The stops along Graham Dailey’s journey in the culinary arts sound like a traveler’s A-list: New York City, the Hamptons, the Virgin Islands, Paris and Charleston.
How to buy the book
Title: “Peninsula Grill: Served With Style”Price: $60Where sold: At Planters Inn and Peninsula Grill (112 N. Market St.) the Historic Charleston Foundation store in the City Market, and through www.plantersinn.com and www.peninsulagrill.com.
But the 39-year-old has hardly been taking a vacation while earning his stripes and ascending to the position he holds today, executive chef of Peninsula Grill.
In Paris, he was thrust into the high-energy kitchen of the legendary Hotel Lutetia as an apprentice while attending Le Cordon Bleu. It was difficult to fit in the huge operation — 150 guys per shift every day. The hotel’s chef was aggressive, loud and “hard on you,” Dailey says. Being an American who didn’t speak French, and the first American student to work in the kitchen, didn’t get Dailey an ounce of respect either.
But the young Frenchmen around him were eager to learn English, and Dailey was able to use that as leverage when he boldly asked the chef for a job. The chef agreed, with one condition: Dailey was never to try to speak in French. Call it a slap in the face, Parisian-style.
Unlike some, Dailey didn’t know his calling early on. He was an unfocused college-age adult who found work as a waiter, but not in any ordinary restaurant. It was the big stage: the Supper Club in New York’s theater district. Eventual celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain sat on the kitchen’s throne.
This was to be a life-changing experience. The Florida kid who had hitchhiked his way to the Big Apple wormed his way into the kitchen thanks to a major faux-pas, talking back to a rock-pop star who sent his meal back to the kitchen three times. (Dailey won’t name him, but says he was a top-five celebrity at the time, 1991, with long, curly hair). Dailey got canned, but Bourdain wanted him to stay on, and offered him a job in the kitchen. Wisely, Dailey accepted.
He began at the rookie’s station, “garde manger,” or salads and cold preparations. But “I felt comfortable, a niche, a home. Like a fish going back into water,” says Dailey, the third generation of cooks in his family. His father ran restaurants on the side while also working in the corporate world.
At that point, Dailey became the student he had never been before. Then 23, he started reading books about cooking, soaking up information as fast as he could. “I was just absorbing, carrying around 10 to 12 books in a knapsack. That’s really never stopped.”
Now Dailey is adding his own splash to that pool of culinary knowledge with the publication of “Peninsula Grill: Served With Style.”
Released Tuesday, it is the restaurant and Dailey’s first cookbook. It is a coffee-table-type of book that traces the story of Hank Holliday’s purchase of the historic Planters Inn and transformation into a coveted Relais & Chateaux property, an international standard of luxury in the hospitality industry. The large-format, 243-page book is resplendent with photos and includes nearly 100 recipes.
“I wanted it to be a story, a testament to the hard work and people who have made Peninsula Grill what it is,” says Dailey, who was part of the restaurant’s original team when it opened to much acclaim in 1997. Dailey became executive chef more than a year ago after the departure of longtime chef Robert Carter.
Co-author Melissa Bigner, who did much of the interviewing and writing for the book, says Dailey is not one to toot his own horn but has been an integral part of the restaurant for many years.
“He’s one of these guys who lives and breathes cooking,” she says.
While working at the Supper Club, which Dailey describes alternately as a “very elegant, beautiful place” and the kitchen staff as “very barbarian ... a wild bunch,” Dailey found his stride. He finally found something that fulfilled him.
After a few months, Dailey earned the respect of senior chefs and was asked to take charge of the catering arm of a sister restaurant, the Inn at Quogue, in the Hamptons on Long Island. It was a seasonal, summer stint, but one that kept Dailey fully occupied, catering by day, working in the restaurant in the evenings. “It came to me to be able to organize,” he says, and instilled him with confidence.
Dailey, however, did not want to return to the winter’s cold in New York, and so he took off for the Caribbean. “I was chasing the sun,” he says, and his sun rose on St. Thomas Island. There, he found work at a French bistro, Craig & Sally’s — “the first kitchen of my own” — and on fishing boats on the side.
