While much attention has lately been focused on Nat Fuller, the 19th-century caterer who conceived and executed an audacious interracial feast in the weeks after the Civil War, Fuller was hardly the only African-American chef to achieve prominence in Charleston. Fuller’s contemporary George Johnston was hailed for preparing Lowcountry ingredients in the finest Anglo-French style.
“Johnston could stage dinners on a scale that only Nat Fuller and Eliza Seymour Lee could rival in the city during the antebellum heyday of fine dining,” University of South Carolina professor David Shields writes in a short biographical sketch of the man who oversaw the kitchen at the Mills House.
At one point, Johnston could believably claim he planned to open a restaurant “second to none in the country.” An 1856 Johnston menu unearthed by Shields includes dozens upon dozens of items, such as baked shad with Madeira sauce; pheasant breasts; calf testicles; and a foie gras terrine.
But Johnston, a native Georgian who married a younger pastry cook, was tripped up by the post-Civil War economy. The establishment he opened in 1865 near the corner of Hassell Street and Maiden Lane went by the plain name of “George’s Restaurant.” According to a Charleston Courier ad, he served mutton chops, broiled pig’s feet, sardines, eggs and coffee.
According to Shields, Johnston adjusted his business plan after discovering the sale of liquor was far more profitable than fancy food. Although he was busy with various African-American fraternal organizations, he continued to run George’s as a grocery and wine shop.
In 1876, Johnston took a part-time job as the Carolina Club’s steward, but gave up the post after seven years. He died in 1888 at the age of 56.
“His passing merited no notice in the public papers,” Shields writes. “Johnston’s central role in Charleston cuisine had been forgotten.”