Southern Living Taste of Charleston: Marquee culinary event returns with three-day fest
By Stratton Lawrence | Thursday, September 27, 2012
If you go
For more information on any of the following events, go to www.charlestonrestaurantassociation.com/taste-of-charleston.
Iron Chef Competition
What: Four top chefs duke it out over the flames.
When: 6-9 p.m. Friday
Where: Culinary Institute of Charleston, Palmer Campus, 66 Columbus St.
Price: $50 general admission, $100 amphitheater seating
Sweet and Southern on Shem Creek
What: Hospitality, down-home cooking and a harbor sunset on full display
When: 6-11 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Lighthouse at Shem Creek, 100 Church St., Mount Pleasant
Price: $50 advance, $60 at the door
Charleston Dine Around
What: A mini-Charleston Restaurant Week that adds beer to the three-course mix
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Participating restaurants
Price: Varies by location; no tickets required
The Main Event
What: Stuff yourself with offerings from 50 restaurants while you enjoy the entertainment
When: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Boone Hall Plantation, 1235 Long Point Road, Mount Pleasant
Price: $15 in advance, $20 at the gate; $2 food and drink tickets
For more info: boonehallplantation.com
Most of the recent national press for Charleston’s culinary scene has gone to a handful of farm-to-table restaurants dotting the peninsula. Their chefs are national celebrities in culinary circles, bringing the Lowcountry attention for traditional dishes and innovative ideas. Although those chefs and restaurants will be well-represented at the 32nd annual Southern Living Taste of Charleston this weekend, the three-day event is a chance to highlight the hundreds of other restaurants where locals eat on a daily basis, forming the base of our culinary scene.
Wing joints and seafood shacks provide the foundation of a thriving food and beverage industry. Without the Charleston Restaurant Association’s more than 400 members, the city couldn’t support the graduates of two culinary schools.
It’s that everyman, community attitude that differentiates Taste of Charleston from other culinary events in town.
In 1981, its first year, the event drew about 600 attendees. Last year, the two-day affair counted more than 13,000 people through the gates.
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to share Charleston and what it’s about with as many people as possible, locals and tourists alike,” said Steve Carroll, president of the Charleston Restaurant Association.
With that goal in mind, the 2012 Taste of Charleston expands into a three-day affair, including the fifth annual Iron Chef Competition on Friday; the debut of Sweet and Southern on Shem Creek, an indoor/outdoor dinner and party on Saturday; and a two-night Dine Around featuring three-course meals and beer pairings at restaurants throughout the city. On Sunday, the Main Event returns to Boone Hall Plantation, bringing together 50 restaurants to show off their very best to thousands of hungry attendees.
For the second year, Southern Living magazine serves as the festival’s title sponsor, bringing its editorial team to town for a long weekend of eating and hosting workshops.
Charleston Restaurant Association Executive Director Kathy Britzius also promises that any parking issues from previous years have been solved by the incorporation of a third-party company that arrives days in advance to plan routes and navigate the speediest entry and exit possible for attendees.
Britzius emphasizes the event’s charitable aspect, as well. Over the course of its three-decade run, Taste of Charleston, along with the restaurant association’s Lowcountry Oyster Festival, has donated just over $1 million to the Ronald McDonald House, Hollings Cancer Center, Hospitality Heroes, Shriners Hospitals for Children and Charleston County schools.
Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill (and emcee of the Iron Chef competition), emphasizes the role the restaurant association and Taste of Charleston have played in putting the Holy City on the national culinary map.
“When I travel to New York, people always tell me how they can’t wait to come back to Charleston to eat,” Bakst said. “People are being drawn here by the culinary community. Our history is great for tourism, but it’s the restaurants that give people that little something more to come here for.”
The Holy City now supports a second major culinary event, the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, each spring.
“What’s great is that we have enough restaurants to support both,” said Britzius, emphasizing differences like the “come-one, come-all” attitude of Taste of Charleston, gathering the city’s scene into one place on Sunday, versus the intimacy of many Wine + Food Festival events.
Britzius recalls 1989, when Hurricane Hugo arrived and forced Taste of Charleston to be postponed.
“We were under the care of the National Guard, with no electricity,” she said. “The ceiling was caved in at my office, but I went up there to get something and the phone rang. It was a restaurant owner asking if we were still doing the taste.”
Two months later, they pulled off the event in Brittlebank Park, attracting 10,000 people.
Favorite events like the Waiters’ Race have lasted over the years, but the main attraction is still the food. When your product is great, it’s natural to want to show it off. And that’s what Taste of Charleston is all about.
Iron Chef Competition
Every cook is accustomed to intensity. Even at a short-order lunch counter, balancing the volume of orders and ensuring that each plate goes out hot and fresh can be a challenge.
Add to that the pressure of a live audience that’s judging your abilities, and it’s enough to make even a seasoned pro sweat.
