It occurred to me as I stood in the stern of the Teaser 2, watching the buildings on the Battery shrink down to little white blurs and finally slip away from view, that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for a restaurant critic to go 30 miles out into the ocean with nine chefs. Especially when they’d brought along their knife kits.
I opened a breakfast High Life, pulled my sunglasses over my eyes, and ran through five years of reviews in my head, calculating who I most needed to keep an eye on.
For a while it had looked like the trip might not come off at all. Down in New Orleans they were still getting pounded by Hurricane Isaac, and for almost seven days and seven nights we had gotten downpours of our own in Charleston, including one on Tuesday that found a couple of jokers in kayaks paddling their way through the aisles of the City Market.
Fortunately, Friday dawned with clear skies, and we left Shem Creek with the rising sun peeking over the Coleman Boulevard bridge behind us. We chugged slowly down the creek past the docked shrimp boats and out into the harbor. Then the captain lowered the throttle, and we shot out into the shipping lanes toward the deep water.
I was in this predicament because of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and its inaugural Local Catch event. The concept was simple: put nine chefs on a boat and send them out into the Atlantic, then the next day have them serve whatever fish they caught at a huge outdoor dinner. No pressure there.
Angel Postell, the festival's executive director, had stacked the deck, inviting a lineup of chefs who, as she put it, "are known for fish and are out there fishing." And that meant Jeremiah Bacon of Oak and the Macintosh, Sean Brock from Husk and McCrady's, Drew Hedlund of Fleet Landing, Mike Lata of FIG, Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad, Frank McMahon of Hank's, and Josh Woodruff of the Charleston Harbor Resort.
In case that wasn't enough intimidation, we had two out-of-town ringers — George Mendes of New York City's Aldea and Frank Stitt of Highlands Grill and Bottega in Birmingham — plus Mark Marhefka of Abundant Seafood, the professional fisherman who, perhaps more than anyone, has helped make fresh, local line-caught fish a staple of Charleston fine dining.
We dropped our lines just after nine, and black sea bass started hitting right off. Tiny black sea bass, that is, most well under the 13-inch limit.
"How many people are coming tomorrow night?" asked Frank Lee after about half an hour, eying the green basket with three rather puny looking keepers in the bottom.
"Two hundred fifty," said Jeremiah Bacon.
"I hope they like appetizers," I said.
No one seemed to find that funny.
"Pull up the lines," Captain Mark Brown called out from the flybridge above. "We're moving."
The next spot proved more fruitful, and one by one we started pulling in keeper-sized bass. The fish kept biting and the beer kept flowing, and that kind of thing does wonders for building camaraderie.
On the starboard side, Mark Marhefka methodically reeled in one bass after another. Beside him, Jeremiah Bacon hauled in a beauty of a vermilion snapper and held it high. Marhefka gave it the once-over and said dryly, "Better throw that one back. Got a little scar down there."
Score one for the fisherman against his notoriously finicky customer, but Bacon just laughed. "It'll be fine," he said and laid it in the well.
Just past noon, the tip of George Mendes' rod plunged down almost into the water. He gave a whoop of realization: something big on the line. He went to work, the drag whizzing, the pole bending into a U-shape, pulling and reeling, pulling and reeling, forearms straining. Then suddenly an arc of silver flashed just beneath the deep blue surface and we could see it: a big amberjack.
The mate hooked the fish with the gaff and lifted it to the deck. Mendes needed both hands to raise the whopper over his head for pictures, then he slid it into the well where it lay on the ice looking round and monstrous beside the spiny sea bass. Mendes collapsed on a bench and rubbed his aching shoulders, smile beaming. "That was awesome," he said.
And that kicked open the floodgates. Lata hauled one in, then McMahon, then Bacon, with Frank Stitt and Josh Woodruff fast on their heels. We had long since reached our black sea bass limit, but a bunch of vermilion snapper and a few other strays — a rudderfish, a gag grouper — popped up every now and again, too. In the space of two hours the well went from sadly bare to brimming with gleaming silver fish. We pulled in the lines and started the long ride back to shore.
When you go out on a boat with a bunch of chefs, you learn a lot of things. Like ten menu terms sure to trigger a DHEC inspection (avoid "aioli" at all costs). Or that if you eat a banana and drink a bunch of Sprite at the same time you'll puke almost instantly. These are things I didn't know.
