'Million Dollar Critic' in Charleston
"Million Dollar Critic," which last month wrapped up filming in Charleston, is a television show. But host Giles Coren, The Times of London's restaurant critic since 1993, says the BBC America series is supposed to celebrate print journalism.
"The idea is it puts reviewing back at the heart of the story," he says of the series, which will air its Charleston episode in September.
In each show, Coren will dine at five restaurants, one of which he'll choose to review; the conceit is Coren's endorsement is worth $1 million dollars. The money shot is of the restaurant owners eagerly opening their hometown paper to discover whether their meal merited a write-up.
"I have this dream of these kids watching because it's a mouthy critic, then going out and seeing someone on a bike tossing a newspaper" - and presumably chasing after it.
Coren allows his version of food journalism may seem strange to an American audience, which he maintains is accustomed to "an old maid sitting in the corner with a glass of water and a tasting menu."
By contrast, Coren has deliberately cultivated a raunchy, reckless persona, a strategy he describes using words that aren't commonly printed in any American newspaper section. Still, he pins his reputation partly on his newspaper's paywall, which has skewed Google searches away from his work and toward his "filthy" Twitter feed. And there was a rollicking 2013 Esquire story chronicling the fallout from his perpetual drunkenness and coverage of an abusive 1,000-word email he sent his editors after they trimmed an "a" from his review.
Yet Coren's written reviews aren't much more restrained: An early column excoriated a "wall-eyed gargoyle of a waitress whose breath alone took three years off my life in the short time it took her to say the word 'soup.' "
"America takes its food criticism very seriously," Coren says. "(American critics) get straight to the food. They tell you the history of the restaurant, they tell you about the furniture. I start right in the middle. I form a trenchant opinion and defend it like a polecat. America is much more uptight."
Although Coren couldn't name a critic as an example, he suspects the type is a product of anxious fact-checkers and hawkish attorneys.
"You can't get away with much in the way of irony," he says, recalling when The New York Times contacted him about a reviewing job. "They said, 'Of course, you wouldn't be able to write the way you write now.' "
Since arriving in Charleston, Coren has eaten at restaurants including The Obstinate Daughter, Alluette's Cafe, Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen and Poogan's Porch. His crew's advances were rejected by Xiao Bao Biscuit and The Ordinary.
"I don't know if they're ready for me here," he says, sounding very much like someone who hopes they're not.
Fortunately, most students are pros at putting off assignments until just before they're due, so the looming deadline for a newly announced culinary school scholarship shouldn't scare off too many potential applicants.
On behalf of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, the James Beard Foundation is offering a $6,250 scholarship to a South Carolina resident. (The arrangement is payback for the festival hosting a James Beard dinner in Charleston last year.) The program is open to high school seniors and graduates who are already enrolled in culinary school, or plan to enroll.
South Carolinian applicants who don't receive the scholarship reserved for state residents will be considered for 15 scholarships without geographic restrictions.
The application postmark deadline is May 15. For more information, go to http://sms.scholarshipamerica.org/jamesbeard.
Brock's next project
Neighborhood Dining Group and Sean Brock are opening a Mexican restaurant alongside McCrady's.
The restaurant is scheduled to open in late summer.
According to a release, "it will have a fun atmosphere, affordable menu and casual service." No other details were available.
No wonder Brock has been practicing his michaeladas, which made a spirited splash at the Cook It Raw event last fall.
Brock's last project
And, speaking of Sean Brock, the chef's long-awaited cookbook inched closer to his fans' grasp last month with the release of its cover image.
The nontraditional portrait fronting "Heritage" was shot by Charleston photographer Peter Frank Edwards. Within 24 hours of Brock posting the cover art on Instagram, nearly 1,000 of his followers had given the image of Brock's hands cupping beans a virtual thumbs-up.
Brock inked the book deal in 2011. Artisan is renowned in cookbook circles for high-quality, lushly illustrated books.
Edwards describes the process of creating the cover as "collaborative and organic." While leaving Brock's face out of the picture wasn't the subject of much discussion, it took a number of iterations before the team settled on beans.
"We worked with a variety of dishes, but then we decided to distill it down to something even closer to Sean's heart," Edwards says.
The beans were drawn from Brock's personal collection. "They are particularly important to him, and they had great color," Edwards says.
"Heritage" is slated for publication Oct. 21.
Chocolate, the fallback dessert ingredient for many young chefs, doesn't fare well in the Lowcountry. "It's hot down here," Kelly Wilson, an instructor at Trident Tech's Culinary Institute of Charleston, recently explained during an American Culinary Federation regional conference session dedicated to regional pastry.
"In terms of climate, that dictates what you can make and what you can store," Wilson said.
But Wilson urged her audience to think beyond chocolate for other reasons, too: While chocolate has a long Central American history (and shorter European history), a bevy of other ingredients are more closely tied to the Native American, African, British and French cultures that are reflected in traditional Charleston foodways. Chefs who reflexively localize their savories sometimes forget about fortified wine, black walnuts, rice, sweet potatoes and coconuts when planning last courses, Wilson suggested.
To demonstrate how recent culinary school grads can put a local stamp on their sweets, Wilson remade a basic coconut cake with a strawberry coulis.
"It's a passable dessert, but it's very pedestrian," Wilson said.
According to Wilson, every dessert has four primary elements: The central pastry, sauce, garnish and "a crunch factor." On the coconut cake, the cake is the pastry; the coulis is the sauce; the garnish is a mint spring; and coconut provides crunch.
When Wilson re-engineered the dessert to reflect the Lowcountry, she started with "free-form creme brulee," an agar-agar-enhanced salute to Charleston's French heritage. "There's a randomness to this, and I'm still trying to master randomness," she fretted as she dotted the plate in Modernist style.
Wilson sauced the creme brulee with sweet potato puree, and garnished it with coconut foam and microgreens. For crunch, she added shards of benne brittle to the plate.
The finished dessert was a slightly monstrous clutter of sweets, but Wilson had made her point about localizing plated desserts. "And it's super-duper tasty," she added before distributing samples.?