“It’s the most thrilling 45 minutes that I can remember having in a kitchen,” said Steven Lusby, head chef of 82 Queen and half of last year’s winning Iron Chef team, along with Matthew Niessner of Halls Chophouse.
Hosted by the Culinary Institute of Charleston in its state-of-the-art amphitheater kitchen at Trident Technical College’s Palmer Campus downtown, the annual contest pits two teams of two chefs against each other in a head-to-head battle centered around a mystery ingredient.
In the competition’s four-year history, the mystery ingredient has included local golden tilefish, Carolina gold rice and oyster mushrooms. Last year, Niessner and Lusby were victorious using pumpkin and chocolate, crafting a menu that included a coconut-dusted lamb chop with pumpkin risotto and a chocolate Bordelaise sauce.
This year, the pair will serve as judges when chefs from Lana and Graze take on Poogan’s Porch and Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill.
“It’s certainly not just another day in the kitchen,” Niessner said. “When you’re in competition, you’re in it to win. It comes down to getting a rhythm together with your partner chef and having a good flow and understanding of each others’ philosophies. There’s a lot of strategy involved.”
To break the intensity and keep the mood light for the audience, emcees Tom Crawford, meteorologist at ABC News 4, and Bakst will provide a play by play of the action, taking questions from the audience and samples from the chefs.
“At the end of it, I’m exhausted to the core of my soul,” admits Bakst. “The attendees come from all over the country, and it’s our job to give them a show and let them see how we do it in the Charleston culinary community.”
Attendees have the option of purchasing tickets for a seat in the amphitheater at $100 or participating via live televised viewing areas in the vicinity for $50. All tickets include beer, wine and heavy hors d’oeuvres, as well as the possibility of sampling the chefs’ creations.
“The audio/visual aspects of it are really intriguing,” Culinary Institute Dean Michael Saboe said, touting the investment the school has made in technology for the amphitheater kitchen. “For the viewer, it’s exciting to see how the chefs interact. One may be creating a sauce while the other pan sears a fillet of grouper, while they’re constantly working in harmony on multiple dishes within a tight time frame.”
The Iron Chef Competition’s mystery ingredient this year will be supplied by GrowFood Carolina, a collaborative nonprofit food hub that helps expand local food offerings in area restaurants.
Last year, Niessner attributes his win to going above and beyond, including creating six dishes (the requirement is three) and offering every audience member a snack of chocolate pumpkin spice caramel corn.
“Once the gun starts, it’s all adrenaline,” Niessner said. “Half the battle is engaging the judges and the audience. If you’re not having fun, you won’t be good at it.”
As a judge this year, Niessner explains that the criteria go beyond flavor. With variables ranging from humidity level to different burners than the chefs are accustomed to, it’s how the competitors react under pressure that determines their success.
“At the end of the day, you look at the combination of dishes, the colors, the presentation, their speed, accuracy and how the chefs are performing personally in front of the audience,” Niessner said. “There’s more behind winning than just flavor profiles. You have to be unique and creative and find combinations of things that you might think would never work and put them into complete harmony.”
Sweet & Southern
When guests come to town, it’s only proper to show off Charleston’s best. For scenery and food close to the source, nowhere in town beats Shem Creek.
That’s the idea behind the inaugural Sweet & Southern on Shem Creek event, dreamed up by Charleston Restaurant Association organizers as an excuse to throw a party along the iconic waterway, aiming to impress the visiting editorial staff of Southern Living in the process.
“It comes down to trying to raise as much money for our charities as possible, and this seemed like an ideal signature event for Taste of Charleston,” said Charleston Restaurant Association President and Red’s Ice House General Manager Steve Carroll. “It’s an indoor and outdoor party with lots of Southern comfort food and a showcase of singer/songwriters.”
Featuring four local caterers, the menu draws entirely from Southern cuisine, including oyster tables, a pig pickin’, Frogmore stew and everything in between.
Throughout the evening, local boatmaker Scout will offer moonlight cruises down the creek to the harbor, complimentary with the event’s all-inclusive ticket.
“The idea is to show off Shem Creek,” Carroll said. “We want to give Southern Living and our other visitors a little more insight into what’s really cool in Charleston, and show them the nooks and crannies.”
Sumter-born and Nashville, Tenn.-based songwriter Rob Crosby anchors the musical lineup. The author of numerous hit songs, including Martina McBride’s “Concrete Angel” and Lee Greenwood’s “Holdin’ a Good Hand,” Crosby will lead a songwriter-in-the-round performance featuring several of his friends from Nashville.
“Rob has ties with Southern Living and with local venues like The Windjammer, so we thought he’d provide the perfect setting for a night of great music and food,” Carroll said. “We’re trying to make it a who’s who of Charleston.”
The Dine Around
Even for the die-hard diners, it’s impossible to come close to sampling all of the appetizing menus offered during early September’s Charleston Restaurant Week. For those who missed a spot they were hoping to try, the Taste of Charleston’s inaugural Charleston Dine Around features a two-day blitz at restaurants throughout the Lowcountry.
