In the Field

The Wandering Chef

By: Emily Havener

Blair Machado pops up across the Southeast bringing chefs, farmers, and diners together

In October 2023, French-trained master butcher Blair Machado prepared for one of his last events of the year, a pop-up dinner with his Nomadic Supper Club series at the recently opened Dragon Room in Columbia, South Carolina. Machado had just had a grueling week with three pop-ups in Charleston, a photo shoot to promote his private catering service prior to Thanksgiving, and a gig catering an oyster bar at a wedding.

Blair Dragon Columbia RutaSmith

Now, on a Monday night when The Dragon Room is usually closed, Machado was almost relaxed in the kitchen. Joining him were executive chef Alex Strickland, whom Machado has known since 2020, sautéeing ube soufflé pancakes in a tank top underneath a sign that read “All work and no play makes the food good as f**k,” and RJ Dye, executive chef of Hilton Head’s Links, an American Grill—whom Machado has known since their early days working together in the FIG kitchen under Mike Lata—who was busy creating and tasting a sauce with Sichuan pepper, broad bean paste, and tomato chutney. Together with chef and restaurateur Kristian Niemi, owner of The Dragon Room and multiple concepts in the Columbia area, this supergroup of executive chefs was in the midst of composing a one-of-a-kind experience.

The comingling of this caliber of talent is typical at Machado’s dinners. Since 2019, he has frequently created collaborations outside of a formal dining setup, most recently with his umbrella company, Hamfish Events, which gathers chefs and farmers to produce dining events that put an emphasis on seafood and barbecue—and glitches are unavoidable. Machado recalls a dinner at Charleston’s rustic Bowens Island Restaurant where they lost power when a boat pulled up to the dock and plugged into the connection they were using for the kitchen setup. “We had to go from electric to open fire immediately,” he says. As for dinners that take place on actual farms, he adds, “Sometimes we’re lucky to have running water.”

These inevitabilities, along with an often-punishing travel schedule, have been part of figuring out what works and what doesn’t since Machado left his home base of Charleston in 2020 and began his journey as a nomadic chef. His restaurant career began in Northern Virginia, when he worked front-of-house during college; he learned the master butcher trade at FIG under Geoff Rhyne and spent 10 years in Charleston’s fine-dining scene, serving as executive chef of Park Café. He eventually founded a butcher pop-up, Farmstead, where he sourced directly from local farms and taught butchery to chefs. On the side, he developed an early version of the Nomadic Supper Club, serving dinners at area farms.

Blair Hamfish

“At first, it was an excuse to cook with my friends,” he says. “One of those fun passion projects that gave me an excuse to cook what I wanted with who I wanted and support who I wanted.” It was also, he says, “the first time I was actually challenged [by the] connectivity to the food because I watched the animal die. All of a sudden it was more of this responsibility as a chef versus the ego of cooking the best tasting or the prettiest [food].”

As he did more and more dinners, the platform took shape: chef collaboration, excellent execution on the plate, and putting small family farms in the spotlight. He partnered with Niemi for a mutton dinner at Black Rooster, where he met then-sous chef Strickland. Not long after, in March 2020, Covid-19 shut down operations, and within one month, Machado had lost nine months’ worth of contracts.

“I hit rock bottom, mentally,” he says with customary candor. “I had my own suicide attempt, and it led me to getting help for the first time and not having a career of being a chef to hide behind.” He ended up at Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia, a veteran-founded farm whose mission is to help vets with PTSD; Machado had been affiliated as a chef-liaison because one of his high school friends died by suicide after four tours in Iraq. “I was one of the first nonveterans to work a position on the farm,” Machado says. “I ended up moving there and living on-site and taking over as the livestock manager for almost a year. That was the first time in my 23-year career that I’d physically stepped out of the kitchen.”

On the farm, Machado realized that there could be a platform for being a middleman between farm and chef that didn’t involve restaurants. “For me it was finding farms that I believed in and then using my following as a chef to bring more focus and revenue to those farms. It was a big eye opener to be like, why not start bringing these high-end food experiences [and] people to where it all starts in the first place?”

He officially resumed the concept of the Nomadic Supper Club in 2021 with a spring road trip, meandering over the course of five weeks from Comfort Farms to Charleston’s now-closed Little Miss Ha to Lawrence Barbecue in Durham, North Carolina, and ending up at Väsen Brewing in Richmond. During an extended summer in northern Maine, he began experimenting with smoking seafood in the style of brisket and pastrami, and the Hamfish name was born. Although Hamfish appeared on a menu as early as December 2021, the launch was a “Sando Party” in Richmond in March of 2022, with a pastrami-style salmon reuben, a smoked lobster roll, and a honey-smoked cod “ham” roll on the mouthwatering menu, followed by several collabs with Charleston’s Abundant Seafood.

