means that I don’t take things too seriously. If you’re not having fun at work, then I feel bad for you. I love what I do! Even when mistakes are made, it’s important to make light of them and move on.
JL: The funniest part of a guest chef dinner is the interaction the day of the event. All the planning and prep has been done by then, so stress levels tend to subside. It’s while putting the final pieces together that day that you can begin to enjoy the effort. In working side by side with your guest chef, you realize how much you have in common with all other kitchens across the globe. That common denominator reminds you of your affinity not only to your guests but to the worldwide network of chefs. We are all somewhat “off” in our own way, but we have the same goal in mind: making our diners happy. This sense of belonging tends to help facilitate very interesting kitchen interactions as we realize that we all suffer from the same affliction: we love Food & Beverage.
MB: It will be great coming back to Charleston. It’s where I learned to be a chef, who I am, and how I want to cook! And the Charleston Wine + Food Festival has one of the best setups for chef camaraderie that I’ve ever seen.
JL: I truly do not believe that any other city in the country has the camaraderie that we share in Charleston. We are competitive, but we all support each other, and the opening of new restaurants will keep the old ones on their toes. I love this fact and know that I can call upon at least two dozen chefs in this town and they would help me anyway that they could!
MB: How will we unwind after the dinner?
MB: And cigars.
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