Two thirty on a Friday morning is a helluva time to get up for the day, especially when bedtime wasn’t until 11:30 and I awoke to the telephone at 12:30.
I felt like I was on call at the hospital, but fortunately, I wasn’t. I was on my way to Charleston, South Carolina for Cook It Raw, the chef retreat that is the brainchild and the product of the guiding hand of Alessandro Porcelli, an Italian who lives in Copenhagen. Built around tenets that aim to build upon a desire for creativity, the importance of place and tradition and a real sense of community, Cook It Raw has traveled the world to bring top chefs together to explore these various ideas. I’ve been fascinated by what they were doing since I first heard of the concept as they convened in Lapland for their third venture in 2010. This edition, the first in the United States, chose Charleston, South Carolina as its base. With one of the most well-defined and historic regional cuisines in the country, proximity to unusual foraging and superb product from both land and sea, Charleston was an inspired choice. With a local host like Sean Brock and a thriving culinary scene, the choice could not have been better. I could (and did) sleep on the plane.
My flights were on time and I arrived mid-morning to beautiful blue skies and crisp, but comfortable temperatures. I got a rental and hit the road to get over to the Le Creuset USA headquarters just outside of the city. Cook It Raw had been going on all week already and included an eclectic assortment of world famous and up and coming chefs from around the globe with a special emphasis on chefs from North America. Andre Chiang from Singapore, Ben Shewry and Phil Wood from Australia, Sasu Laukonnen from Finland and Albert Adria from Barcelona were the chefs who had come the furthest for the gathering. They and a host of others had spent the week exploring the culinary traditions of the Carolina Low Country, meeting with expert farmers, foragers, fishermen, producers, cooks, historians and chefs while based at Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark set amongst the row of old South plantations along the Ashley River. The evening prior to my arrival, they had convened for a special dinner at McCrady’s in which they all produced dishes based upon their experiences during the week.
Had that dinner been the culmination of the gathering as they had been in previous events, my trip would have served no purpose. Fortunately, it wasn’t, as this would be the first time ever that Cook It Raw would hold a culinary event open to the general public. My main reason for making the trip, Barbecue Perspectives would be held the next day on scenic Bowens Island, but there were a couple of events that I was invited to, that made it worthwhile for me to get out of bed as early as I did. The first, scheduled to start at noon at the Le Creuset headquarters was a lunch reception for the chefs and media. After a brief tour of the facilities, gifts for the chefs and some photos, it was outside for a Low Country Shrimp Boil, cocktails from Joe and MariElena Raya (GinJoint) and freshly shucked Lady’s Island oysters. It was a lovely way to reacquaint with some old friends and meet some new ones. (See here for more from the Low Country Boil at Le Creuset).
From the Shrimp Boil, I made my way to Folly Beach where I found my beach side lodging in a room located through AirBnB.com. The digs were far from luxury, but the bed was comfortable and the location, while a touch out of the way for most things this trip, was simply gorgeous. (See here for more photos from Folly Beach)
For the evening, I made my way back to Charleston where I would, for the first time, have dinner at Husk. On my last visit to Charleston, Husk was only in the planning stages. Since it opened, members of my family had been there and loved it, but I hadn’t. My dinner will be described in a separate post, but it was fun running into Jeremiah Bullfrog and his family, who were also in town for Cook It Raw.
The other reason for hitting Charleston that evening was to attend a talk at the local Williams-Sonoma to promote the Cook it Raw book. The book describes the ethos, the experiences and the food of the previous events. Taking part in the panel discussion were Alessandro Porcelli, Sean Brock, Ben Shewry (Attica) and Albert Adria (Tickets), while Craig Deihl of Cypress Restaurant created tasty nibbles that were passed amongst the crowd, including pastramied quail, grilled Lady’s Island oysters, pork belly and beef brisket with hominy and pickled peppers. Stories from Cook It Raw were plentiful and entertaining, but Shewry said something that really resonated with me. In explaining why he travels, he said it was “to discover” other areas including the food. He doesn’t go someplace just so that he can have the same food that he can have everywhere else. He goes places to appreciate what is unique and special about that particular place, especially when it comes to food. This addressed one of the core tenets of Cook It Raw, which is culinary diversity based upon geographic location and the unique products available in each location based upon what can be grown, raised, foraged, hunted or fished in a particular location. I couldn’t agree more. (See here for more photos from Cook It Raw at Williams Sonoma)
The evening was not over as I attended a party for Cook It Raw held in a spectacular private penthouse apartment overlooking Charleston Harbor. This was an event at which the only camera I brought was my iPhone. While I took a few personal photos posted to Instagram, I pretty much left the camera alone.
Mercifully, I got to sleep in the next morning. I had naught to do, but attend the Barbecue Perspectives. I arrived a bit early to get the lay of the land. Held on the grounds of The Bowens Island Restaurant, the event was spread out with the low country marshes providing the scenic backdrop.
One area was composed primarily of teams from various Charleston restaurants abetted by several specialty booths. Mexico was near the entrance. It was at that booth that Chefs Enrique Olvera (Pujol), Alejandro Ruiz (Casa Oaxaca), Jair Tellez (MeroToro, Laja), Roberto Solis (Nectar) and Alex Stupac (Empellon) came through with carnitas tacos and goat stew, while in the back of the booth, Lauren Resler (Empellon) and Sean Brock (McCrady’s, Husk) prepared Michaladas to keep the crew lubricated.
