This story is part of a weekly series chronicling downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. To read more about the series, click here.
Chasing Sage never had a chance to open before the coronavirus pandemic, and its owners couldn’t be happier about it.
Nearly everything was in place for the Chasing Sage team in March to fling open the doors to the Rutledge Avenue restaurant, located just a few strides south of the Septima P. Clark Parkway (or the Crosstown).
The glass votive holders were polished. The ceramic flower vases were centered on tables. A phalanx of upholstered stools was arranged at a perfect 45-degree angle to the marble-topped wooden bar, trimmed with bottled tinctures and pots of trailing herbs destined for drinks.
Prior to moving to Charleston in 2019, though, owners Walter and Cindy Edward and Forrest Brunton lived in Seattle, where the two men cooked together and separately at many of the city’s most celebrated restaurants.
Initially, that biographical tidbit was relevant to their restaurant story because it hinted at their culinary style. A publicist last July sent around a press release hailing their “pristine ingredients, thoughtful cuisine and respect for the land.”
But the detail took on new meaning in January when a Seattle tech worker who had traveled to Wuhan, China, to visit family became the first person in the U.S. to test positive for the coronavirus.
Researchers are still trying to piece together how the virus spread through the Seattle area. It likely appeared before "Patient Zero" got sick. However it happened, by early March, Seattle residents were hiding out at home and more than 50 restaurants had closed.
“We were watching all of our friends taking huge hit,” Cindy Edward says.
Text messages from former colleagues described empty dining rooms and elected officials warning Washingtonians not to go out. The Edwardses, Brunton and general manager Maxwell Clarke met each day in the restaurant, which by that point was fully staffed, to assess when the crisis might reach the Lowcountry.
After a final difficult and teary two-hour meeting, Chasing Sage at 1:06 p.m. March 17 released a statement saying, “In light of the growing threat of COVID-19, Chasing Sage will be postponing our opening.”
Fewer than four hours later, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order requiring all bars and dine-in restaurants to close the following day.
“This is awful,” Cindy Edward remembers thinking.
But she also thought about how much worse the situation would have been if the restaurant had opened two weeks before the order came down, as an earlier timeline projected.
“We would have had a cooler full of product; we would have bought $10,000 in booze,” Walter Edward says.
Plus, any buzz they could have generated with a successful opening night would have been silenced forever by the muffling weight of the coronavirus.
“You only get to really open once,” Edward says, picturing how chatter about death and economic devastation would have tainted a March debut. “We want the Chasing Sage opening to be as special as it can be. It can be everything it was meant to be.”
Maintaining its “coming soon” status also allowed Chasing Sage to sit out the to-go game, which engrossed terrified restaurateurs in the days after McMaster’s order. It meant potential customers weren’t immediately clamoring for service when McMaster in May walked back his order, allowing restaurants to offer outdoor dining.
During quarantine, the Edwardses, Brunton and Clarke stuck close together.
“There’s a lot to be said for working with best friends,” Cindy Edward says.
On plenty of nights, they ordered takeout, which gave them the chance to learn what takes well to a cardboard box and what you can’t find in the Charleston area, no matter which terms you plug into the Toast Takeout app’s search box.
Walter Edward and Brunton each came up with a wish list of about 12 different types of food which they missed and knew how to make. Those lists formed the foundation for their pop-up series, which started in August with We Got Seoul Korean BBQ, complete with a drinks program and a shingle hung out front.
Everyone involved with the to-go operation is keen to explain that We Got Seoul is not Chasing Sage, nor was the So You Think You Can France pop-up which 10 days later replaced it. Rather, the global tour, which may also wind through Mexico, Morocco and Japan, is supposed to give Charleston diners a taste of the team’s approach to creating experiences and working with flavors.
“Rotating pop-ups is our way of saying the world has changed,” Walter Edward says. “We want to do something that’s not a partial version of what we want; we want to do full version of what we want to do.”
As for Chasing Sage, he continues, “We can’t do it now; it isn’t a safe, moral choice. But we can make people happy right now.”
Judging from the grins behind their masks, that includes the Edwardses, Brunton and Clarke.
To be continued.