Looking back, Dailey says the experience taught him to value and respect the fish and other seafood harvested from the ocean. “It’s a very delicate environment. How precious it is that we have the beautiful grouper and the shrimp.”
On the other hand, toiling on fishing boats opened his eyes in a different way. “That I didn’t want to do it,” he says with a quick grin.
The husband-and-wife owners of Craig & Sally’s had a connection with chef Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad in Charleston. They brought Lee to St. Thomas for a guest chef appearance. Dailey says he and Lee hit it off immediately. “I’ll never forget that moment. We just clicked. ... We had a ball together.”
But Dailey had no plans to go anywhere, that is until Hurricane Marilyn came through three weeks later. It leveled the island, and Dailey came to the mainland looking for work. He landed under Lee as a line cook at S.N.O.B. in downtown Charleston. He soon moved up the ranks.
Dailey calls Lee a “great, great leader” and ticks off what he took away from the experience. “Techniques of running a kitchen at a fairly high volume. Using all parts of the animal, and not throwing things away. Respect for the things the farmers give you.”
“Frank was on the ground floor (of the eat-local movement) and I met a lot of those people. Those relationships have stayed with me,” Dailey says.
But when Peninsula Grill fired up on North Market Street in 1997, Dailey was ready for a change. He joined the team as line cook.
After almost a year, however, Dailey left to take care of his father, who was gravely ill with cancer. In his sabbatical from the kitchen, Dailey realized that he missed the work terribly. Then, prompted by a near-fatal lightning strike that caused him to reassess his life, “I kinda backed up and said it would be a good time to get formal training.” It was off to Paris, Le Cordon Bleu and Hotel Lutetia.
Lutetia taught Dailey the ways of world-class seafood, as his job was to cut fish most of the time. He was exposed to different kinds of fish that he had not seen before — monkfish, eels and turbot, for example. And he learned to appreciate the elegance and attention to detail involved in fine dining.
Moreover, “The romance between the restaurant and hotel started evolving there. That clicked for me,” Dailey says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Dailey was away from Charleston for four years or so but the city and its small-town lifestyle never left his mind. He stayed in contact with his colleagues here and reached out to them again when he wanted to return. After all, he says, Charleston “is where I fell in love with Southern food.”
Dailey came back to Peninsula Grill as a line cook again but quickly advanced under Carter, becoming chef de cuisine within six months. That is how he spent the next eight years until taking over as executive chef in 2011.
Dailey describes his cooking style as “classic Southern American” with a penchant for regional South Carolina cuisine. He, like many other chefs in Charleston, sources much of his food locally. He unapologetically says he also seeks out “the best from around the world,” explaining that he strives to meet the demands of the hotel’s international clientele. That might mean beef from a small ranch in Nebraska or oysters from Nantucket in the Northeast.
Putting his own stamp on the menu means he has tweaked, simplified and lightened some of the dishes, letting the ingredients speak more for themselves, Dailey says. “We saw a direction of diners being a little more healthy. The age of heavy sauces has lessened.”
Still, Dailey’s menu remains faithful to the restaurant’s classics, such as the crab salad. And Peninsula Grill’s famously decadent coconut cake is going nowhere. “It’s got a patent,” Dailey says.
As for the cookbook, “We did our best to choose the recipes that would make you have the same experience as you would at Peninsula Grill,” Dailey says. But he knows that’s not likely to happen, with the food being only one part of the equation.
“Sometimes I sit back and watch the dining room. It’s amazing. It’s like a choreographed play or dance.”
Dailey spent most of the past year working on the book and admits he’s glad it’s over. “It was two full-time jobs. There were times I was standing on the line cooking and writing down recipes at the same time.”
