Cook it Raw chefs reach deep into the Lowcountry for showcase dinner

  • Posted: Friday, October 25, 2013 2:15 p.m., Updated: Friday, October 25, 2013 5:12 p.m.
Cook it Raw Chefs (from left) Brandon Baltzley, Ben Shewry and Roberto Solis enjoy the Lowcountry boil hosted by Le Creuset their headquarters in West Ashley. Buy this photo

With chefs garnishing their plates with microwaved Spanish moss and using bricks borrowed from Middleton Place as serving platforms, there was little doubt that the creators of Cook It Raw’s showcase 16-course dinner appreciated the importance of local sourcing. “This is so local that locals don’t eat it,” Le Creuset’s Wil Copenhaver remarked while prying meat from a wild marsh hen’s tiny bones, and explaining the wily Lowcountry bird to two Europeans who shared his table at the Thursday night event at McCrady’s.

Covering Cook It Raw

While Cook It Raw wasn’t especially well-known in the U.S. before rolling into Charleston, the event has a high profile in Europe, where it originated in 2009. But the flip side of fame is increased scrutiny, and Cook It Raw has sometimes been criticized for exclusivity.

In response to the charges, the event has invited a larger group of chefs to participate (including, this year, two female chefs); fostered the creation of social media-based Cook It Raw communities and organized a public event: Today’s sold-out BBQ Perspectives on Bowens Island marks the first time a Cook It Raw activity has been opened up to ticket buyers. The chefs — who I worried might constrain their creativity in response to an audience of eaters who understandably want to get their money’s worth — are enormously excited about the smoked meat jamboree. Last night, Connie DeSousa, John Jackson and James Lowe gave up the comfortable rooms provided by sponsor Middleton Place so they could sleep alongside their Ossabaw hog slow-cooking at Cypress.

But in deference to the event’s intimacy, Cook It Raw has kept its media list very short. The Post & Courier was the only publication in the Southeast to gain full access to the event; other U.S. media outlets permitted the same degree of access included the New York Times and Food & Wine Magazine.

Our coverage of the event will conclude tomorrow with a report from Bowens Island.

But the evening’s most memorable dish came from a pair of visiting chefs who refused to parrot the typical platitudes about the innate goodness of local food. Every dish that emerged from the McCrady’s and Cypress kitchens, co-opted for prep work, was extraordinarily accomplished: Mike Lata (FIG, The Ordinary) praised April Bloomfield’s aged rib-eye and oyster ice cream, based on a recipe from an 1824 Southern cookbook, as “poetic,” and Chris Stewart (The Glass Onion) enthused about a hand-chopped hunter sausage produced by sometime alligator hunter Connie DeSousa, John Jackson and James Lowe. New York’s Dan Barber and Melbourne’s Ben Shewry served up gorgeously composed helpings of edible agitprop.

Cook It Raw — an annual weeklong gathering of leading avant-garde chefs, making its first-ever North American appearance — asked its 25 participating chefs to think deeply about the Lowcountry, and many of them fixated on rice. What Barber and Shewry wanted to stress, though, was that rice is merely one element of a larger agricultural system. To make their point, they drew a dozen different ingredients from the list of cover crops associated with Carolina Gold rice fields, many of which aren’t currently commercially available.

Shewry spent eight hours “workshopping” the seeds and grains provided by rice revivalist Glenn Roberts. “I had to work out how to cook them,” he said, adding that one pea type nearly stymied him. The chefs titled the resulting dish “Growing for the Gold,” although they informally referred to it as “everything but the rice.”

Barber likened the intricate weave to a vegetal version of nose-to-tail eating, a responsible, sustainable way of using natural resources wisely.

“We need to figure out a way to eat these grains and give profit to the farmer,” Barber said, calling a myopic focus on rice “neurotic.” “To celebrate rice, we need to include the whole idea of farming.”

Singapore’s Andre Chiang dropped by Copenhaver’s table sometime after the rice tribute, marsh hen and a cured swordfish with sorghum dressing — developed by Sydney’s Phil Wood to honor a local pork-abstaining cabbie — had been served, but before Alex Stupak presented his elegant take on rice pudding in a meringue cylinder and Sean Brock closed the evening with a minimalist dessert of Brewster oats, sweet potato, nasturtium and chestnuts. Chiang, who spoke Chinese as a child but is now most comfortable communicating in French, enigmatically asked his guests, “Did it get you here, here or here?,” motioning to his chest, throat and head. It was unclear whether he was referring to escalating levels of fullness or the chefs’ targeting of the heart, palate and mind.

For David Shields, the University of South Carolina historian who served as Cook It Raw’s guest scholar, the dinner experience was highly cerebral. He compared the cultural cross-fertilizations that occurred over the course of the week, such as Mexican chef Alejandro Ruiz dressing squash blossoms with red pea broth, to the mash-ups of African and European cuisines which defined the Lowcountry diet.

“I consider this the path of food,” Shields said. “It’s sort of inspiring that Lowcountry cuisine has something that is more than what it was. The worst thing in the world is if Lowcountry cuisine is just a Civil War re-enactment. When you see the excitement of these people dealing with our place, our rice, our fish, our ingredients, when you witness the stimulation, your own sense of normalcy and convention begins to disappear.”

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