You hear a lot of fish talk, too. A few years ago, I interviewed several Charleston chefs about fresh local fish, and there was still an air of wonderment about the newly available bounty — how fresh and beautiful it was, how it was changing the way they thought about ingredients.
Out on the Teaser 2, I got a glimpse of the next phase of the evolution. The talk was all about whole fish, heads-on shrimp, and blue crab in the shell. For years, Frank Lee said resignedly, he'd tried selling whole crabs, but local diners just wouldn't order them. But now he's hopeful things are starting to change. Stitt and Lata got deep into the prospects of using fish collars and salvaging every last scrap of meat off the bones. "It could be like charcuterie," someone mused. "But with whole fish instead of whole hogs." Sparks were catching, ideas igniting.
Once their feet hit the dock, two of the Franks — McMahon and Lee — went to work at the cleaning table, hoisting the massive amberjacks and carving them into thick filets with long thrusts of their knives. Brock and Mendes shoveled sea bass and vermilion snapper by the handful into big green baskets. I did my part by helping dispose of the remaining beer.
The final tally included 250 pounds of amberjack, 180 of black sea bass, and a respectable load of snapper, too. The Local Catch guests were in for a treat.
The next evening we reconvened at the Charleston Harbor Resort's Lookout Pavilion, where the chefs had been working all afternoon to transform that bounty into small plate-sized concoctions.
Frank Stitt had brought along a load of chanterelles from Birmingham, where, thanks to the rain, mushrooms had "just popped up like crazy." He transformed them into a splendid conserva, poaching them in a blend of olive oil, spices, lemon zest, and sherry vinegar, and it went just right alongside a little triangle of grilled amberjack, the slightly smoky fish complemented by earthy mushrooms and a sharp tinge from the acids and herbs.
George Mendes took a simple approach, too, placing two pieces of wood-grilled sea bass beside two delicious spoonfuls of sauce — one a bright orange romesco, the other a vivid green emulsion of parsley, cilantro, and olive oil — plus a zesting of lime over the top.
Across the Pavilion, Frank Lee served his grilled amberjack in a decidedly local fashion: over a succotash of butter beans, okra, corn, and pepper relish. "We really take these beans for granted here," Lee told me, noting that once you get up away from the coast you just don't find the same kind of fresh beans and peas — Sea Island reds, purple capes, crowders — that are such a staple in the Lowcountry. Their firm, meaty texture combined with the thickening heft of okra and the pop of the pepper relish was a fine match for the amberjack.
Hot oil was bubbling as well, and both Mike Lata and Drew Hedlund showcased the simple virtues of frying. Lata's "fritto misto" featured okra and snapper rolled in a light batter and fried until delicate and crisp. He served it with a sprinkle of sea salt in little paper cones made from old FIG wine lists. Hedlund's fish and chips took a sturdier approach, the batter thicker and darker in color but equally delicious, spun somehow around the fish in what appeared to be long, winding threads that made a crisp, deep brown crust.
Our catch was augmented by local clams from David Belanger (a.k.a. Clammer Dave) and shrimp from Captain Tommy Edwards. Jeremiah Bacon grilled Edwards' shrimp, sliced it into chunks, and served it with a sort of potato salad with lady peas and mint, a single lightly battered and fried shrimp placed over the top.
The serving station for Husk stood empty and bare at the start of the event, but about half an hour in there was a whoop and a holler. In a roiling cloud of steam, Sean Brock and a helper made their way through the wine-sipping crowd bearing a massive metal basket. They muscled it upwards, pouring pound after pound of shrimp, clams, potatoes, and corn onto the plastic-covered table tops. Mixed throughout, as if to put Chef Lee's warning to the test, were whole blue crabs in the shell.
The guests loaded up their plates with shrimp and corn and taters, but they eyed those crabs warily, probably wondering, like me, how one might, standing up, eat a whole crab without staining one's "casual summer chic" garb. The answer is you just dig in, and Brock went to work doing what he does as well as anyone: evangelizing food.
"You aren't going to believe these," he told a group of skeptical diners. "They're amazing." He punctuated it with his infectious cackle of delight, a loud, rolling laugh that served to underscore the wonderfulness of it all. Brock's crew picked up a few crabs and cracked them down the middle, exposing the tender white meat. One diner after another stepped up and grabbed a shell. Crab picking commenced.
