Louis Osteen, the legendary Charleston chef whose cooking and charm helped persuade the nation’s culinary elite to heed contemporary Southern cuisine, died Sunday. He was 77.
Osteen’s death was confirmed by John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization of which Osteen was a founding member.
“I think a lot of people have dismissed the South as a wasteland ... but I think the South is pretty important, and it’s more important than most people understand,” Osteen said in 2004 when a Southern Foodways Alliance interviewer asked why he initially supported the group’s work.
Called the “spiritual general” of new Southern chefs by The New York Times, Osteen enthusiastically asserted the significance of dishes such as shrimp-and-grits and pimento cheese, a one-time regional delicacy that seemed destined to survive only as a mass-produced convenience food until Osteen remade it as an elegant bar snack for his Charleston restaurant.
“Under the influence of Louis and Marlene,” Edge said, referring to Osteen’s wife and constant partner of 40 years, “Charleston became the transom city for the American food renaissance.”
In addition to setting Charleston on a course toward culinary prominence, Osteen was also instrumental in defining a chef’s role at the turn of the 21st century, Edge said.
“He set a standard that a chef is a larger-than-life personality; a chef writes a book; a chef spends as much time in the dining room as he does on the line,” Edge said. “Louis in many ways codified that.”
Born in Anderson, Osteen moved to Atlanta after college to open movie theaters, which was his family’s line of work. As a boy, he was in charge of the hot dogs and hamburgers at his father’s drive-in. But he wanted to cook, so in 1975 took a job at one of the city’s most revered French restaurants, Le Versailles. Four years later, he relocated to Pawleys Island to open Pawleys Island Inn.
Although Osteen wasn’t a native of the Lowcountry, he was more than game to learn all he could about it, Edge said.
“He was a co-conspirator with those who arrived to explore the Lowcountry,” Edge said. “And that exploration of the Lowcountry naturally led to an exploration of the larger South, because that was his world. He was a cultural spelunker.”
In 1989, Osteen opened Louis’s Charleston Grill at the Omni Hotel, where he served benne seed oyster stew, fried grits and other dishes which provided delicious testament to his discoveries. “Louis’ restaurants were the portals that writers crossed to explore the South and understand the Lowcountry,” Edge said.
Eight years later, Osteen left the Omni to open his own restaurant, Louis’s. In 2007, he moved to Las Vegas to open a pair of restaurants, and returned to Pawleys in 2012 to open the last iteration of Louis’s.
Over the course of his career, Osteen received six James Beard Foundation award nominations, winning a Best Chefs in America award in 2004.
“It’s important to recognize where this Southern renaissance began," said Edge, recalling the intellectual voraciousness of a man who kept books by Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling on his bedside table. “And it began, in many ways, with Louis.”