It was 20 years ago that Anthony Bourdain advised us not to order the fish on a Monday. Few have done more to expose the culinary underbelly, and most of us still don't think about all those fingers fondling our food or the dirt where it grew before entering our mouths. Why would you want to?
Terroir. Or often merroir when dining in Charleston.
"I remember the first time I tasted a raw oyster straight from the water." Jared Hulteen of Barrier Island Oyster Co. paints a Bourdainian picture. "We pulled up on to a remote shoreline in February, culled a few singles straight from the bank, shucked them and ate them right there ... The experience of eating a raw oyster from South Carolina intimately connects you to the waterways that so uniquely define Lowcountry life. The earthiness of the marsh, the punch of salt, the delicate texture of the oyster itself are distinct attributes that make our local oysters stand out."
Hulteen is one of hundreds of purveyors operating in the Charleston area aiming to get the tastiest (and most profitable) food to your table. We decided to embark on our own adventure into the underbelly of Charleston's culinary ecosystem to see how an oyster — or a chicken wing, strawberry, or egg — gets from the farm into your mouth.
- Ruta Smith
- Chef Jacques Larson has fresh fish delivered daily to his restaurants
Let's start with you. You enjoy your Sea Cloud oysters on the half shell at The Obstinate Daughter, which means someone on Jacques Larson's team there needs to order more, and because we're lucky here in Charleston there's only one more step between you and more mollusks: Hulteen and his crew farming oysters out near Seabrook. Or maybe you're enjoying your cauliflower wings at Basic Kitchen and it's GrowFood Carolina and a local farm delivering. If you're ordering the wings at Home Team BBQ, a big-fish distributor like Sysco probably shipped those in, maybe through Columbia. The concept is simple: you eat and they bring in more. The logistics, on the other hand, can be a maze.
It was only a few hours before Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the mandatory evacuation from Hurricane Florence last fall, but Home Team BBQ needed more wings.
"During the hurricane, everything was up in the air," says Home Team BBQ director of culinary operations, Jonathan Banta. "Talking with Sysco, they didn't know if they could get trucks from Columbia to Charleston. Company-wide, we had to make a decision. We made the call to bring in a truck and a couple hours later the governor made the decision to call for mandatory evacuation. There was no turning the truck around. Thank God we were only closed a couple of days and thank God we didn't lose power so that product was still good enough to cook. If we had lost power ... we had already rolled the dice."
For restaurants, ordering the right food and supplies to please wave after wave of customers is a constant and risky game.
"Buying practices are paramount to a restaurant's success," says Larson, executive chef at The Obstinate Daughter and Wild Olive, who moved here from Iowa in 1996 and helped open Peninsula Grill. He jokes that his days organizing refrigerators gave him an eye for re-ordering supplies. Over the past two decades, he's learned some things: "You can't prep it if you don't have it," if you're up 50 percent this week from last year don't get too excited, SEWE weekend kicks off the beginning of the restaurant race in Charleston, and when the Cooper River Bridge Run is coming you order all the pasta you can get.
- Home Team BBQ director of culinary operations Jonathan Banta
At Home Team, Banta has been in the scene almost as long and has developed a keen intuition about things like rum and chicken wings, the restaurant's biggest sellers.
"It's an educated guess to what kind of numbers to expect," says Banta. He categorizes order sheets by poultry, pork, beef, dry goods, and produce and calculates quantities based on things like spring break, impending hurricanes, SEWE, Easter, and basketball games. We talked just before the Cooper River Bridge Run weekend, when NCAA finals were also looming, and Banta was hoping they had enough wood and cheerful chefs.
"In the restaurant industry you're always dealing with two variables and they're always changing: product (food) and people. You might have one of the best line cooks of all time but they've had something really personal going on with them and completely destroy something that you're doing ... Or we're dealing with extra-large chicken wings that need to be in the smoker two hours longer than usual. You just learn to roll with it," he says.
- Banta says Home Team BBQ's top orders are rum and wings
For the most part, this world is invisible to us diners. If you've been to a Home Team location on an NBA playoff day, you might have an idea of just how many chicken wings the smoker can turn out. In reality, that perspective is kind of like viewing Steph Curry from the year 2008. There's a helluva lot more to be seen.
"In 2018, between all four Home Team BBQs we sold over 1.2 million chicken wings," says Banta. "That's up a couple hundred thousand from when I started with the restaurant."
Home Team sources locally when possible, but when buying chicken wings in the millions, restaurants have to look to big producers. This is where the likes of Sysco comes in, bringing in supplies by the ton via a cross-country 18-wheeler.
- Ruta Smith
- GrowFood’s Jessica Diaz helped GrowFood expand from five partners to around 80
On the flipside are local distributors like Barrier Island Oyster Co., GrowFood Carolina, and "Clammer Dave" Belanger, who offer same or next-day delivery and are so close they might bump into you at a farmers market or The Royal American. "From the ocean to you in the same day," is Clammer Dave's guarantee.
"Many chefs in Charleston do an outstanding job of supporting our farmers, and I only see that growing," says Jessica Diaz, who helped GrowFood expand from five farm partners in 2011 to around 80 this year. "They are making a huge difference, not only for farmers as businesses but for the rural economy of our state. A huge percent of the money local farms make stays within that local economy. The chefs that get it really get it."
Ingredients from these local producers are limited in supply and sold on a first come, first served basis. That makes a restaurant's relationship with people like Clammer Dave pivotal, especially in a place like Charleston where eating oysters and barbecue are basically contact sports.
"Having a great stone claw crab connection in town is priceless," says Larson. "It's about who's going to get the biggest, the freshest, and the fastest." Though, "buying good stuff is not cheap."
- Ruta Smith
- Chef Jill Matthias changes her Chez Nous menu daily
For chefs like Jill Matthias of Chez Nous, where the menu is small and changes daily, every day is like Christmas for food deliveries: crates of local strawberries in spring, bags of shrimp packed in ice, and sometimes a cooler you can stick your hand into and come out with a cold fish. Most days she orders in the evening, sometimes around 9 p.m. Sometimes it's the morning-of. "That's the luxury of being able to change the menu," she says. "Now and then it would be nice to not be constantly thinking of something [to order]. But I really do love it. There isn't a downside to me because it keeps it interesting."
Those of us on the fork end of her order sheets should be grateful. Over-order and the restaurant suffers, not to mention the waste of food; under-order and that trout with sorrel sauce becomes a tease on the menu. It's like grocery shopping for unpredictable houseguests.
So, should you buy the fish on Monday? Go ahead.
"In Charleston we're truly fortunate," says Larson. "It's likely Mondays are a good day to order fish at our restaurants because the weekends were so damn busy that we can't cut fish fast enough. We also have a local fishmonger that delivers seven days a week. It's without a doubt a benefit of living in Charleston. In other places it's like, 'What do you mean I can't place this fish order after 4 o'clock?'"