Machado was juggling multiple concepts across this span of time, phasing out his original Farmstead label, continuing the Nomadic suppers (including another Strickland/Niemi dinner), and even temporarily joining the teams at Lawrence Barbecue and Satterfield’s Barbecue in Macon, Georgia. The rest of 2022 was a whirlwind of festivals—euphoria and Heritage Fire—and frequent South Carolina collaborations with chef Lauren Furey, Keegan-Filion Farm, Edmunds Oast, and Munkle Brewing. He was also putting together the concept for Hamfish retreats in Ontario, Canada, on Lac Bernard, where his family has been vacationing since his childhood.

This might sound chaotic, and sometimes it is, but Machado’s model is necessarily simple and practical: “First I come up with a chef I vibe with who shares the same mindset. Secondly, we throw a theme out there.” They figure out a minimum number of tickets to sell to turn a profit. The menu is finalized close to the date based on what’s available; 80 percent of the ingredients for every event are sourced locally. As a result, Machado says, “Ninety-five percent of the dishes that we do through Nomadic [Supper Club] are done one time and that’s it.”

That said, he does have dishes that have become cult favorites, when he can get the ingredients: a shrimp roll, a caviar-loaded “Mighty H” hot dog, and his oysters—which he sources from Rappahannock Oyster Co. whenever he can get them to support his home state of Virginia. Among dozens of events in multiple states, in 2023 he headlined at Salt Fire Smoke festival held at White Hills Farm in Dearing, Georgia; drew a crowd at Sophina Uong’s Mister Mao in New Orleans for an edgy Kill Bill-inspired pop-up; and hosted a seafood dinner in collaboration with Slow Food USA and fisherwoman Ana Shellem of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. He also held his first Nomadic suppers in Quebec, where he highlighted Southern ingredients from Duke’s Mayonnaise to Bulls Bay Saltworks sea salt.

Blair Dragon Columbia RutaSmith rev

On this late October evening in Columbia’s The Dragon Room, the wandering chef’s journey has come full circle with a 12-course tasting menu inspired by all four chefs involved. The dining room is packed, and head bartender David Adedokun has distributed the Strange Glow, a bright green, frozen gin-and-Midori cocktail created to pair with, in his words, “just about anything outside of red meat.”

As the courses come out, Machado, Niemi, and Strickland move between kitchen and dining room, taking turns introducing the dishes, bantering all the while. Machado’s egg drop soup features a broth base made from chicken feet roasted for three days, caramelized ginger, and eggs from Peters Farm gathered the day before. There’s a surprise 13th course conceived of by Niemi, added last minute, of Delaware oysters topped with a chili, caramelized onion, and garlic compound butter, sprinkled with sesame oil-seasoned breadcrumbs, and spritzed with a lemongrass mignonette. Strickland shares his love of soup dumplings, a dish that’s nearly nonexistent in the Columbia dining scene, elevated with green tea-infused dough. There’s collard green okonomiyaki with heirloom Bradford collards, smoked barbecue chicken onigiri sourced from Joyce Farms, and char sui pork with Keegan-Filion Farm dry-aged pork belly. With this evening’s specific combination of farms, ingredients from the season, and the restaurant’s Japanese izakaya ethos, it’s abundantly clear that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that will never be repeated.

In some ways, it’s the end of an era, too. Although he’s said he’ll never open a restaurant of his own, Machado has decided it’s time to settle down a bit—he and his fiancée closed on a house in Richmond, Virginia, shortly after the dinner. Of the past four years, he says, “The freedom was what made it organic and special—this nomadic lifestyle, working on farms, creating these experiences on the entire eastern coast from Canada all the way to New Orleans and back.” But, he says, “I knew that beautiful freedom would become its own handcuff.” Although he will continue to do festivals and pop-ups elsewhere—among them Charleston Wine & Food Festival in March and the Salt Fire Smoke festival to be held in Columbia in April—the nomadic chef’s life is changing, once again, to suit his passion.

“I’m going to start bringing chefs to Virginia now,” he says. “I really want to focus on wholesale and resale of seafood,” drawing attention to the need local and regional purveyors have for community support and awareness. The face of that will ultimately be Hamfish Seafood Shop, where, Machado says, “the idea is still the pop-up mindset [but now] in the parking lot of our own shop.”

In 2020, Machado began a journey in search of sustainability—for himself, for the resources that fuel the dining industry, and for the like-minded chefs and farmers he’s connected with. It’s deepened his previous relationships and allowed him to forge new ones along the way. It’s also taught him that sustainability for himself might mean laying down some roots. Now, he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to have a home base.”

Blair Dragon Columbia RutaSmith

Roasted Beet Salad

Blair Dragon Columbia RutaSmith rev

Egg Drop Soup

Blair Hamfish

Reuben Scallion Pancakes with Soy-Pickled Cucumber Dressing

Blair Dragon Columbia RutaSmith rev

Strange Glow Slushee

Blair Dragon Columbia RutaSmith

Shrimp Roll

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