Fresh off a whirlwind tour of east Asia and South America, the chain-smoking enigma that is Anthony Bourdain roared into town last weekend with his No Reservations crew for a stateside shoot featuring Lowcountry cuisine.
Since his 2000 publication of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a searing memoir that gave a frank look at the back of the house, Bourdain left the line at Les Halles in New York to become a global wanderer, touring the back roads of Uzbekistan and Ghana and the main streets of Seattle and Vegas. Along the way, he's created a compelling travel show that uses food as a side dish to further illuminate the soul of the people he's mingling with, whether they're chefs in Portland eating pizza or bushmen in Namibia eating warthog brains.
He is currently filming the next season of No Reservations, which airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on the Travel Channel, and expects the Charleston segment to appear in September.
His itinerary was packed with the most interesting of what Charleston and its environs have to offer. He trekked from McClellanville to Edisto seeking out soul food at Jestine's Kitchen, the smoky barbecue of Bub Sweatman, the comfort food of Hominy Grill, a Middleton Place fox hunt (complete with English saddle), and a Civil War reenactment, where he proudly fought for the home team in full regalia.
"I fired on the 87th New York Highlanders with pride," he said, and there he ate a traditional period meal -- ham, sweet potatoes, beans with salt pork, grits, and coffee -- "really good coffee."
Cookbook authors and boiled peanut purveyors Matt and Ted Lee will appear in the Edisto Island segment.
"We visited a longtime friend and mentor, Samuel VanNorte, who taught me and Ted how to fix cars when we worked in his auto repair shop back in high school and college," said Matt. "He has a beautiful spot on a creek that made the perfect location for demonstrating a proper oyster roast -- and he had the cinder blocks, sheet of rusty steel, and wood fire for roasting them right (and the wet burlap, too)."
Bourdain, the man who started his culinary journey when he ate his first oyster in France as a child, was impressed by the local warm water bivalves. "I like that they come in clumps," he said, referring to the clusters of oysters that demand a willingness to pick your way through a mess of sharp edges and smelly mud.
In McClellanville, the crew stopped at the local favorite T. W. Graham's and were planning to visit Gullah Grub on St. Helena Island after the fox hunt at Middleton Place on Monday. Gullah Grub is owned by Bubba Green, the son of Bill Green (not the lawyer), who works at Middleton Place, where he tends the 60 hounds and coordinates the drag hunts. At St. Helena, Bourdain will surely be able to tap into the rich African history of the Gullah people. He was already noticing distinct similarities to Ghana, where he had recently visited. "There's a strangely familiar sense to the spice profiles," he said.
He also found time to hang out at Big John's Tavern, mingling with local chefs afterhours, as he does in most of the cities he visits. "I have become an expert on local dive bars," Bourdain told us through puffs of his Marlboro Red. "There's an unvarying pattern. It's true, I end up sitting around with all the local chefs getting drunk and talking about the local food scene."
It was at Big John's that he got some suggestions on where to dine. He and his crew ended up eating, off camera, at FIG and Cru Café. He praised both for their toned-down style and simple mélange of ingredients, "Sometimes it's not what you do to the food -- it's what you don't do."
He seemed particularly taken with Mike Lata's fresh, seasonal fare. "You gotta love it when chefs are slipping beef cheeks into raviolis," he said.
According to Bourdain, because of their inventive nature, such offerings suggest a maturation of the city's cuisine, showcasing the ability of a capable market to financially support experimentation.
That's good news coming from a man like Anthony Bourdain. Having trotted the globe on behalf of the Travel Channel, eating his way through countless locales, he picks apart a city's food with the measured insight of a weathered sage. His philosophic opining traverses the world, weaving a connecting thread between such disparate subjects as Mandarin Chinese, Brazilian feijoada, Ghanaian spices, and the Lowcountry.
His one negative observation, when pressed, boiled down to this: "You guys love your 'Fry-o-lators.'"
Stay tuned to ravel.discovery.com for an updated guide to the next season of No Reservations.