BJ Dennis would love to have a girlfriend, one who would cook for him.
“With my lifestyle right now, and my personal chef business, downtime cooking is the last thing I want to do. It would be nice to have a girlfriend to cook for me. Salad, corn on the cob, baked sweet potato, some protein and I’d be a happy man. When I cook for her, I’d get fancy,” he says with a smile.
But all that will have to wait because Dennis is on the move, quite literally. His life as head of Chef Benjamin (BJ) Dennis Personal Chef and Catering keeps him on the road quite a bit, and his recent consulting gig with Republic Garden and Lounge on King Street keeps him busy revamping the menu and retraining the staff.
Dennis is a classically trained chef and credits local chefs Jeremiah Bacon of the Macintosh and Frank McMahon of Hank’s Seafood with influencing his style, but he gives just as much credit to “guys who look like me,” such as Nigel Drayton of Nigel’s Good Food in North Charleston, the late “Miss Barbara” Ellington, who ran breakfast and lunch at Hyman’s Seafood, and Edmond Floyd, who worked at Anson.
“I saw local black cooks in the city, and I thought, ‘If they are doing it, I can do it, and maybe even better,’ ” Dennis says.
Dennis is on a mission to bring back Lowcountry cuisine, which means he regularly incorporates greens, okra, pork, local seafood and, of course, rice, preferably Carolina Gold.
“Being Geechee, I love my rice,” Dennis says. “You can get Carolina Gold, but if you can’t, just make sure the rice you get is cooked properly, not mush. You want 1 cup of rice to 11/2 cups of water, and season it. Rice is a good base for so many wonderful things.”
First, however, he’ll have to unpack his pots.
Like his lifestyle right now, Dennis’ living situation is a temporary measure. For now, Dennis lives off of Spring Street with his cousin, Kerri Forrest, director of Institutional Advancement at the American College of the Building Arts, in her mother’s Charleston house.
Tenants live upstairs and, downstairs, Dennis and his cousin share a tiny kitchen with wood cabinets. The refrigerator is cluttered with clippings, the counter cluttered with cookbooks. And Dennis hates clutter.
“It makes it easier to think without clutter,” he says.
Dennis hasn’t bothered to unpack his pots and try to squeeze them into this kitchen where he won’t stay for long.
Two pots that Dennis refuses to let languish in storage are his rice pot and his Le Creuset stew pot. “I use it for anything, to braise, to stew okra and collards. I do a lot of one-pot cooking.”
Dennis’ ideal kitchen would have an island with six burners and a griddle in the middle “so you could walk around it,” and lots of counter space. He’d add a convection oven and “lots of appliances, blenders, mixers.” And, as long as he’s dreaming, the window would overlook an inlet creek.
But all that, and perhaps the girlfriend, can wait. Because BJ Dennis has plans: maybe a restaurant or two in five years, maybe one that presents the fare of local fishermen and shrimpers with true Lowcountry food, and one that offers great shakes and burgers.
Although he will always respect the local cooks who taught him so much back when he was just a dishwasher and bus boy, “I didn’t want to be just a cook, I wanted to be a chef. And I know that to be the best you can be, you have to work hard,” he says.