Over the past several years, the national media has caught on to a truth that Lowcountry natives have been privy to for years: Charleston is a fantastic place to eat.
If you go
What: BB&T Charleston Wine + Food FestivalWhen: Thursday-SundayWhere: Various locations around CharlestonPrice: Free-$295 for individual events; $575 for a Variety PassFor more info: www.charlestonwineandfood.com
In 2006, when the Charleston Wine + Food Festival was in its infancy, our city was on the brink of stardom.
Hominy Grill's Robert Stehling claimed the title of Best Chef Southeast at 2008's James Beard Awards, dubbed the “Oscars of the food world,” kicking off a triple crown that found Mike Lata (FIG, The Ordinary) and Sean Brock (McCrady's, Husk) bringing that award home to Charleston in the years following.
Last week, the Beard Foundation continued its Holy City praise, handing semifinalist nods for Best Chef Southeast to Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh, Joshua Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder and Craig Deihl of Cypress, while Brock is in the running for the nation's most Outstanding Chef. And The Ordinary is nominated for Best New Restaurant.
Would all of these accolades have occurred without the presence and publicity that the Wine + Food Festival provides our town each winter? More importantly, would locals have the array of world-class options we now enjoy when dining out?
For one long weekend, the Wine + Food Festival attracts many of the world's most lauded chefs and connoisseurs to our town, serving as an overwhelmingly bountiful annual reminder of how tasty (and tasteful) life in the American South can be. The attention attracts new talent, and our selection and pool of skilled chefs continue to grow.
“The Wine + Food Festival has definitely put Charleston on the culinary map,” attests this year's chef chairman Frank McMahon (Hank's Seafood), who moved here from Los Angeles in 1994. “Back then, there were a bunch of really good restaurants and groundbreaking chefs — Frank Lee, Donald Barickman, Louis Osteen — but to see how the town has evolved is amazing. I don't know if we would be in the spotlight as much if we didn't have the festival here.”
Now in its eighth year, the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival continues to work symbiotically with the burgeoning restaurant scene, attracting 21,000 attendees in 2012, 40 percent of whom traveled from more than 50 miles away. Forbes recognizes the event as a top five food and wine event in the nation, and last year's economic impact on the city was estimated at $8.6 million.
That's not bad for a festival, and a city, that's still relatively new at setting its table as an international culinary destination.
Not just fried chicken
If there's one misconception that the Wine + Food Festival planners want to dispel, it's that cuisine in Charleston has little more to offer than Southern standards.
“We (the festival) don't claim to be Southern,” explains festival founder and Executive Director Angel Postell. “Of course, we're going to promote Southern things because we're in the South and we're proud of that. But we're not a shrimp and grits, fried chicken festival. We have chefs here in Charleston that are using Lowcountry ingredients, but they're not necessarily doing Southern food. That differentiates us, and it's part of what's cool about our city.”
The lengthy list of guest chefs invited to this year's festival speaks to that worldly focus, with big-name attendees from New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Internationally celebrated Australian chef Ben Shewry is among those Postell is most looking forward to having around.
On Friday night, Shewry will collaborate with Brock and chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi for a seven-course dinner at McCrady's, with pairings from Oregon's Brooks Winery. Shewry will also be on hand at noon Friday in the festival's Culinary Village, serving a native specialty, Pukeko's Egg.
For many local attendees, the Culinary Village is an obvious destination as the festival's nucleus and epicenter, with three-hour tasting sessions open Friday through Sunday, including a “Locals” ticket on Sunday priced at $70. Attendees have the opportunity to sample small plates and wines from nearly 100 local restaurants and international vendors.
“We worked hard this year to get more local chefs involved in the Village,” said McMahon. “Restaurants have limited resources, especially on a busy weekend, so we've really reached out to the community to make it an accessible event. With two big tents in Marion Square with food to sample and thousands of people coming to the Lowcountry to walk through, it's a chance to show off the city and our cuisine.”
