When WACH Fox Sports Anchor Mike Uva informed his thousands of Twitter followers that Bojangles had mistakenly served him a Cajun Fillet with Pimento Cheese on a Bo-Berry Biscuit, the result was a secret menu sensation.
Now, you can walk into a Bojangles, order The Uva, and try it for yourself.
But this was far from the first happy accident to occur in a Columbia kitchen.
Fifteen or so years ago, Alex Suaudom had fish to fry. Too many fish to fry.
The orders came in quick succession, far too quick for the small kitchen of the upscale and eclectic Thai restaurant Baan Sawan in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood. There was only enough frying space for two of the whole fish offering that the chef and co-owner served regularly.
He had often ventured a thought on ways to fry more fish at once, but had little reason to do so — until that night. Faced with numerous orders, he had a realization.
“One, if I twisted them around they'll actually fit and, two, they’ll actually stand upright,” Suaudom explained. “It looked quite lifelike, except for being fried and on a plate in sauce. It was serendipitous in the presentation sense.”
Yet, as a chef would, he wouldn't have been satisfied had there not been a culinary benefit. He found that by standing the fish upright, it would be able to hold its crispness longer, not being laid down on the sauce-filled plate for soaking. It was a win-win.
“I don’t like doing things for presentation sake, just for myself, I think it's borderline gimmicky,” Suaudom explained.
Much like Suaudom’s situation, in 2019 there was simply too much chimichurri at Hendrix.
Sebastian Griffin, the bar manager at the trendy Main Street rooftop bar, had strolled into the kitchen to find that the parsley, oregano, oil and vinegar paste was in overabundance.
“I just happened to be walking through the kitchen and they (were) like, ‘What are we going to do with all of this?’” Griffin reminisced. “Me being my overzealous self I said, ‘I can figure something out.’”
It was the night of a private dinner, set up with cocktail and wine pairings by Griffin and food by then-chef Javier Uriarte, and he concocted a highly herbal gin cocktail with the surplus chimichurri.
Combining Hendrick’s Gin, the chimichurri, lime juice, a celery and cucumber shrub and Dolin Blanc Vermouth, he dubbed it the Chimmi Hendrix — a nod to the legendary musician and the restaurant’s name.
“It was a tough cocktail to balance,” he shared. “A cocktail that has oil and garlic in it is a little bit tough.”
Griffin and Suaudom both agreed that spontaneity – whether it be by accident, circumstance or otherwise — is key to working in the food world. It’s unpredictable what may happen in the kitchen or when a customer may react negatively to the prepared drink menu.
Suaudom compared it a quote from Mike Tyson — “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.”
“(That’s) probably my favorite part of my career, the joy of improvising, solving a problem under time constraints, under pressure,” he enthused. “There’s something so f#!king jazz about it.”
Free Times spoke with three other Columbia food scene players who also have served happy accidents, and sampled the results.
Bierkeller Columbia’s Kräusenbier
Scott Burgess is known for his attention to detail.
The brewer and owner of the nomadic German-style brewery Bierkeller Columbia does things by the book to create as-faithful-as-possible renditions of his European favorites. He once threw out 500 gallons of beer that didn’t meet his standards, and can take five to six years before feeling a recipe is ready for mass consumption.
Yet Burgess made an uncharacteristic mistake when he was brewing on Nov. 25. It had been a month since he brewed his smoky lager, Rauchbier, and that day he set out to make their decidedly not smoky Kellerbier.
Unbeknownst to him, there was some Rauchbier left in the primary fermenting tanke. The mistake was almost immediately noticeable.
“I was smelling those smoky notes and I was like, ‘Hmm, I wonder if this is going to burn off during fermentation,’” he reminisced.
It didn’t, and the result is a lager tinged with smoke that he’s now selling as the Kräusenbier, and Burgess plans to continue selling it seasonally in the spring and summer.
The beer, which he initially sold with the frankenstein-esque name Kellerrauch, reminded him of a lager he had tried prior from the Schlenkerla, a Bamberg, Germany brewery known for its smoked beer.
“Everything from the aroma to the color to the taste, really immediately went to the deep center in my brain that held that from four years ago,” he explained.
But don’t expect the surprisingly successful Kräusenbier to change Burgess’s detail-orientated ways.
“I’m not changing my M.O.,” Burgess said. “This is probably a singular happy accident that is somehow going to find legs and stick around. It’s definitely not my way of doing things.”
Black Rooster’s Kimchi Powder
Before Alex Strickland became the executive chef at Black Rooster, he worked under chef Frank Bradley.
Bradley, now the head chef at Hendrix, once brought in wild chanterelle mushrooms for Strickland and the rest of the staff to try.
“We’re like, ‘Let’s think of something else to use these chanterelles with,’” Strickland remembered. “He was like, ‘You know what I’ve never done is just dehydrate it.’”
So they did, and the outcome was, in Strickland’s words, “Holy f#!k we captured the height of the chanterelle in powder form.”
At that same time, Strickland had been fermenting kimchi, but had let some rest for far too long.
Typically, he lets it ferment for three weeks, but a batch had been resting for a month longer than that. At that point, it’s mostly good for stews, where the flavor can boil down, but he didn’t believe West Columbia would welcome that dish.
The powdered chanterelle gave him a thought: dehydrated kimchi. They took it to the dehydrator and found a gem in kimchi powder.
It has sparked continuous inspiration and continues to do so with the ways its flavor profile evolves based on the level of fermentation
“Every other g#!damn day we had some crazy idea about how to use kimchi powder,” he remembered.
With its complex kimchi emulating tangy saltiness, the powder finds its way into numerous dishes at the French-Southern eatery that’s taken on a decidedly Vietnamese and Asian tone since Strickland took over in November.
For instance, a current small plate involves blanched then grilled white asparagus put on top of a schmear of chili crisp aioli, topped with Bayonne ham and a fried egg. Sprinkled on top? Kimchi powder.
“The sky's the limit now,” Strickland shared. “Every time we make kimchi, I can't wait to use almost all of it so I can dehydrate it.”
Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering’s Country Ham Caramel
One of the most common toppings for Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering’s daily deviled egg specials is country ham jam. It’s one of chef Jessica Shillato’s most requested catering items and she pairs it with biscuits, too.
Eight years ago, the ham jam — which mostly consists of ham, sugar and butter — had been left on the stovetop for far too long. The immense amount of sugars inside it had cooked to the point that it took on a thick, sticky consistency. It was caramel.
“I was cooking ham jam which is one of the things we always made since we started caring years ago, and I just kind of forgot about it on the stove,” Shillato explained.
She joked that she and her cooks probably had to dare one another to try it, but it ultimately resulted in a decidedly Carolina country dessert: Carolina gold rice pudding topped with the country ham caramel.
Today, the topping is a frequent offering for their catering services and surfaces roughly once a year in the cafe itself. Last week, Shillato served it as a topping on her sweet potato pie. She reported that it sold markedly better than her typical pie desserts.
The caramel is immensely sweet, yet fortified with a salty backbone (a la roasted ham) and bits of the ham itself. Shillato’s creation is emblematic of an axiom of hers.
“Nowadays it's pretty important because of cost,” she said, referring to COVID-19’s effect on the restaurant business. “Before you throw something away in a kitchen you should always see if there’s another purpose, even before COVID.”