Recipes from ‘Peninsula Grill: Served With Style’
Lowcountry Oyster StewServes 4“The depth of flavor in this oyster stew, along with the tasty wild mushrooms in the grits, is something our patrons always revel in. This is one of the most popular dishes in the restaurant and has been for years.” —Graham DaileyIngredients1 cup diced bacon6 tablespoons diced green bell pepper6 tablespoons diced red bell pepper6 tablespoons diced yellow bell pepper2 teaspoons diced shallot2 teaspoons minced garlic½ cup oyster liquor1½ cups veal stock (recipe follows)2/3 cup heavy cream20 oysters, shucked2 teaspoons diced basil2 teaspoons minced chives8 tablespoons Wild Mushroom Grits (recipe on D2)Sweet Potato Strings, for garnish (recipe on D2)DirectionsIn a large shallow saucepan, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, then drain. Add the bell peppers, shallot and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the oyster liquor, and cook until almost dry, 2 to 4 minutes. Add the veal stock, and cook until sauce consistency, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the cream, and cook until reduced by half, 4 to 6 minutes. Add in the oysters, basil, and chives, and decrease the heat to low. Cook until the oysters are warmed through and their edges curl, 2 to 4 minutes.To serve, divide the grits among 4 bowls, and ladle oyster stew on top of each. Garnish with Sweet Potato Strings.Ginger Creme BruleeServes 6Ingredients1 vanilla bean1 quart heavy cream4 tablespoons minced ginger½ cup granulated sugar, divided, plus more for caramelizing10 egg yolksFresh fruit, for garnish (optional)DirectionsPreheat the oven to 325 degrees.In a small saucepan, split the vanilla bean, and combine with the cream, ginger, and ¼ cup of the sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then immediately remove from the heat. Set aside to steep for 30 minutes, then remove the vanilla bean. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and remaining sugar in a large mixing bowl, and whisk until smooth. Very slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the yolk mixture to form the custard, whisking quickly and constantly so as not to cook the eggs. Set aside. Fill a large bowl with ice, then place a smaller bowl atop the ice for an ice bath. Pour the hot custard into the smaller bowl. Let it cool for about 20 minutes.Divide the custard among 6 (6-ounce) ramekins, and arrange them in a casserole dish large enough to accommodate all of the ramekins. Add enough hot water to the casserole dish for it to reach halfway up the outsides of the ramekins. Cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil and bake, rotating the dish once, until the custard is set, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, bring to room temperature, and refrigerate for 2 hours. To serve, remove the custards from the refrigerator, and spread a thin layer of granulated sugar on top of each. Using a small kitchen blowtorch, caramelize the sugar until it is golden brown. Garnish each with fresh fruit, if desired, and serve immediately.Sweet Potato StringsIngredients1 medium sweet potato, peeled and julienned2 to 3 cups canola oilDirectionsIn a medium, heavy saucepan, bring oil to 350 degrees. Fry the sweet potatoes until crispy, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels.Veal StockMakes about 2 quartsIngredients2 pounds veal bones1 cup red wine2 cloves garlic, peeled1 bay leaf8 parsley stems8 sprigs thyme1 clove6 black peppercorns2 yellow onions, halved2 carrots, chopped2 ribs celery, chopped1 leek, white and pale green parts, chopped2 tablespoons tomato paste4 quarts waterDirectionsPreheat the oven to 300 degrees.Place the veal bones on a large roasting pan, and roast until brown, about 2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven, and place the bones in a large pot. Add the red wine to the pan, scraping to remove any bits from the bottom. Pour this liquid into the large pot with the bones. Place the garlic, bay leaf, parsley, thyme, clove, and peppercorns in the center of a piece of cheesecloth. Gather the edges of the cheesecloth, and tie with kitchen twine to make a bouquet garni.Add the bouquet garni and remaining ingredients to the pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then decrease to a simmer, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Simmer until fully flavored, about 5 hours, then strain through a fine mesh strainer.Wild Mushroom GritsServes 4Ingredients2 tablespoons canola oil2 tablespoons unsalted butter2 cups thinly sliced cremini mushrooms2 cups thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms½ cup chicken stock½ cup heavy cream4 cups cooked grits (preferably prepared with milk and cream)Kosher salt and black pepperDirectionsIn a skillet over medium-high heat, heat the canola oil. When the oil is almost smoking, add the butter and mushrooms, toss to coat the mushrooms, and sear for 1 minute. Saute until the mushrooms are a deep brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the chicken stock to the skillet, stir, and simmer until the skillet is almost dry, 2 to 4 minutes. Add the cream, and reduce by half, another 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat. In a mixing bowl, combine this mixture with the grits, and season with salt and pepper, to taste.