In addition to cooking at the opening night party at the South Carolina Aquarium, McMahon will be on hand at the Henry's House booth in the Culinary Village, where he'll be serving a sweet corn, leek and ham hock bisque with shrimp and potatoes.
For local restaurants and visiting chefs alike, sourcing produce from the Lowcountry will be easier than ever before, thanks to the incorporation of GrowFood Carolina as this year's Culinary Community Partner. The “food hub” connects farmers to restaurants, buying produce on consignment and taking only their operating costs to sustain themselves.
“We're sending out special availability lists of what's in stock to local and visiting chefs, so they can order in advance for delivery, or they can still come through our cooler and actually shop during the festival,” said GrowFood General Manager Sara Clow. “We'll have a runner if people need things last minute. It's all about making it easy for chefs to serve local food at the events.”
Although late February isn't a prime harvest time in Charleston, Clow said they'll have plenty of greens, cabbage, radishes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips on hand, as well as pecans and Charleston Gold rice.
At GrowFood's tent in Marion Square, just outside the Heirloom Book Company authors' book-signing tent, farmers from many of GrowFood's suppliers will be present all weekend to discuss their specialties and how the food hub has improved their ability to distribute in Charleston. The nonprofit will be offering samples of canned, pickled and fresh produce they've prepared for the festival.
In addition to the two tasting tents, the Culinary Village will include short film screenings and presentations by celebrity authors and chefs at the Southern Foodways Alliance Culinary Hub, as well as access to live cooking demonstrations in the Celebrity Kitchen, drinks and couches in the Hospitality Tent, and an Outdoor Living + Grilling demonstration with a “Lambs and Clams” roasting and sample area. Patrons who purchase a $100 Culinary Village ticket Saturday have access to the tasting tents during their chosen session but are free to enjoy the rest of the Village all day.
Over the four days of the festival, attendees can choose between dozens of special meals, tours and events. There are still tickets available to some events (see our listing), but many events sold out almost immediately when tickets went on sale in September.
One of this year's fastest sellers was the Waffle House Smackdown, pitting chefs Mike Lata and Ed Lee against Michelle Weaver and Ashley Christensen (all clad in classic Waffle House attire) in a battle to re-create the iconic roadside diner's signature dishes.
For latecomers, organizers highlight a few favorites that still have last-minute availability, including the Soul Food Shuffle, a tour of four local soul food restaurants with writer and farmer Jeff Allen, and the This Little Piggy: Pop-Up Market, both on Friday.
The latter will feature April Bloomfield, chef and author of “A Girl and Her Pig,” and includes a live deconstruction of a pig along with plenty of dishes featuring pork shoulder, belly, loin, ribs and sausages, all from Caw Caw Creek Farm.
“You have to love pork to go to This Little Piggy,” said Postell, calling the event a “hidden jewel” of the weekend itinerary. “It's a chance to have intimate, direct dialogue with some of the country's best chefs and feel very connected to your food.”
Likewise, she notes the Soul Food Shuffle for the homage it pays to spots such as Bertha's Kitchen, “the people who started the food culture here.”
Wine lovers and refined palates alike have plenty of upscale events to choose from as well, including a Big Bottles Tasting and Auction at Lowndes Grove Plantation on Saturday, private home tours and meals with select culinary authors, and Saturday afternoon's Pinot Envy Uncorked! at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina. Beer lovers can hop on the Charleston Brew Hops shuttle, a tour of local breweries, while evenings offer plenty of opportunities to cut loose, from the Jailhouse Shake-Up on Friday at the Old City Jail to Saturday night's Party Around the World at the Visitor Center Bus Shed, featuring international cuisine from China, Spain, Mexico, Italy and Germany.
The weekend closes Sunday evening with a distinctly Southern event, the Rigs, Pigs and Swigs BBQ at the Mount Pleasant Visitor Center, featuring bluegrass from The Bushels and pitmasters from across the South.
“It's not a typical BBQ,” said Postell. “There are fish, shrimp and chicken options, and it's the largest portions of any event all weekend. Plus, a lot of our local chefs go, so it's a time to hang out with them, after they've been in their kitchens all weekend.”
