Seemingly every New Yorker with a keyboard these days is bidding goodbye to the city, turning out a tortured essay about how the high rents, gentrified neighborhoods and professional pressures are no longer tolerable. Those confessionals usually wind down with the writer sadly hailing a cab for the last time, or boarding an overcrowded subway train to the airport.
But if the New Yorker in question works in the restaurant industry, that’s not really where the story ends. Currently, the inevitable coda to a chef’s escape from New York City is “and then I arrived in Charleston.”
At least since 1984, when Johnson & Wales University opened its Charleston campus, the city has welcomed culinary talent from elsewhere. But the number of established food-and-beverage professionals relocating from highly rated Manhattan restaurants has surged in the past year, with more than a dozen chefs, sommeliers and general managers joining the utmost echelon of Charleston’s dining scene.
Chefs with New York City resumes were behind the most buzzed-about openings of 2015 (Short Grain, The Westendorff). They’re associated with the most anticipated restaurants of 2016 (Le Farfalle, Lewis Barbecue). At the same time, front-of-house staffers from similar backgrounds have emerged as the public faces of iconic dining rooms (The Ordinary, The Macintosh).
And those are only the most prominent examples of restaurant folk following the New York-to-Charleston path: Restaurants and wine distributors are increasingly adding New York transplants to their payrolls.
“It’s a very welcoming place to be,” says Lewis Barbecue’s chef de cuisine Philip Powers, who left a job at The NoMad to open Daniel Delaney’s celebrated BrisketTown.
While it’s not yet clear exactly what kind of influence the migrants will exert on Charleston’s dining scene, it’s nearly certain that New Yorkers will keep coming. And because their moves are so often inspired by a desire to devote more time to family, many of them are coming two-by-two.
Powers, for instance, moved to Charleston six months ago with his fiancee, Katy Keefe, who’s now the pastry chef at McCrady’s. After Powers and Keefe graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, she took a job at Lincoln Ristorante, a fine dining restaurant alongside Lincoln Center.
“We felt like it was just time personally to get started on a life a little bit,” Keefe says. “We wanted to buy a house. We wanted to have the option to get away and see family with a car.”
According to Powers, he and Keefe both had attractive offers to take their careers to the next level in New York (he’s not at liberty to disclose specifics). Perhaps because he’s still in his 20s, Powers’ friends were puzzled by his decision to leave. Older chefs say their farewell announcements were met with a mixture of understanding and jealousy. But as an Aiken native, Powers’s vision of the future included a spacious backyard.
“We were very fortunate to find there are a lot of great restaurants that have very talented people in them,” Powers says. “So we don’t see that as a step down. That’s why we were able to leave: We didn’t have to make sacrifices to achieve our personal goals.”
For Michael Toscano, the former executive chef of Perla, Montmartre and Jeffrey’s Grocery, personal goals were central to his move south. He’s opening Le Farfalle with his wife, Caitlin, who’s held front-of-house positions at Craft, Per Se and Del Posto.
“We lived in Jackson Heights, Queens,” Toscano explains. “I lived on the express stop, so I was able to get in very quickly, but it’s such a long distance at the wrong time of day: You’re an hour-and-a-half away from home. So I’d be out the entire day. It’s 1 a.m., and I haven’t seen my family at all, all day long.”
The Toscanos hope to buy a house near their restaurant on Beaufain Street, which is a slightly more realizable goal than purchasing a home big enough for four in the West Village, where the average price per square foot of residential space is $2,286. The comparable figure in Charleston is $162.
“The dream is the kids are going to be eating family meal with us and the staff,” Toscano says.
Work-life balance is by far the reason most frequently cited by restaurant workers for restarting their careers in Charleston. But the city’s smaller scale offers two other distinct advantages: Chefs can buy vegetables, fish and other ingredients directly from the people who harvest them. Because producers don’t have time to make regular trips into New York City, chefs there are forever dealing with middlemen.
And should chefs decide to transform those Lowcountry ingredients into preserves, pickles or something else designed to be stashed away, they have somewhere to put their creations.
“That’s another thing about New York City: The lack of storage,” Toscano says. “I’m salivating over the space here. What that means is we’re able to execute guanciale ourselves, or make different shrubs or different infusions that you don’t have room to do in New York. So we have the ability to really go the full distance.”
Powers thinks the availability of open space will help make Lewis Barbecue the “premier barbecue restaurant in the country.” “We’re able to do a little bit more here,” he says, referencing the restaurant’s four 1,000-gallon offset smokers.
As newcomers, the ex-New Yorkers are understandably reluctant to imply they have skills or knowledge that Charleston chefs don’t. “The thing I was worried about, and still worry about, is that I didn’t want to be the guy who was the big chef from New York City,” says Damon Wise, who spent four years as executive chef of Tom Colicchio’s Craft Restaurants; he’s now opening a restaurant on Ann Street.
The Macintosh’s general manager, Julie Merlino, who briefly worked with Wise at The Monkey Bar in Midtown, goes so far as to claim there are no differences between restaurants in Charleston and New York City. “You can find professionalism and hospitality and quality outside of New York, and it definitely exists here,” says Merlino, who worked at The Modern.
But there are at least a few things that don’t exist in both cities, and the professionals interviewed for this story suspect New Yorkers will be drawn to fill those niches; everyone but Merlino mentioned missing various global cuisines.
Toscano’s plan is to prepare canonical Italian dishes with Lowcountry ingredients: “I’m never going to do mash-up and riff on Southern cooking.” He imagines fellow former New Yorkers could apply the same approach to anything from northern Thai to Argentinian food.
“Hopefully, we’re able to add to the experience,” Toscano says. “Maybe we’ll diversify what’s already amazing.”