Bob Waggoner is finished with 70-hour work weeks; surly sommeliers; staffing headaches and crushing nights with 300 covers. "After 35 years , I'm done with restaurants if I can help it," the former Charleston Grill chef says.
But Waggoner is decidedly not done with cooking, the centerpiece of an intimate, hands-on dining experience he plans to bring to downtown Charleston later this year. Waggoner's latest venture is a kind of nightly cooking school, at which 10 diners will have the opportunity to prepare a four-course meal and then enjoy it with wine.
"It's sort of the fun part of the restaurant business," Waggoner says. "People want something to do besides go to the movies. For the price of a nice meal, you get to learn and have a fun night of eating and drinking."
Waggoner anticipates charging $125 per person for the three-hour meal; the cost will include wine. "I have to attempt to pay for a daughter at the College of Charleston," he says with a laugh, pointing out the fee is about the equivalent of a nice night at Hall's Chophouse or Husk.
The format is styled after at-home dinner parties, down to the design of the 1800 square-foot room, which Waggoner likens to a Kiawah Island home (albeit with five cooking stations.) "We'll have crazy, sexy ovens and cooktops," Waggoner says. "I want to make it the prettiest table in the entire city."
Unlike at home, though, Waggoner says cooks won't have to chip in with the clean-up.
Rather than supplying participants with recipes, Waggoner says he plans to school diners in the fundamentals of cooking, using the day's best-looking ingredients as a starting point. That means menus won't be announced in advance.
"I don't want to do a demo where people just write things down," he says. "I want people to learn how to cook the way you really cook."
In recent years, Waggoner says, aspiring professional chefs have become more focused on emulating Guy Fieri than mastering the techniques required to produce exceptional dishes. "I find clients are more interested in learning than kids are," says Waggoner, whose teaching skill has led to a starring role on a number of cooking shows. His latest PBS show was the 12-part "Sing For Your Supper," filmed at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
The gig was Waggoner's second significant stint in Nashville. He was at The Wild Boar before taking the executive chef position at Charleston Grill. He left the restaurant in 2009, having earned the AAA Four-Diamond and Mobile Four-Star award in each of his dozen years.
The new project is forecast to open at 164-A Market Street, across from Leaf Restaurant, in a few months.