A growing culture
Although no food scene should ever be judged by the media exposure it receives, the spotlight on Charleston has certainly made it more attractive to diners and chefs. Even though Charleston may be experiencing a peak in national interest at the moment, local chefs and Wine + Food Festival planners have confidence that the city can maintain its reputation.
“As long as our chefs and restaurants continue to get creative and adventurous and spread out, I think the media will continue to have an interest,” said Postell. “Some people may think we're a one-hit wonder, and attention will move to another city, but I do think Charleston is very solid and has sustainability.”
Each year, attracting top-tier talent to the festival has grown easier, said Postell, adding that most chefs immediately ask to come back. That's partially due to Wine + Food's efforts to refine itself.
While the first years of the festival featured celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay and an attention on “Top Chef” personalities, the focus is now on what makes Charleston unique and the international chefs who are quietly “doing unbelievable things in their own kitchens.”
The festival itself is a nonprofit organization, spending 90 percent of its budget locally and donating more than a quarter-million dollars to scholarship programs to foster future chefs at the Art Institute, Trident Culinary Institute and the College of Charleston.
Postell predicts that the growth of Charleston's culinary scene will occur in the “nooks and crannies” of neighborhoods outside of the peninsula, as well as a growing incorporation of ethnic foods into menus. That's a logical progression, especially considering that many chefs, including festival chair McMahon, worry that the downtown and King Street area may be nearing oversaturation of concept restaurants.
Then again, it's often the hidden-away spots that ultimately inspire the most fanatical patrons, especially when locals feel like they're in on a secret.
In Charleston's case, as a whole, our secret is out.
“When you go out to eat in other cities, a lot of times you're kind of disappointed,” said Postell. “We're just spoiled here. We have some of the most talented chefs in the country in our city. That's what we're putting the spotlight on, and the chefs we bring in are coming to celebrate that and go, 'Heck, yeah, Charleston's awesome.' ”
Friday10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.: Soul Food Shuffle. $15011 a.m.: Culinary Institute of Charleston presents Big Time Crush: Date Night Wine + Food Pairings with Andrea and John Robinson. $65Noon: Every Day with Rachael Ray presents This Little Piggy: Pop-Up Market. $125Noon: SieMatic presents Passport to Pairings. $852 p.m.: Culinary Institute of Charleston presents Spirit Tasting: Grand Marnier Rolls Out the “Red Ribbon” Carpet. $552-5 p.m.: JetBlue + Piggly Wiggly present Culinary Village + Grand Tasting Tents $852-5 p.m.: Charlie magazine presents Shop, Sip + Savor. $507 p.m.: Perfectly Paired Dinners. $175Saturday11 a.m.-2 p.m.: JetBlue + Piggly Wiggly present Culinary Village + Grand Tasting Tents. $1002-4 p.m.: Bush Law Group, P.C. presents Big Bottles Tasting + Auction with Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson. $1253-5 p.m.: Collectors' Corner: An Exclusive Verite Tasting. $2953-6 p.m.: JetBlue + Piggly Wiggly present Culinary Village + Grand Tasting Tents. $1004 p.m.: Culinary Institute of Charleston presents Iron Mixologist Charleston. $557 p.m.: Closed for Business + Allagash Brewing Company Craft Beer Dinner. $1257 p.m.: Perfectly Paired Dinners. $1758:30-11:30 p.m.: The Art Institute of Charleston presents Festival After Hours: Party Around the World. $100Sunday11 a.m.: Motley Rice LLC + The Post and Courier present Lowcountry Jazz Brunch. $1251-4 p.m.: JetBlue + Piggly Wiggly present Culinary Village + Grand Tasting Tents. $70-$852 p.m.: Culinary Institute of Charleston presents Pride Mountain Vineyards: A Horizontal Tasting. $555-8 p.m.: Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina presents Rigs, Pigs + Swigs. $85Editor's Note: Availability is subject to change. The events listed above still had tickets available for purchase at press time.