The downtown Charleston restaurant district has likely seen its last Gullah restaurant, chef Charlotte Jenkins on Wednesday told an audience at the Cynthia Graham Hurd/St. Andrew’s Public Library.
“It’s all about the money,” said Jenkins, the former owner of Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant and author of Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea. “And the people who have the money, that’s not what they’re into.”
Jenkins told Charleston Red Rice Day founder KJ Kearney, who interviewed her for the event co-sponsored by the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, that the high price of fresh ingredients and increased competition from multi-unit restaurant groups work against chefs trying to perpetuate culinary traditions.
“It was very good for a while,” Jenkins said of her time in the restaurant business. “And then the block I was on, in no time, it had 18 restaurants.”
Gullah Cuisine closed in 2014, ending a 17-year run of serving oxtails, collard greens, sweet potato fritters and a variety of okra preparations, including both okra soup and okra gumbo. An Awendaw native, Jenkins started cooking for her household of 18 when she was 9 years old; her mother left Jenkins in charge of the kitchen when she went to Charleston to take care of a sick sister.
“The first meal I cooked was liver and onions, gravy and white rice,” Jenkins said. “My dad didn’t want to starve, so I stepped in and I’m glad I did.”
Although the wide-ranging menu at Gullah Cuisine reflected both Jenkins’ childhood experience and her studies at Johnson & Wales University, Jenkins said aspiring restaurant owners today can’t afford to offer so many dishes.
“When you stick with one thing, you won’t have problems,” she said. “To go totally Gullah, I don’t see it. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’m saying you will meet some challenges; I would open up a little drive-thru and just have red rice and fried chicken.”
Asked after the event if she would ever consider opening such a place, Jenkins demurred. “I’m retired,” she said.
Charleston County Public Library and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor have a number of food-themed events planned for the coming months, including a May 11 presentation by chef Kevin Mitchell and the dedication of a Gullah Geechee garden at Johns Island Regional Library. For more information, visit gullahgeecheecorridor.org or ccpl.org.