Charleston is in for a rare and too-long-delayed treat. "There have been a lot of good things that have happened since I left," says chef Digby Stridiron. "It's a good time to come together to celebrate."
There were already whispers of scrumptious collaborations planned between Charleston chef Benjamin "BJ" Dennis and St. Croix's Stridiron when the latter's unexpected break with Parcel 32 before its opening last year left fans of the two chefs salivating, and saw Stridiron flying back south.
Now, the two chefs are popping up in Charleston on their own terms, co-creating a one-night island-themed dinner at Butcher & Bee that promises to intermingle Island, West African, West Indian, and Gullah flavors in a tasteful exploration of foods of the African diaspora and colonization.
Roti, baras, geera pork, peanut curry, coconut cornbread — coconut everything — clams, shrimp, local hogs ... Stridiron even mentions spearfishing in Charleston and cooking up his catch for the night.
"There's going to be some hands-on eating too; it's not going to be all this fork and knife stuff," says Dennis. "Nothing pretentious. Flavors you've not seen on the scene in Charleston."
This is the first time the pair will collaborate in Charleston, and quite honestly, it's a surprise, albeit a very pleasant one, that they have the time.
I met Dennis at his apartment late on a Sunday morning, and if not for the meeting, he likely would have savored a few extra hours of sleep. It had been a long Saturday night of catering. A Charleston native educated at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, Dennis was one of the early chefs at Butcher & Bee's original location before branching off into his private catering business — not for lack of public hunger for a restaurant from him, though.
"I do the pop-ups to give the city a little taste because people are looking for this restaurant from me," he says. "This is a little taste, a little teaser."
Not unlike the Gullah flavors that Dennis is known for and has even served as an ambassador for, the point is to draw people in, let them taste history, and leave them wanting a bit more.
"It's creating a study of culture through food. When you study the culture of Gullah it's deep, it's layered in spices and sauces..." Dennis smiles. "Spice that makes your mouth water. That's what good spice does — makes you salivate and want to go back for more."
Just a few days later, Dennis would be on a plane to the Bahamas, meeting up with Stridiron for a conference there before the two jet back to Charleston for their Butcher & Bee takeover.
When I caught Stridiron on the phone — in between spearfishing trips, heading two restaurants, getting ready to launch another, and adopting a Rottweiler mix named Kiwi — he had just missed his island hopper plane to meet Dennis and was waiting on the next one. These friends go way back, and hearing the two of them talk about cooking across nations together, Charleston and the U.S. Virgin Islands suddenly seem so close.
For Stridiron though, nothing can quite compare to the Islands. In the wake of what had looked like a promising career move at Parcel 32, he took an eye-opening getaway to Jamaica: "What I realized is that in life you can't let people dictate what your next move is going to be or what is important to you," he says. "Life's not about what you want sometimes, but about knowing what you don't want and being able to not accept that."
"I realized in that moment, I'm a West Indian man, so I'm not supposed to fit in with what everyone else does," he says. "When I was in Charleston, or when I was in the Air Force, all those years when I was thinking, 'why am I different from everyone else here?' It's because I am! I'm born something different. My mentality is different. The way I talk is different. When I was in Jamaica it was just like, 'Yo, this is my people.' I was catching a vibe."
Then the accolades and restaurant deals started rolling in: Caribbean Journal's 2018 Caribbean Chef of the Year, first place in Local Fare at Taste of St. Croix, profiles in the Wall Street Journal and Bon Appetit, a partnership with Mutiny Vodka, "and then Food + Wine names my restaurant [Braata] the heart of Caribbean cooking after — let's be straight up — I was fired. And it wasn't redemption at all because there wasn't anything to seek redemption for. It was just all celebration."
That celebration vibe is exactly the culinary picture Dennis and Stridiron hope to paint when they take over the kitchen of Butcher & Bee this Thursday at 6 p.m. Stridiron is curating a playlist and hoping for spearfishing; Dennis is planning James Island farm trips to pick produce and mulling over the many ways to use pepper. Diners will eat with their hands, taste a peanut sauce's "unctuous flavor on your lips" (as Dennis puts it), and — most of all — come together around foods with histories as layered as their spice profiles. This islander style may be far from the white napkins of King Street, but it's just as rich.
"At that moment when I was honest with myself," says Stridiron of his realization, "I'm not going to straighten a tie or put a chef hat on for anybody just to make somebody feel comfortable. It's too hot for that here anyway! I put on a T-shirt and an apron. If you cook good food, people will come."