World-wise chef finds home in Charleston at Peninsula Grill
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”
Where 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.”