Monday, September 1, 2014

Chef's Kitchen Tour - a Culinary Tale

We had a chance to attend a Chef's Kitchen Tour and led by Hoon Calhoun. Hoon, a local resident who has grown up in the area, guided us through the Upper King Street menagerie of great eats to introduce us to the chefs that have developed a reputation for some of the best food in town. We were running late and had gotten turned around, so we met the crew at their first destination of the day, Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts.

At first sight, to look at Hoon Calhoun, you recognize one of the reasons that Charleston is considered the friendliest city in the nation. His giant smile with glistening eyes are topped with a straw hat that only serve to highlight his genial nature. As we were all parched from having marched along King Street to reach Glazed, he affably served water and coffee while introducing us to Mary Smith, manager of the store and mother of founder Allison Smith. As she begins to tell us about the origin of the shop, she offers us samples of an Apple Bacon Fritter, a Chocolate Glazed Doughnut, and an Orange Cardamom cake style doughnut with imported Belgian chocolate sprinkles dotting the top.

Amazing. As you can imagine, the fine doughnuts made with only 7 ingredients are made fresh every day. Bakers arrived between 2-2:30am to begin the long process of mixing, folding, letting the yeast dough rest, then cooking, filling and glazing the final products. Two bakers create 12 flavors each morning and use only fresh ingredients with no preservatives. It takes 4-4 1/2 hours for the doughnuts to be processed, and the store will close once the doughnuts are sold out. "We can't make any more," Smith explains. "It takes too long. Once we're out, we're out!" The sweet treats are so good that Rachel Ray requested a sample for her magazine, Every Day with Rachel Ray. The story Ms. Smith tells of how the sample gets delivered is comical, and you can see far a mother will go to protect her child's prized possessions on the New York City subways.

Saying goodbye to Mary, we traveled just down the street the The MacIntosh. Chef Jacob Huder describes how he came to work with Chef Jeremiah Bacon, one of Charleston's leading chefs and James Beard Award winner. Huder grew up in Atlanta and headed out to Yellowstone National Park after graduating from high school. Eventually, he came to Charleston and attended the Art Institute's Culinary program. Once finished, he approached Bacon at Carolina's and begged to work with him. Bacon took him on, and they have moved on to work together at various Indigo Road restaurants. Jeremiah Bacon oversees all the Indigo restaurants, while Huder is the head chef at the MacIntosh. Being that Upper King Street is a fairly new destination for high end restaurants, the MacIntosh has an impressive 3 year anniversary coming up.

Huder shows us the large round kitchen set up in a French style brigade system that was made famous by Chef Georges Auguste Escoffier in the 19th century. The garde manger, saucier, patissier, entremettier, and rotisseur chefs are arranged in a circular pattern to maintain continuity and eye contact. A well-oiled system allows the chefs to create appetizers within 5 minutes of an order, and entrees usually are ready 5-7 minutes after the appetizer has been consumed. He describes some of the more interesting items the kitchen is known for, including but not limited to, seafood dishes such as fish bologna and other seafood charcuteries. An important note is that the Indigo chefs work closely with the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and they are focused on providing fish purchased from sustainable farms.

"Working in the restaurant industry is a lot of hard work and is a passion," say Chef Huder. "I work about 90 hours a week. We offer dinner and brunch of Sundays...and will do a 3 (course meal) for $40 during Restaurant Week." All that hard work shows, and as we leave we take a final look at the interesting decor at the MacIntosh. Le Creuset is a sponsor of the restaurant, and deep blue pots and pans line the shelves of the open kitchen. Every table is created by reclaimed doors that have been fashioned into shiny tabletops. As Hoon says, "Charleston looooooooves its doors." Yes, we do. It's an unusual setting, but it works for this restaurant.

As we head to Prohibition, Hoon makes a "surprise visit" to Jeni's Ice Cream. We all pile in and eagerly look into the bins, as he cajoles the owner to let us sample an ice cream that was made with Charleston in mind. The Sweet Cream with Run Molasses and Peanuts ice cream we were offered was a sweet concoction of caramel goodness. One small bite teased you with peanuts and creamy ice cream with just the right amount of the rum molasses. Happy to have the unscheduled tasting, we happily skipped over to meet Chef Stephen Thompson, head chef at Prohibition.

When we walk into Prohibition, we were immediately overwhelmed by the sheer cleanliness of the place. Stools sat upon tables, and everything was spotlessly clean. The scent of antibacterial cleaners hit us directly in the nose, and as we worked our way back to the kitchen window, it became apparent that this was going to be a little different from the rest. Chef Stephen Thompson appeared behind the window to greet us, and he described how his very tiny kitchen works. It's shaped like a chute. Imagine cramming 7 or 8 people into about a 10-12 foot long working space, and you start to have a clue. We learn from Thompson that he actually attended the Art Institute with Chef Huder, and they have a high regard for each other's work.

As he is talking with us, he begins pulling out ingredients that will be used to the night's special, a rabbit roulade. Cutting up an entire rabbit, he enthusiastically describes what he is doing as he filets the meat, then stuffing it with a pepper and manchego cheese. He wraps each of them up into a tightly wound cylinder and sets them in the fridge to set. As we watch the dish form, he pulls one out, rolls it in flour, dips it then into an egg wash and covers it with bread crumbs and tosses it into the fryer for a few minutes. Once it has cooked thoroughly, he proudly presents to us 7 pieces of the most succulent rabbit I've ever put in my mouth. Unknowingly, we would again get to sample this completed dish later in the evening on the Mixology Tour that would also take us to Prohibition.

The tour leads us to Callie's Biscuits, which has only been open on King Street for about 5 weeks. This restaurant boasts selling and shipping over 600,000 biscuits a year for the past 9 years. As it has grown, the owner, Carrie Morey, decided to open up a shop in the ever growing Upper King Stret location. As we squeeze into the tiny restaurant, we jostle past servers and cooks delivering mouthwatering dishes to hungry lunch patrons. Chicken biscuits were the special of the day, and huge chicken breasts filled out the biscuits that have made Morey famous. Since it was approaching the busy lunch hour, we didn't stay long, but we tasted her famous Fiery Pimento Cheese on Buttered Biscuits before heading off to enjoy lunch ourselves.

Our last stop landed us at Virginia's on King. We were taken upstairs and seated at a long table with water promptly served. The staff was a little overwhelmed, as a wedding party had arrived early and had taken over the bar. Cheers and hoots were heard downstairs, but were forgotten quickly as Hoon began regaling us with stories from the south. His candor and knowledge of foodie history was entertaining and informative, and we hardly noticed the time as our lunch was served. Broccoli infused cornbread was sent first, and as we bit into the moist morsels, we learn that they are made with cottage cheese. Cottage cheese? Although surprising, the little bites were tasty and not too sweet. If anything, they seemed a little healthier than most, and the broccoli was a refreshing variant on an old favorite. We were served Chicken and Dumplings and Shrimp and Grits family style, with each of us getting a nice taste of the hearty dishes. Hoon grinned his quirky grin as we finished our plates, and he completed his intricate stories of intrigue, gossip, and tales about the flavors of South Carolina.

All in all, this was one of the most fascinating and thoughtful tours I have been on in Charleston. Hoon couldn't have done a better job, and the tour would be fascinating for tourists and locals alike. For true foodies who enjoy a good meal and appreciate a clever chef, it's a great way to learn the planning and processes that make the dishes so complex yet tasty.

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