Knobbed whelks, commonly known as conch on Lowcountry menus, are so ancient that when the dinosaurs disappeared whelks gave the snail equivalent of a shrug. Their ancestors were hoovering up worms on the ocean floor long before triceratops showed up.
And considering the very short span of human history, whelks have been a food item from the start. According to modern scientists, a whelk has 10 times as much vitamin B12 than is in beef, which was reason enough for early anglers to spend time prying meat from its attractive shell.
So when I first encountered Korner Kitchen’s outstanding conch stew, I assumed it had an equally protracted back story. I called chef-owner Daniel Middleton — a native of Hollywood, where the restaurant is located — expecting a saga involving multiple generations, secret fishing grounds and family recipes.
Not even close. Middleton created the stew two months ago.
After registering to set up a station at this year’s Taste of Black Charleston, Middleton knew he was going to have to come up with something memorable to compete with the elaborate dishes other restaurant owners and caterers had planned for the event, at which a winner is chosen by popular vote.
“I tossed and turned for about two weeks,” he says. “I wanted something special.”
Once Middleton hit on conch, he had to locate a supplier. The South Carolina whelk fishery had a decent run in the early 1980s, when shrimpers were looking for something to harvest in the off-season, but commercial interest has since declined precipitously. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources reports the annual harvest has lately hovered below 10,000 bushels, compared to 30,000 when the fishery was humming.
Middleton finally found a guy who swore he’d have conch available whenever the chef texted. He just needed to figure out what to do with it.
At first, Middleton submerged the chopped conch in tomato sauce, a method favored by Italian home cooks (although just as their stone-ground cornmeal is known as polenta, rather than grits, their whelks go by the name of scungilli.) It was fine. It just didn’t taste like victory.
Then he switched to brown gravy, and the dish snapped into focus. The soothing flavor of thickened chicken broth, familiar from smothered chicken platters on Sunday dinner tables and egg foo young orders set upon lazy Susans, grounded the faint funk of the whelk. Yet a preparation designed to showcase the primeval chew of sea snail doesn’t belong in the passive column. Middleton punched up the gravy with components of blackening and jerk, giving the stew an unmistakably Caribbean demeanor.
Really, that’s nearly all you need to know about Korner Kitchen, which this summer will mark its third year in business. The conch stew is a to-drive-for dish, even if Middleton serves it over parboiled rice that doesn’t soak up the stellar gravy in the way that softer rice might. (Still, there’s nothing to keep smart customers from making good use of their taut cornbread squares.)
As sirsees go, though, the remainder of the steam table is a doozy.
The compact steam table, which measures one full pan deep, is one of the few fixtures in Korner Kitchen’s sparsely decorated dining room. There are several tables and chairs for the work crews who visit from nearby sites, and the country cooking enthusiasts who come from farther away, but that’s about it.
When the weather’s nice, the prime seating is on the latticed-in front patio. It’s possibly the most sociable section of the small restaurant, since the majority of Korner Kitchen patrons wouldn’t have the gall to sweep past fellow believers in paprika-flecked baked chicken and peppery lima beans.
Counter-intuitively, Korner Kitchen is not situated on a corner. That’s because its name precedes the permanent operation. Middleton, a professional welder and amateur motorcycle rider, made his initial foray into the restaurant trade after a 2003 bike rally was rained out. He’d prepared a mess of burgers and leg quarters in a cooker he’d built, so he took the food to his grandmother’s house on Yonges Island. Curious neighbors asked whether he was selling something. By the end of the day, he’d made $75.
“I thought, ‘Here we go’,” Middleton, 44, says. “I got a grill and went to a little hangout spot in Hollywood.”
There were two corners that Middleton worked regularly before he bought a food truck and the restaurant, which was “pretty much a turnkey operation.” He continues to run both because, he says, “I love what I do.”
Another fact that Middleton volunteers when interviewed by phone is that he’s an amputee. It’s not immediately apparent from a photo banner hung outside the restaurant, emblazoned with Middleton’s motto, “Rain or Shine. You have to eat,” because the chef’s right shoulder is pressed against the sign’s left side. But Middleton says children stare when they see him.
As he tells them, a forklift carriage claimed his arm 19 years ago. In other words, all of the biking, welding and cooking described a few paragraphs back came after his amputation.
“You know I have to give it all to God because I just use every part of my body as a right arm,” he says. “My stomach, my back, my neck.”
However he’s managing it, his customers are the beneficiaries.
Korner Kitchen is equipped to fry seafood to order, but it takes an admirable amount of willpower to stray from the steam table, which is typically furnished with both yellow and red rice. The latter’s enriched by spaghetti sauce and hot sausage; it’s an ideal foil to Middleton’s meaty turkey wings.
Vibrant yellow rice makes a fine resting place for okra soup, simmered and simmered until the okra relaxes and tomatoes learn their lines from the pig tails and neck bones in the pot. Try it alongside the glorious pork chop, which could earn you a few Instagram followers, if you’re into that sort of thing. Eaters more interested in flavor will find plenty of satisfaction in the knobby tanned crust, agleam with sheer gravy, and the tender meat it cloaks.
With the conch stew success behind him, Middleton is now thinking about what he should next add to the menu. There’s an old sign at the restaurant indicating pizza’s available, and he’s considering making good on its promise — at least on the weekends.
“I try to do what’s not in town,” he says. “You don’t have to go to Charleston all the time.”
For people in Charleston, though, it sometimes pays to leave it.