Malcolm Hudson didn't live his life linearly. Even his closest friends have trouble recalling how he started cooking; they're not certain of how many places he lived or the number of women he married. But it seems everyone who knew the influential South Carolina chef agrees he lived his life fully.
"He never complained about long hours or expensive produce or rent," says Frank Lee, a one-time protégée who asked Hudson to be his daughter's godfather. "He was always so joyful about cooking. He said the kitchen saved his life, that outside is crazy, and inside the kitchen, there's beauty and truth. You don't hear people talk about that much."
Hudson died last Thursday at age 75. Lee said the cause was cancer.
Although Hudson cooked all over the world, Philip Bardin credits him with transforming Charleston's restaurant scene. Bardin, former chef of the Old Post Office in Edisto, maintains it was Hudson's vision and spirit - filtered through Lee and other kitchen mentees - that sparked a culinary culture built around meticulous sourcing; superlative technique and sheer pleasure.
"If it wasn't for Malcolm, there may have been no Frank," Bardin says. "And when you look at the development of restaurants in Charleston, SNOB was what put everything on the map."
Hudson was born in Detroit in 1939. In 1958, he joined the Army as a boxer. Although Bardin hasn't yet been able to locate Hudson's win-loss record, he remembers being impressed by his strength years after his stint in the service. "The man would stop a truck with his bare arms on a tree," Bardin says. "His brakes weren't working, so he just stuck his arm out. Normal people don't do that."
According to a short biography posted on Amazon, Hudson's military career included editing an Army newspaper in France. When he returned to the U.S., he enrolled in the University of South Carolina, where he studied European literature. Somehow, his path to becoming a playwright meandered through a kitchen. After serving as chef of an Italian restaurant, he went back to France to stage in restaurants including L'Archestrate, which would shortly thereafter win its third Michelin star.
In 1977, Hudson opened Hudson's in Columbia, a restaurant so impressive by national standards that it earned a full-color, two-page spread in Food & Wine Magazine within three years of opening.
"He was the best saucier I've ever known in my life, and I've known hundreds of them," Bardin says. "He was brilliant. He did a Champagne sauce reduction that was 72 hours that was one of the most delicious things I've had in my life."
Despite his reputation as a "wild man," Hudson was fanatically discplined in the kitchen: He made his own pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, with hundreds of layers.
Lee in 1980 approached Hudson for a job "because he was doing cooking nobody ever heard of." But Hudson insisted Lee forsake vegetarianism, since he couldn't countenance a chef who didn't taste what he cooked.
"He laid that down, and he was right," Lee says. "I broke down and started nibbling crispies off a veal bone."
Bardin was glad he never had to work for Hudson, who ran his workplace with old world authority: "He'd play classical music real loud in the kitchen and throw knives at the health inspectors," Bardin says. But when Hudson deemed his cooks ready, he'd take them on life-changing trips to France.
"He took me on that trip in 1981," Lee says. "We went in a camper van to nine 3-star restaurants in the dead of winter."
In 1985, Hudson moved to France to study French at the Sorbonne. He'd earned his bachelor's degree in his forties, and was studying for his master's in linguistics at the University of South Carolina when he died.
"He was really an intelligent guy," Lee says. "He was one of the first people I knew to have a computer, one of those Macintoshes. He'd stay up late with the light glowing, figuring out how it worked."
Hudson cooked in various restaurants around France, including an inn in Tours, which Lee likens to "the Spartanburg of France," and Restaurant Georges Blanc. While working there, he squatted in Blanc's pool house. "He thought he was being slick," Lee says, adding that Blanc was so enamored of Hudson that he allowed him to stay.
There were also stops in Greece, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Haiti, but Hudson ended up at SNOB in the early 2000s. "He worked off and on, so he affected at least two regimes," Lee says. When the Charleston Wine & Food Festival last year honored Lee with a tribute dinner, Hudson was there to reconnect with many of the chefs he'd known as young cooks.
"We called him the inoculator," Lee says. "He'd get people excited about the history of cooking, the spirit of cooking, the guild of the brigade."
Hudson is survived by, in the words of his goddaughter Meghan Lee, "three children; two brothers; one novel; a mess of memoirs; many, many friends; and a long trail of crushed nut shells and Tums."
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