Since launching the South Carolina Chef Ambassador program, the state has put approximately $360,000 into the culinary initiative. Less clear, at least according to data provided by sponsors S.C. Department of Agriculture and S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, is what eaters here and elsewhere have gotten out of it.
Then-governor Nikki Haley announced the joint effort in June 2014, explaining it would feature chef representatives from the Upstate, Midlands, Pee Dee and the Lowcountry, with each serving a one-year term.
“We are going to have things that are happening that are great,” she said in an upbeat press conference. “It’s going to be supper clubs … displays of different types of recipes you can make with locally grown things … contests …going to schools and educating children on healthy eating. … It’s going to be exciting; it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be one more highlight for South Carolina.”
Yet neither involved agency has attempted to quantify just how brightly that highlight shines.
SCDA has informally surveyed alumni about their experiences, which have included appearances at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival; Atlanta Food & Wine Festival; Euphoria and trade shows, as well as visits to the James Beard House and Time Inc.’s test kitchens. But it hasn’t collected economic impact numbers, or any other figures suitable for a spreadsheet.
Dawn Dawson, an SCDPRT spokeswoman, says “media coverage has been garnered in local, statewide and national publications,” such as Rachael Ray Magazine, which mentioned the state’s all-woman ambassador crew in 2018. The program has also “led to increased content on the DiscoverSouthCarolina.com website.”
(Dawson couldn’t say whether it was responsible for an overall uptick in online traffic, but in response to a Post and Courier inquiry found the site has racked up 491,988 page views of its Chef Ambassador coverage.)
In other words, it’s really hard to establish whether putting four diverse chefs in the same state-issued uniform has led more South Carolinians to ask for local peaches, or inspired visitors to pass up a national chain in favor of eating pimento cheese at an independently owned restaurant. Quite possibly the only way to gauge the program’s effectiveness is on an individual basis.
Marc Collins, chef and co-owner of Circa 1886, is a fan. Collins served as the Lowcountry’s S.C. Chef Ambassador in 2019. He was preceded in the position by Forrest Parker, Michelle Weaver and Sean Mendes. “How many chefs do you know who have been chef ambassadors?” he asks. “This has to be one of the biggest milestones of my career.”
But is what’s good for the chef necessarily good for the consumer? I decided to find out whether the S.C. Chefs Ambassador program has the potential to succeed at its stated goal of “promot(ing) off-the-beaten-path destinations to expand tourism” by taking a trip to one of the current honorees’ restaurants.
The 2020 S.C. Chefs Ambassador class consists of Raffaele Dall'Erta of Hamptons in Sumter; Jason Tufts of Malia's in Aiken; Jamie Daskalis, Johnny D's Waffles and Benedicts in Myrtle Beach; and Kevin Mitchell of the Culinary Institute of Charleston.
I’m sure Tufts and Daskalis are terrific, but neither deviled eggs in horse country nor breakfast near the beach sounded half as intriguing as handmade pasta from a Milan native who for more than a decade cooked at The Inn at Little Washington. And so I went to Sumter.
Sumter! I left Charleston planning to work during the hours between lunch and dinner at Hamptons, thinking I could surely find a coffee shop with a strong WiFi signal. Instead, I found the Sumter Opera House, and could see through its street-front windows that the historic theater had a museum-quality exhibit in its lobby.
One of its panels tells the story of Sumter’s own Clara Louise Kellogg, the first American-born prima donna. Kellogg long resisted performing in her hometown. When she finally sang at the Opera House, the local paper’s correspondent wrote that he wasn’t qualified to assess Kellogg’s voice, but pronounced her “fair, fat and forty.”
Kellogg may have been right to keep her distance from Sumter, but hers was a special case. I can’t imagine many South Carolinians today wouldn’t be charmed by Sumter’s downtown streets or impressed by the city’s new Jewish History Center, housed in the stained glass-surrounded Temple Sinai. Soon Sumter will also have a brewery, courtesy of the same couple who created Hamptons in 2008.
Back then, Hamptons was located on Hampton Street but Danielle and Greg Thompson in 2018 moved the restaurant to Main Street in keeping with their vision to “change the lifestyle and perception of Sumter,” Danielle Thompson says.
At the new address, the brick-walled dining room dazzles, with a row of stylish glass bauble chandeliers hung above glossy-finished wooden tables and modish ivory wingback chairs. There’s abstract art on the walls and a floral arrangement in the entryway that any mobster would be touched to have at his funeral.
“I normally do arrangements, but not quite of that magnitude,” Danielle Thompson told me later. It was in place because Gov. Henry McMaster had just come to town to award Thompson with The Order of the Palmetto for revitalizing Sumter.
The stunners aren’t purely cosmetic, although there’s no shame in admiring the looks of Hamptons’ sophisticated upstairs bar, furnished with a glass-walled wine room. By 10 years ago hiring Dall’Erta, who had fortuitously married a Clemson grad, Thompson stretched out the local dining spectrum so the prospect of gnudi and a negroni now sits at one end.
Thompson says Dall’Erta has had to make some menu concessions to the Sumter audience, such as serving pizza at night. Yet nothing I ordered tasted like compromise. Dall’Erta’s experienced cooking is careful, but confident: Hamptons guests won’t find salt shakers on their tables.
If they’re lucky, though, they might at some point find a bowl of gumbo atop it. The okra-thickened soup is smoky and deep, aswim with crawfish and clams. For lunch, it’s easily paired with a respectable Caesar salad, distinguished by very fresh lettuce and explosively garlicky croutons.
Lunch is perhaps a less opportune time to order the popular pizza. A sausage pie I tried would have benefited from a hotter oven, although it was nicely spotted on its underside and sported flavorful basil on top. And to be fair, it was a very cold day. When a host was forced to seat me near the door because tables farther into the dining room were occupied by large parties, he automatically offered me a cup of coffee or tea.
That kind of thoughtful service is consistent with the refinement that Thompson is endeavoring to cultivate, as is Dall’Erta’s excellent pasta and risotto.
There are a number of generically fancy and Asian-esque items on the dinner menu, such as tamarind glazed wings and tuna tartare with ponzu sauce, but Dall’Erta seems most versant in continental sauces and grains. Mushroom-rich risotto in a pool of what amounts to lobster bisque, with a wedge of seed-crusted barramundi slanted up against the lavish rice, is quintessential restaurant fare.
It’s also delicious. Another standout is delicately crimped ravioli encasing slow-cooked short rib. It’s a tad over-saturated with cream but that’s a fine dining world problem that most towns of Sumter’s size and stature wish they had.
Absent the S.C. Chefs Ambassador program, I never would have heard of Hamptons. And I certainly wouldn’t have spent an afternoon in Sumter. While we can’t know the totality of what the state has to show for its investment, for this eater, the program worked beautifully.