Who knows if the fish were amused, but the schools of people on the other side of the glass got a kick out of the divers in the water wearing chef's hats and aprons and waving signs that said “Enjoy the bites!”
And they were, in a feeding frenzy at two dozen chefs' stations Thursday night at the Opening Night Party of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival at the South Carolina Aquarium.
The bait was a culinarian's dream of plates bearing everything from braised octopus with smoked carrots (from restaurant Tristan) to quail lasagna (Trattoria Lucca). Fat Hen served a boiled peanut salad and Charleston Grill a Thai shrimp soup called tom-yum-goong.
Drew English of Johns Island helped himself to MacIntosh chef Jeremiah Bacon's corned beef tongue with pickled walnuts. “It was really good,” he said. “But I was a little hesitant.”
English said it was his fourth time at the Opening Night Party, which is designed as a “Salute to Charleston Chefs.” Always a sellout, it's a favorite event among locals and the chefs alike, the $135 price tag notwithstanding.
“It's a hard ticket to get but I love being able to sample the best of Charleston in one place,” English said. “You get to try things that you wouldn't ordinarily order on the menu.”
Fat Hen chef-owner Fred Neuville also had high praise for the party and the festival, now in its eighth year. “I think it gets better and better every year, more organized as the kinks get worked out. It's gotten more diverse in terms of the menu.”
All the chefs look forward to the camaraderie, Neuville said. It may be the only time during the year when he gets to see many of the other chefs.
People approaching the aquarium's entrance walked through a huge pattern of light, with images of forks, knives and spoons projected onto the sidewalk. Likewise, an image of the festival's official poster, a goose swimming in a wine glass, was projected on an outside wall.
Just inside the door, seven volunteers were setting out the first of about 1,000 wine glasses on a table minutes before the doors opened.
Tom and Maribeth O'Brien of West Ashley, who moved to Charleston from Connecticut nine years ago, said they have volunteered with the festival every year since its inception.
“It was a great way to meet people and be part of the food culture. We love food, we love wine,” Maribeth said.
The chef's stations that wound around the halls of the aquarium were eye-catching, decorated with paint can lids, faux drop cloths, paint brushes and splotches of different colors. Giant batiks by artist Mary Edna Fraser lit up a wall, also art by projection.
Festival Director of Events Randi Weinstein said the idea was to echo the art of the festival, primarily the unusual poster. It was commissioned to an artist, Robert Lange, for the first time this year. It was a contest in previous years.
“But you can't compete with the fish,” she quipped.