“I’m not going to lie: I’m nervous,” says Josh Keeler, who on Monday takes over as 492’s executive chef.
492 opened in the spring of 2015 with a small plates menu that executive chef Nate Whiting described as “vegetable-driven.” Whiting, along with fellow Tristan alums bartender Megan Deschaine and pastry chef Amanee Neirouz, spent the better part of the year developing a menu for the Relish Restaurant Group’s upper King Street debut.
“We are thrilled to give Chef Nate Whiting the reins in creating a concept that is reflective of his own vision,” owner Anita Zucker said in a statement announcing Tristan’s 2014 closing. But a press release this week announced Whiting was stepping down “effective immediately,” and that the restaurant’s menu “will shift to better reflect Chef Keeler’s cuisine.”
Keeler and his wife, Heather, in July closed their hugely popular Two Boroughs Larder after a five-year run. The couple then said the rigors of independent restaurant ownership was taking a toll on their quality of life; Josh Keeler recently cited a memory of standing alone in a broken walk-in on Christmas Eve when his visiting relatives were at home celebrating.
“That was the eye-opening moment,” he says.
As a 492 employee, Keeler won’t have ultimate responsibility for every aspect of the restaurant’s business. But he says he will have the chance to cook in a kitchen that he rates among the most beautiful in Charleston.
“I felt like it was something I couldn’t pass up,” Keeler says. “This was definitely quicker than I anticipated, but it’s a great opportunity.”
In order to slow the pace of the transition, Keeler is now gathering feedback from his sous chef and line cooks. “I’m not looking to disrupt their entire lives,” he says. “It’s already been drastic.” He adds that he’s looking forward to working with Deschaine, who earned praise from the national press during her 492 tenure. Two Boroughs only served beer and wine, so cocktails represent a new dimension for Keeler to explore.
“It gives me something else to think about,” he says.
Although Keeler hasn’t yet worked out the specifics, his menu will feature entrees along with small plates.
“I think not that small plates are dated, but people are moving into wanting an entrée,” he says. “The owners want to be able to offer that.”
Approachable entrees aren’t synonymous with dumbed-down, Keeler stresses. Because Charleston is marketed as a culinary destination, he says, it draws increasingly sophisticated diners who don’t mind if they can’t get a chicken breast for supper. Still, he acknowledges 492 caters to a different clientele than the highbrow food fans who made their way to Two Boroughs Larder.
“This is an opportunity to reach people who don’t want to find parking or wait in line at a small restaurant,” he says. “Being able to seat a larger number of people means I get to produce a dining experience for that many more people.”
The number is significantly larger: 492 has room for 150 people, which is more than three times as many diners as Two Boroughs could accommodate.
“The size scares me,” Keeler admits. “It’s intimidating, but it’s exciting. We can do incredible things.”