Across the way a team from Canada comprised of Teddy Corrado (The Drake Hotel), Tyler Shedden & Matthew Duffy (Café Boulud), Matty Matheson (Parts & Labour), Alex Molitz (Farmhouse Tavern), Alexandra Feswick (Samuel J. Moore), Bertrand Alépée (The Tempered Chef), Marc Lepine (Atelier), Nick Liu (Gwai Lo) and Amanda Ray (Biff’s Bistro), had subdivided into three groups with one preparing clay baked Pacific salmon, another making Canadian sticky rice wraps and the other bbq beef tongue.
Another international team that included James Lowe (The Young Turks), Sasu Laukonnen (Helsinki), Connie DeSousa (Charcut), John Jackson (Charcut) smoked an Ossabaw hog, stuffed it with Carolina red rice and served it with green hoppin’ john.
The Charlestonians held up their part of the bargain quite well. From Mike Lata’s (Fig, The Ordinary) hay roasted oysters to a whole smoked veal pastrami from Two Boroughs Larder to Michelle Weaver’s (Charleston Grill) rabbit and smoked chicken Brunswick Stew to Craig Deihl’s (Cypress) amazing charcuterie to whole smoked goat “Goatchetta” from Robert Stehling (The Hominy Grill) to the very tasty and simple vermilion snapper with pepper vinegar mop from Jeremiah Bacon (The Macintosh) to Pickled Georgetown Shrimp from Chris Stewart (THe Glass Onion) to smoked oysters and benne duck stew from Bob Carter (Carter’s Kitchen/Rutledge Cab Company) to smoked Carolina shrimp with a fried Geechie Boy polenta cake from Jacques Larson (Wild Olive Restaurant) and more, deliciousness and creativity flowed in abundance. With such talent on display, I was sorry that I did not have a week or more to explore the variety of delights Charleston has to boast about.
Tucked into their own corner, Brandon Baltzley (TMIP), Matt Jennings (Farmstead) and JP McMahon (Aniar – Galway, Ireland) did their own take on a Low Country Shrimp Boil including roasted hog heads and a whole lot of personality.
The area adjacent to the actual restaurant was home to a few more pits and grills. Next to the water stood the South Carolina barbecue legend, Rodney Scott, going whole hog mopping on his famous sauce.
Next to him was an all-star cast that included April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig), Jeremy Charles (Raymond’s) and Phil Wood (Rockfish). Unlike all of the other crews, they did not cook any meat or seafood. Instead, they focused on a strictly vegetarian approach featuring roasted pumpkins amongst other things.
Closest to the actual restaurant was a large pit built and manned by one of the Cook It Raw chefs, Eric Werner (Hartwood). Werner’s is a fascinating story. He started cooking in NYC and eventually moved to Tulum, Mexico in the Yucatan to a follow a dream. His cooking is done entirely on open fire. Based upon the description of his place and the work I witnessed at this event, Hartwood has vaulted up the charts of my personal wishlist. I need to check it out. Partnering with Werner at this station was the man, who many consider the greatest chef, perhaps ever, Albert Adria. A creative machine along with his brother, Ferran, at elBulli, Albert is now running a group of restaurants in Barcelona centered around Tickets, which carries on the spirit of elBulli. Adria and Werner cooked whole fish on the grill, starting with a huge amberjack then mixing it up with a variety of fish. The fish were supplemented with grilled vegetables including avocados.
Sprinkled around the grounds were a variety of beer and wine stands featuring a number of local brews and a selection of international wines. Hidden away on a small path between sections of the grounds was the lone cocktail station. Staffed by Jim Meehan (PDT, NYC), Brooks Reitz (The Ordinary, Charleston) and Dave Mitton (The Harbord Room, Toronto). They each made their own cocktails, the unifying thread being the presence of Maker’s Mark Bourbon. Perhaps it was just as well that they were somewhat hidden as these were all dangerous concoctions.
Tucked away under the restaurant was perhaps the most fun part of the entire day. There was an oyster roasting pit with oyster shucking tables. Diners armed with provided towels and oyster knives would complete the opening of dozens of Lady Island oysters that had been lightly roasted on an open fire and steamed under burlap bags. These would then be shoveled on to the tables for consumption. It was a little piece of heaven that reflected the underlying values of Cook It Raw as well as anything. For some reason, there are people who can not wrap their heads around the concept that modern and traditional cooking can’t co-exist and that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Truth is, and Cook It Raw is Exhibit A, not only can they co-exist, they thrive on each other. Traditional cooking methods and local diversity are integral to the creative cooking approach. They provide a framework for creativity grounded in shared experience, while constant creativity allows the traditions to remain fresh while growing in number as today’s creativity become tomorrow’s standards. (See here for more photos from Barbecue Perspectives)
Cook It Raw Charleston was an exceptional experience well worth the time and money I spent to get there. Some have derided programs like this as a culinary clique and perhaps it started out like that, but as shown here, the level of inclusion has expanded and holds every promise of expanding further. The object is not for everyone to go back to where they came from, all doing the same thing. Instead, the hope is that they will feel increased freedom to create in their own worlds based on the increased understanding of other locales and the sharing of knowledge in a convivial atmosphere. I look forward to the next iteration and hope that I can be there to experience it as well. (See here for all the photos from my Cook It Raw weekend)