The latest addition to Bowens Island Restaurant is a 4-by-8 square foot grill, constructed from hand-mixed concrete and oyster shells. Chet Hanson, a former mason who works at the restaurant, kept a skeptical eye on Cook It Raw chef Eric Werner’s progress over the three days it took him to build the intentionally rustic cooker.
“I aggravated the hell out of him,” Hanson admits.
But even Hanson approved of the final product, which yesterday was fitted with a rack that successively supported wedges of warty pumpkins, swordfish and a massive amberjack that cropped up on countless Instagram feeds. The highly praised food only lasted for the duration of BBQ Perspectives, the first-ever public event associated with Cook It Raw, an annual gathering of avant-garde chefs. The grill, though, will remain a permanent monument to what 25 chefs from around the world accomplished during their weeklong stay in Charleston.
At their headquarters at Middleton Place, the Cook It Raw chefs learned from food historian David Shields about 19th-century Lowcountry residents’ tendency to salt their fruit, a practice which resurfaced in the pickled oyster dish Mexican chef Jair Tellez presented at a summation dinner at McCrady’s. They puzzled out boiled peanuts; took a virtual tour of Sea Island red pea fields with Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge and savored shellfish stews. Off the property, they picked rice, stalked gators, foraged sorrel and fell hard for the region.
“We’ll be like mini-ambassadors for Charleston, all of us,” Finnish chef Sasu Laukkonen said. “It’s ultimately all about the fact we’ve all been so welcomed.”
Bowens Island owner Robert Barber hasn’t yet decided how he’ll use the restaurant’s new contraption: “We might grill some seafood on it,” he mused. Yet for the 550 food fans who paid $100 apiece to sample Cook It Raw and local chefs’ riffs on meat and heat, it will most likely serve as a reminder of a sunny afternoon event that was even more successful than its biggest boosters anticipated: None of the feared parking hassles or food shortages materialized.
“I woke up really nervous this morning,” said hometown host Sean Brock, pausing during a tour of the tasting tents. “It’s a lot. And every six seconds, someone walks up to me and says ‘thank you’.”
For BBQ Perspectives, the Cook It Raw teams devised dishes including a smoked ossabaw hog stuffed with Carolina red rice; suckling pig tacos and a pig head lowcountry boil. They were joined by a Canadian contingent serving barbecue beef tongue; clay-baked salmon with whiskey and sticky Carolina rice wraps with bison, peanuts and maple syrup.
Local restaurants contributed smoked oyster and benne duck stew (Carter’s Kitchen); smoked wild cobia and malted balsamic cannellini beans (Coda del Pesce) and a spicy tomato stew with smoked silver side mullet and clams (Slightly North of Broad). Cypress made quail pastrami, and Two Boroughs Larder used their pasture-raised rose veal pastrami for reubens garnished with smoked Brussels sprout kraut.
Mike Lata ran out of hay-smoked oysters with wild fennel butter after an hour or so, which loyal Charlestonians interpreted as evidence that The Ordinary’s chef served the event’s most popular dish. Attendees also finished off Rodney Scott’s esteemed whole hog barbecue by 1:45 p.m. BBQ Perspectives marked just the second time Scott’s crew used a custom-made mobile rig which earlier this year debuted in New York City. “It cooks real good,” Scott’s uncle Sam Wilson confirmed.
Professional chefs and food lovers traveled significant distances to experience Cook It Raw: Alice Fischer and Ken Appel drove from Fort Lauderdale (“a culinary wasteland,” Fischer confided) to witness what Brock had brought to town. Fischer, a native Brooklynite who measured in at 4-feet-9-inches at her last bone density exam, counts Brock among her favorite chefs — although she reports she had her lifetime best meal at Le Bernadin.
“Don’t say it!,” Appel yelped. “They’ll never let us move here.”
Fischer and Appel first learned of Brock from a No Reservations episode devoted to a Cook It Raw held in Japan. “We fell in love with him,” Fischer says.
Now the couple’s made chef-chasing their hobby.
“This is our art,” Fischer said. “We used to collect art. We switched to food.”
Cook It Raw chef James Lowe, based in London, was pleasantly surprised by the cheeriness of the crowd. He relished small talk about burning his British skin and teased patient attendees about portion sizes.
“Everyone’s super friendly,” Lowe said. “I think it’s really lovely.”
And after a week spent thinking about grain origins and agricultural practices, BBQ Perspectives gave the chefs an opportunity to learn about Charleston’s contemporary character — and its residents’ easygoing manner. “I love that!,” Lowe exclaimed good-naturedly as a young mother pushed a pair of babies past his booth. “A pram with a beer can! Welcome to the South!”
“This is a perfect example of what it’s like to live here,” Brock said, motioning toward the band stationed on the restaurants’ deck and lined-up eaters sipping on bourbon cocktails. “Barbecue brings everyone together. This is the way we love to live in the South: Low and slow.”
Brock said after folks thank him for facilitating Cook It Raw’s inaugural North American stop, they usually follow up with the same question.
“Everyone’s like ‘we’re doing this every year, right?’,” Brock said. “Why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we do this every year?”