Sheila and I have been pen pals since March. We met as we were both planning San Francisco trips: I visited for the IACP awards ceremony and she had planned to work short-term (called a “stage” in the restaurant business) at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse. I met Alice on that trip and I got teary about the fire in her restaurant, a fire that changed Sheila’s plans and took her to South Carolina. Read all about her time at one of the other best restaurants in the country, Husk! – Maggie
Charleston has to be the most charming city. As a true New Englander, I’m a sucker for old, historic buildings, seaside views, and fresh, comforting food. The brightly colored homes – and the sailors that fill the streets in April – grab my attention. The amazing food and famous Southern hospitality keep it.
This small city is filled with the sweet smells of praline, smoky barbecue, and the sea, with a buzzing energy and excitement about local food. Everyone is excited about local food these days (and with good reason), but Charleston has always offered a hyper-local, distinctly regional cuisine. Having visited the city a couple times, I was over the moon with the opportunity to do a stage in the kitchen at Husk, Chef Sean Brock’s restaurant renowned for only using ingredients south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even olive oil is sourced locally.
I’ve worked in restaurants and catering on the side for some time, but my full-time job for the past few years has been largely office-based. So, I was a bit intimidated walking into a fairly well-known kitchen, staffed with some incredibly brilliant chefs, having had just a bit of home cooking and restaurant prep work under my belt. But an intense interest and willingness to work, I hoped, would guide me through my nine days at Husk.
My first task was to break down chickens, to carefully but quickly cut them apart and separate them into their recognizable pieces. It didn’t stop there. During my time there, I cleaned piles of fragrant, wild ramps; prepared pork terrines; roasted vegetables on their incredible smoker out back; assisted in projects pickling green tomatoes and garlic; and generally stared in awe at the wealth of local, fresh produce, and whole fish and animals that are butchered in house. Scrubbing box after box of gorgeous purple carrots, I felt like I was polishing tarnished vegetables, helping their natural beauty shine through. That attention to detail really speaks to me: taking the time to scrub, rather than peel, allows both the purple and orange to pop. That level of detail and care is evident in all their dishes.
I ate some crazy delicious meals during my downtime, really trying to taste and understand the city, its roots, and its future. One such revelatory meal was at The Ordinary, a fancy oyster bar and seafood hall in an old bank, headed by Mike Lata, a fellow New Englander. Here, they gorgeously fuse the sensibilities of Northeast seafood traditions, while honoring Southern taste. North meets South. Crispy oysters with beef tartare, broccoli rabe Caesar salad done right. My waiter, mentioning he had worked at Husk, offered me a tour of the kitchen where I met the chef de cuisine, Geoff Rhyne. What an impressive operation. Generously, they invited me for a stage on a day off. Yes please.
How interesting to compare the two experiences, both headed by James Beard award-winning chefs. Embarrassingly, I finally butchered my first lobster (how have I grown up in Massachusetts and only just done this?) by twisting and pulling off its tail. Super fresh soft-shell crabs arrived, harvested by the determined Kimberly, who wakes up every three hours to check her traps in case one molted its shell. Snip snip, I prepared these for dinner service as well, to be served pan-seared over creamy polenta, sliced radishes, pea shoots and caramelized ramps. Yum. The biggest lesson I learned was organization: getting your mise en place ready. Having all items chopped, weighed out, and on hand make later tasks a breeze.
Unexpectedly, after six hours of prep work, I was assigned to the fry station on the line for dinner service. Wow! This was a true “go big or go home” moment, thankfully at the front of my mind after reading Maggie’s piece on that exact feeling. “Gumbo shrimp! Six oysters! Fish sandwich!” Chefs called out orders to me, I called them back, and cooked the food that guests, right at that moment, were waiting to eat. An unbelievable day, full of adrenaline, excitement, and nerves for 14 hours straight.
Heavenly Charleston beckons all to visit. To slow down, breathe in the sweet, salty air. To walk at sunset among the brightly painted homes. To swim, sit on the porch, and commiserate with friends new and old. And to eat and drink way too much, because after all, you only live once.
All photos styled and taken by Sheila Jarnes.
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