Designed as a way to incorporate Charleston Restaurant Association members unable to nab one of the 50 booths at Sunday’s Main Event, the Dine Around is similar to Restaurant Week in its incorporation of three courses at a deeply discounted price. In addition, however, each course is paired with a different craft beer offered by sponsor Lee Distributors, at the discretion of each restaurant’s individual chef.
At Halls Chophouse, chef Niessner plans to incorporate a fried green tomato recipe from Taste of Charleston title sponsor Southern Living, pairing it with succotash, crab, corn, shrimp and bacon, and served with a pale ale from Abita Brewery. His other courses include a filet mignon with lobster mac and cheese, balancing an Abita amber with the dish’s smoky flavors, followed by a chocolate Chambord pate with wild berries and an Abita pecan harvest beer.
Lusby of 82 Queen is equally excited about showcasing his friends at North Carolina’s French Broad Brewery, pairing courses that include a goat cheese pimiento tomato pie and a deconstructed duck jambalaya.
“This is a way to incorporate all of our members, bring new business in to restaurants, and offer diners a three-course meal at a reduced cost,” Charleston Restaurant Association’s Britzius said, pointing out the diversity and inclusion of white tablecloth establishments and casual spots.
Participating restaurants include:
Downtown: 82 Queen, Lowcountry Bistro, Tristan, Halls Chophouse, ’Cesca, Noisy Oyster, Tsunami, Jim ’N Nick’s, A.W. Shucks, Tommy Condon’s, Sermet’s Downtown, Eli’s Restaurant, Toast!, Tabbuli, Hyman’s Seafood, Southend Brewery, Fulton Five and Basil.
Mount Pleasant: 17 North Roadside Kitchen, Graze, Zeus Grill and Seafood, Langdon’s, Opal Restaurant and Bar, Eurasia, Mosaic Cafe, Next Door Bistro, Red Drum, Basil, Gullah Cuisine, Finz Bar & Grill, Fuji Sushi Bar and Grill, Bricco Bracco and Carter’s Kitchen.
West Ashley: Lucky’s Southern Grill and Al Di La.
North Charleston and Summerville: Palm Tree Grill at Embassy Suites, Noisy Oyster, Cork Neighborhood Bistro and Firewater Grille.
Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island: Huck’s Lowcountry Table, Sea Island Grill at Wild Dunes and Station 22 Restaurant & Bar.
Johns Island: Gilligan’s.
Kiawah Island: The Ocean Room and Jasmine Porch.
The Main Event
On Sunday, come hungry and pace yourself. With 50 restaurants dishing out their very best, from alligator ribs to juicy steaks, it’s easy to go overboard at the Taste of Charleston Main Event.
The restaurant tents range from familiar sports bars and chicken wing joints all the way up to the peninsula’s finest establishments. Food and beverages are sold in $2 increments, with nothing topping $6.
Favorite events like the Waiters’ Race are back this year, pitting Charleston’s food and beverage employees against each other in a competition to open and pour a bottle of wine, carry it through an obstacle course and serve it to a table in the fastest time possible.
“We keep elements like the Waiters’ Race and the ice carving the same each year, while incorporating new additions like a beer garden and food and wine pairings,” said Monique Semper-Flynn, special events manager for the Charleston Restaurant Association.
This year, the participating fine-dining restaurants will pair a wine with any menu item by request. At the 82 Queen tent, chef Lusby reveals that he’s working up a special batch of watermelon and blackberry sangria to go along with the Cuban smoked pork loin he plans to serve.
Whether you’re full or pacing yourself, the event offers far more than just food sampling, including a play area for children and live music from tropical-rock band Homemade Wine.
Title sponsor Southern Living expands its involvement this year with a variety of workshops in the Southern Living tent, including a “Tackle Your Tailgate!” session at 11 a.m. drawing from the book “The Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook.” At 12:30 p.m., editor Rebecca Lang hosts a tasting of finalists from the magazine’s “Big White Cake Cover Contest” before mediating a “Quick-Fix Supper Challenge” at 3:30 p.m., where attendees get to square off in their own Iron Chef-like battle for the chance to win an American Express gift card. In addition, at 2 p.m., the magazine will give a presentation on “Farm to Table Container Gardening” that any would-be green thumb can learn from to get started with his own kitchen or windowsill flower and herb garden.
“The idea is to bring Southern Living to life through interactive exhibits,” Semper-Flynn said.
For libations, patrons can choose between full beers or enjoy sample-size tastes from a variety of craft breweries in the beer garden.
Semper-Flynn points out that the Taste of Charleston entry price is less than the regular admission to Boone Hall, and patrons are free to roam the grounds and explore the waterfront historic cabins and buildings.
That is, of course, if you can manage to walk after making your way down the rows and rows of restaurant tents beckoning you to enjoy a taste of Charleston’s finest.