Osteen had been invited to Sullivan University in Louisville to teach in an arena-style demonstration kitchen. “So you kind of go in expecting to be cheffed,” recalls Lundy, who won a pair of James Beard Foundation awards for her 2017 book, "Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes."
“Instead, he was just so funny,” she continues. “He was so droll, and he was making these beautiful biscuits in a way that was so inviting and so reassuring.”
Explaining his choice of flour, Osteen said he loved White Lily Flour, but admitted he sometimes used Martha White Hot Rize, because the company had hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as its pitchmen. The confession struck Lundy, partly because it revealed Osteen’s dual allegiances to quality and loyalty, but mostly because she was also a serious bluegrass fan. She told him as much after the session.
Lundy later dined at Louis’s Charleston Grill, and was so taken with his legendary benne seed oyster stew that she asked if she could speak to Osteen. He walked out to her table, and the Anderson native immediately launched into a discussion of a new bluegrass album.
“It totally cracked me up,” Lundy says. “I was there with a notebook. And he didn’t want to push his food: He wanted to talk bluegrass.”
This October, Highlands Food & Wine and Southern Foodways Alliance are honoring Osteen, widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in Charleston’s modern dining history, with a four-course dinner. But Osteen is just one of the people who played a pivotal role in the development of Southern food at a time when chefs weren’t preoccupied with self-promotion, meaning the industry now has to figure out how to recognize their quiet contributions.
“I mean, Louis is having a crisis of health, so we’re all scrambling to let him know how much he’s loved,” Lundy says. “And I’ve been thinking: Do we wait for the next crisis?”
Earlier this year, Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurant on its tenth nomination, a vote considered a tribute to Osteen’s peer, Frank Stitt. Beyond Beard awards and various lifetime achievement prizes, though, Lundy says there are limited ways for the food community to show its appreciation.
“Louis was revered by his peers,” Lundy says. “At least in our era, to have been known and respected by your peers and your customers was what it was all about. There wasn’t anything greater, and there wasn’t the expectation of something greater.”
Southern Foodways Alliance, of which both Lundy and Osteen were founding members, annually gives out a series of awards. But the University of Mississippi-based organization also tries to ensure longevity for influential talent and hard work in the restaurant sphere by documenting it. The Southern Foodways Alliance is currently collecting oral histories from Southern food editors and writers, such as Lundy.
“For my generation, one thing that happens is it catches you a little bit by surprise when you discover you’re an elder,” she says.
And the group hired Kate Medley to produce a short film about Louis Osteen, which will be screened at the Old Edwards Inn & Spa dinner, and later posted online. One of the chefs featured in the film, John Fleer, remembers when the Osteens came to Blackberry Farm for a special event, with plans to serve “pate of the South.”
“I had no idea what that was,” says Fleer, who’s participating in the tribute dinner. “He pulled out a tub of pimento cheese, and that was the pate of the South.”
He continues, “It’s like taking pimento cheese or shrimp and grits, and things that nobody really paid attention to, except that it was good and you ate it, and it was part of the fabric of your life. (He) just sort of shined a magnifying glass on it and said ‘this is pretty amazing.’”
In the opening scene of “The Many Lives of Louis Osteen,” Osteen is shown at home, making biscuits.
Among the other chefs scheduled to cook at the Oct. 8 event are Stitt; Bill Smith of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner; Sean Brock and Mike Lata. “To have an all-star lineup of chefs that would come all the way up to Highlands was a wonderful surprise,” Highlands Food & Wine festival director Casey Reid says. “We think it’s going to be a spectacular night.”
Tickets are priced at $275; the menu includes Osteen’s benne seed oyster stew.
For more information, visit honorlouis.com.