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Chef Forrest Parker: Louis Osteen taught me the language of food, these are my favorite flavor memories

From Pimento Cheese to Steak and Onion Rings

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We're born into a language of flavor. Just like object symbols in our dreams, our taste memory returns us to moments of loss, joy, desolation, infancy. It's said that musical prodigies think in terms of music, that when composing they "see" the notes. Louis Osteen thought and spoke in a language of flavor very much his own. He cooked from a canon of taste close to home, then elevated the ingredients and refined the execution. I never saw him deliberate or vacillate; there were either proper or lesser methods of execution. He was just a matter of fact; he liked your suggestion or you were wrong. His strong opinions, their flavors and the lingua franca we shared in the kitchen are what I remember most.

Bread

It's so rare these days, but Louis understood the fundamental need for a dedicated pastry chef. He and Marlene hired Deanie Cooper and sent her to bread baking school in San Francisco. When she returned to Charleston, her wild fermented bread was so amazing, the Osteens bought a handmade, $40,000 (and this was in 1997) eight deck French steam injection oven. On its way across the Atlantic, the boat sank and the oven ended up somewhere at the bottom of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Then, when the second oven arrived months after we opened, it didn't fit through the door. Louis agreed to cut a hole in the side of the building big enough to accommodate it. That's how important it was to him; bread wasn't an afterthought or something to be opened up out of a box, it was an all out necessity.

Louis' Pimento Cheese

People still speak of Louis' pimento cheese with reverence and awe. He created an apotheosis, elevating a lesser dish by deconstructing, then amplifying the components. We used Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon because it was the highest fat content cheddar in the world. There was no pimento cheeseburger. There were no pimento cheese grits. There was Pate of the South. It was served at the bar or upon special request. It had big shards of Deanie's seeded lavosh sticking out of it like Basquiat had framed the taste memory to your soul.

Louis' Crab and Lobster Cakes, Whole Grain Mustard Sauce

Chef Forrest Parker teaching tour guests at Bistro a Vin - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Chef Forrest Parker teaching tour guests at Bistro a Vin

I know. Throw a rock in this town and you'll hit at least six iterations of a "legendary" crab cake. But Louis' really were. We used Eddie Gordon's pristine lump crab out of McClellanville. We butter poached lobster. We whipped egg whites into stiff peaks, then folded in the crab, mayonnaise, and spices. We rolled them in soft breadcrumbs from pulsed-down loaves of crustless Sunbeam bread. God help you if you hammered one of those cakes — there was a whole lot of love there. The sauce was a simple affair of reduced brandy, cream, mustard, and butter, but the mustard was Pommery and the butter European. Anything to make it marginally better. Eddie Gordon closed up shop as the last S.C. picking house in 2003. You may recreate the recipe at home, but shy of steaming and picking your own crab you will never, ever taste these crab cakes as they were in 1998.

Preserved Duck, Creamy Grits, and Red Eye Gravy

We made our own blend of pate d'epices, rubbed, cured, and pressed the duck legs for two days before cooking them slowly in their own fat. For service, it was pulled (no skin, no tendons). We made a rich reduction of onions caramelized into pulp with fat ribbons of country ham and straight black coffee. All this was reduced to a viscosity that would coat a spoon, then strained. On the pickup, the pulled confit was crisped in a skillet, deglazed with the red eye reduction and mounted with butter. True to the fundamental tenets of cuisine, this dish was almost too simple to look at‚ — pulled duck in a puddle of brown goo on some creamy fluffy grits. But the appearance belied the dish's long and dark, deep, rich flavor. If you don't like that then GFY; I'm sorry I can't help you.

Properly Grilled New York Strip Steak, Onion Rings, Clemson Blue Cheese Sauce

Chef seemed to eat one of these almost every night. Two decades later, I just can't ever order steak in a restaurant — he ruined it for me and nothing else has ever measured up. Anywhere.

Our steaks were simple, upper choice black angus. What set them apart was our grill, The Beast. In order to get a Certificate of Occupancy from the fire department and open for business, he installed one of those ubiquitous hum drum gas things. Then as soon as he got the all clear, sent the gas one back and installed a big, heavy black Montague charcoal grill with cast iron grates. It's a different thing learning how to grill on live charcoal. The rhythm of starting the fire right after family meal, feeding the fire using expensive hardwood lump charcoal (never ever briquettes), cooking directly on the hot spot to get the sear and char, then off the heat to bring it to temp without hearing, "Goddammit, Gump, you're Vulcanizing my supper!"

Louis had us caramelize shallots, add thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns, then deglaze with brandy, reduce, add cream, chunks of Clemson blue cheese, veal demi glace, reduce, strain and season the sauce. This silky taupe kimono of umami napped across the steak; a languid little puddle of love staining the pristine, crisp, white china. He then gilded the steak with a filigree of Clemson blue, chives, and finely minced shallots — blue on blue. He taught me how to build treasures of flavor layering ingredients like this.

Those onion rings. Big thick delicious Vidalia onion rings. In beer batter. Super crispy and light. Sprinkled with sea salt while still hot. So easy, yet so damn delicious. The saying goes, "Cook with the wine you're serving with the dish." Given that it was Louis you'd think that'd be Amstel, but that was for Louis, so we used ice cold, beechwood aged Budweisers.

Louis understood with fervent certainty that luxury was an absolute necessity. That meant workable health care benefits and consistently delicious family meal for his team, long before they became de rigeur. It meant Riedel crystal to match the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence wine list and fine Villeroy & Boch china as a canvas to plate on. In the kitchen, it meant a concentric burner French flat top stove (that I'm told may have ended up in the kitchen at FIG) and heavy, traditional French blue steel cast iron sauté pans. It meant an award winning interior by designer Adam Tihany and original artwork by Jonathan Green and Sam Doyle's life-size portrait of Dr. Buzzard behind the bar.

On Sunday, Louis may have shuffled off this mortal coil, but he's hardly left us. Thanks in part to Marion Sullivan, many of his recipes and narratives are preserved. Find his book and cook from it — my guess is he'll still be opining from the sidelines, Amstel at the ready.

Twenty-one years on, I still hear him. I am haunted by those flavors.

Chef Forrest Parker had the pleasure of learning from two Charleston greats: Louis Osteen and Frank Lee. He works closely with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, is a 2016 S.C. Chef Ambassador and founder/Chief Culinary Evangelist of the Undiscovered Charleston walking tour and tasting of Charleston food history.

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