Brock's Lowcountry Boil had the most wow factor, but I was even more impressed by McMahon's ceviche of black sea bass. He tossed thin strips of fish in a huge bowl with lime juice and hot pepper just minutes before serving, then mixed them with halved cherry tomatoes, okra, celery, and sweet potato. "Get a little of everything in one bite," he advised. "Especially the sweet potato." I was skeptical of those big orange chunks, but they turned out to be the perfect base for the interplaying layers of texture and flavor — fiery, tangy, cool, smooth, creamy, and sweet. Beneath it all shone the rich, tender fish that was swimming in the Atlantic just the day before.
Looking back on the whole event, I had to ask whether it really made a difference that we caught the fish with our own hands. In truth, I concluded, it didn't. Yes, the fish was exceptionally fresh and delicious, but we could have gotten the same thing with a lot less effort by buying it from local purveyors like Marhefka.
But, still, it was a beautiful and thrilling experience. As McMahon put it, "It was an epic day." Not because of any mystical revelations or a metaphysical reconnection. We had no Hemingwayesque Old Man and the Sea moments, no mawkish talk of the circle of life or any such crap.
Instead, we all seemed to come away with two distinct but related feelings. The first was one of fellowship and camaraderie. Reflecting on the two days, each chef immediately touched upon the same theme: the rare chance to get together with their peers and just hang out. "For me, yesterday was a great opportunity for chefs," McMahon told me at the dinner. "All these personalities out on the boat catching fish, drinking beer, and having a good time."
Frank Stitt agreed. "Usually [festival] events bring you together at the last minute," he said. "You do your thing and get out. It's a splurge to be able to fish together, drink beer together, and just be together."
The other shared reaction was a reinforced sense of place, one that started before we even stepped on the boat. "How come we don't do this more often?" Brock had asked as we waited on the dock in the still-dim dawn. I knew exactly what he meant. The ocean and the beaches are always here; we could, in theory, go out fishing almost anytime. We just needed a little nudge to make it happen.
That sense of place includes not just pristine ingredients but the whole local dining scene, as the visiting chefs reminded us. "Charleston has become the premier city of the South for restaurants and food," Frank Stitt told me, saying he's amazed by the new restaurants that have opened here in just the past few years, calling out Two Boroughs Larder, Butcher & Bee, and Bull Street Gourmet & Market as particular highlights.
"The Charleston Wine + Food Festival has really grown into this wonderful event," he added, "and I've been coming since the beginning." He has a simple explanation for its success: "Keeping it real and local."
The Local Catch dinner was a perfect embodiment of that. "It was my crazy idea," Angel Postell said as we chatted under the oaks at the Lookout Pavilion. "Instead of just a single night event, we wanted to do something all weekend on Labor Day to kick off the festival. We wanted to do it on the water, and we wanted to showcase local seafood — Dave, Mark, and Tommy Edwards."
It's a sign that the festival is really starting to hit its groove. It's one thing to fly in a bunch of celebrity chefs and stage a big-ticket event with flash and glitter. It's another to create a four-day gathering that captures the essence of a particular place and the food it eats. Each year, it seems, the festival moves closer and closer to that goal.
"We want to be Charleston in everything we do," Postell says. "Be really homegrown."
Last year they added the Soul Food Shuffle, which takes participants on a tour of Charleston's iconic soul food joints. This year welcomes the first Charleston Brew Hops, which gives a similar treatment to our new crop of local breweries. More and more events have moved beyond the central Marion Square location, and there are regular salutes to Charleston institutions like Bowens Island and Martha Lou's Kitchen. At the same time, an ever-more impressive roster of big-name chefs — not just TV personalities, but folks who actually work the line at some of the country's most respected restaurants — are coming down to see what all the fuss is about.
As the evening wound down, I stepped away from the pavilion and looked out across the harbor, watching the fireworks from the RiverDogs game bursting red and blue in the night sky over the peninsula. A generous breeze rippled in off the water, and a touch of wood smoke and steamed shellfish still hung in the air. Where else on the planet could you experience such an event?
I think Frank McMahon put it best as he served up one last plate of sea bass ceviche: "It's such a great place to live and enjoy. We're blessed."