The many, many events of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival can seem daunting and even exhausting, mostly due to the sheer number of dinners, tastings, book signings, and parties. Despite the hedonistic way festival guests descend on Charleston annually, the most refreshing thing about the fest is that no matter how big it gets it never feels like the food itself is fetishized. The best events are the ones that pay homage to the authenticity of Southern cuisine by celebrating a chef, farmer, or curator who has flown under the radar for too long and deserves a world of praise.
This was most evident at the SFA Dockside Supper honoring Angie Bellinger of James Island's Workmen’s Cafe.
Preceding the dinner was a short film by Southern Foodways Alliance documenting Bellinger’s roots cooking alongside her mother. If you have not yet seen the video, do yourself a favor and watch it. Bellinger's mom was a badass.
After understanding where Bellinger gets her inspiration and how she’s able to make everyday food into something extraordinary, the collective dining room was salivating. In addition to the promise of Miss Bellinger’s highly anticipated mac and cheese, five other chefs had prepared dishes to be served family style to the full tables at the Cotton Dock.
Chris Stewart of the Glass Onion served our table’s favorite dishes of the evening: blue crab casserole, stewed okra and tomatoes, and banana pudding. The one surefire miss was that I didn’t seek him out and beg him for the recipe for that blue crab casserole. It was such a perfectly textured casserole with the right amount of crust on the top and the equivalent to what I approximate was 3 pounds of lump crab meat per dish — a superb way to start the evening.
Pastry Chef Kaley Laird, in town to showcase her restaurant Rhubarb in Ashevile, N.C., prepared buttermilk cornbread and upside down apple pie with rosemary honey pecans. While I am not as familiar with Chef Laird’s cuisine, clearly her passion lies in Southern-inspired baking. The apple pie literally turns the classic upside down incorporating the two elements of everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving desserts into one beautiful dish, thoughtfully updated for the springtime with a hint of rosemary.
I was very excited to see that Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Ga. was preparing food as well. The Grey stands as one of the best restaurants in Savannah and was easily the best meal I had when I last visited our sister city down the coast. Bailey prepared some smoky collard greens that had a terrific al dente texture to complement the other first courses.
Scott Crawford, Raleigh’s four-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for “Best Chef: Southeast,” prepared the hotly anticipated red rice and fried chicken. The red rice was both sweet and savory, possessing a very appealing bright rich red color and a toothsome bite. Thankfully, the fried chicken was all drumsticks so there was zero judgement when patrons in dresses, heels, and suits all picked up their massive chicken legs and dove in. Juicy and succulent, the man knows how to fry some bird.
The addition of a sole Northerner to the list of Southern chefs was exciting and I couldn’t wait to try Robert Newton’s roasted pig tails and lima beans. Chef Newton may be based out of Brooklyn, but those limas were prepared by someone with the heart of a Southerner. The beans had the perfect amount of salt and bite and I found myself digging back into the bowl twice.
Of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete without Angie Bellinger’s mac and cheese. Her version of the classic Southern staple is more casserole-adjacent with an eggy, cheesy base. By the time the dish finally made its way to our end of the table, there were only about two spoonfuls left in the massive dish. Clearly, everyone was wild about Angie.
Although we are more than a decade into the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, it is so comforting to see that we still recognize how important the food culture is in our own town. Yes, we bring in chefs from all over the country to showcase their specialties but the guests of honor are almost always the locals. We have never needed to adopt the cliché of “going back to our roots” because we’ve never abandoned our roots. Charleston knows that it’s the hottest food town in the country right now and we have never been more poised to show off the talent of people like Angie who have made us who we are. Bravo, Miss Bellinger.