If you have yet to hear of chef Jeremiah Bacon, it won't be long before you see his name everywhere. Soon, he'll be getting regional nods for the James Beard Awards in New York. The glossy magazines that you only really read in waiting rooms will run colorful spreads accentuating his strikingly good looks and perhaps his choice of linens. And when his new venue, the Macintosh, opens for business this week, his food will be the talk of this food-crazed town.
The Macintosh is finally ready. Kitchen stocked, glasses shined, DHEC and city officials gone, leaving only seals of approval. It's what every opening restaurant goes through, but this one's different. There are interesting elements, like the 18th-century wooden doors and reclaimed tongue-and-groove flooring that have been reconditioned into tables. The wildly successful Cocktail Club upstairs, also run by Steve Palmer and his Indigo Group, stands ready to profit from an influx of eager diners. Even the initial menu ideas bring twists, like housemade sausages, lamb-neck ravioli, and grilled deckle, which is that tender "cap" of meat that you find ringing the outside of a ribeye steak. But it all looked exactly as expected until Jeremiah Bacon showed me his kitchen. Then things got interesting.
The provisions don't waver far from any other professional kitchen. There are stoves, ovens, sinks, knives, pots and pans gleaming from their new perches — the things you find in any restaurant. But Bacon's workspace surrounds a functional island, the cooks face each other, and he purposely designed it to thwart the top-down, buttoned-up flow of strictly separated functions that prevails on the traditional kitchen "line." This is a team operation intended to maximize efficient communications. He describes it as akin to "playing in a band ... Like when one guy plays it a certain way, and another nods, and you nod, and you all know that you've got it."
To understand Bacon, you have to understand his demeanor and circuitous path to success. He grew up on Kiawah in the 1980s, when "it had a wooden bridge and like four kids in the whole place." Summer days were spent, he says, "Puttering around in a jon boat, catching buckets of shrimp." As much as anything else, Jeremiah Bacon is a son of the Lowcountry, with pluff mud between his toes and a story authentic enough to be told in the pages of a Conroy novel. He understands the kitchen as a native South Carolinian, but he honed his talents elsewhere and brings a resumé to the plate that no other chef in Charleston can even begin to match.
He wasn't going to be a chef; he didn't come from a family of chefs or even people who thought pursuing such a vocation to be a good idea. He graduated from Bishop England High School and then the College of Charleston, but he liked food, itched to roam, and soon found himself tending bar in London. Eight months later he was sure he wanted to be a chef, so he traveled Europe and pondered staying there forever before returning stateside to the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of culinary schools. From there, Bacon's trail leads through some of the most revered kitchens in New York, and he has worked under some of the best, including Eric Ripert at the acclaimed Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller at Per Se, which he helped to open in 2004.
Ten years removed from the Lowcountry, Bacon returned to Charleston to head the kitchen at Carolina's — but only for the water. "The water brought me back," he says. "I used to look out over the Hudson River from my apartment in New York and jog over the bridges looking down at that big, wide river, and it was absolutely beautiful, but I couldn't swim in it. I couldn't fish in it." When you're a Lowcountry boy who grew up in a jon boat, those things count, even if those from farther inland could never understand. He adds, "Even though at one point in my life I said I'd never return, coming back to Charleston was just as important for me as going away."
The Macintosh, named for an old alley that once meandered alongside the building, presumably elevates Bacon to one of the premier chefs of Charleston. His purview as executive chef of the Indigo Group now extends over an array of specialties: sushi at O-Ku, the bar at Cocktail Club, Oak Steakhouse (which has improved significantly under his guidance since he moved over from Carolina's), and now this original venue — his vision, his food, his chance to finally show his hometown why he became a chef and just how good he is.
Of course, he won't tell you that. If chefs have a stereotype, Bacon seems born of the opposite pole. His degree from CofC is in philosophy. He rarely raises his voice. I've yet to detect a single twinge of ego, and so his fancy new kitchen makes perfect sense, if for no other reason than to provide a tangible representation of Bacon's mental and professional maturity. Nothing is out of place, and it's an intellectual rather than physical practice.
"My guys don't always understand yet ... how I want the plates stacked a certain way over there, and small things the same way each time, but I learned that discipline working at Le Bernardin," he explains. "And when you have discipline and take those things out of the picture, you can really focus on the food, the matter at hand."
But within that defined structure, he expects his team to provide input. "You go a lot of places, and it's like, 'We do it this way, so you can do it or get out,' but when we get in a great product, I want us to be technique driven ... that kind of focus takes a team."
Hence, the kitchen island, where all the cooks work together, centered on a grill, fish station, fryer, and sauté. The cold side stands ready to assist, the whole operation flowing to an open window through which the plates will hit the waiting tables.
The same collaboration extends into the daily menu creation, with team members actively developing the night's offerings. "We operated this way at Per Se," Bacon reveals. "Sometimes we wouldn't have our specials really nailed down until five minutes before service, but I became comfortable with that."
Thomas Keller not only encouraged but demanded that his chefs provide input into the menu during grueling planning sessions every day. "'What are you going to do with this? [Keller] would say,'" recalls Bacon. "I remember leaving at night thinking, 'I just worked 12 hours, and I'm already in the weeds for tomorrow.'"
To bring such a level of craft to Charleston, he has tapped Chris Delaney, long-time cook and collaborator of Sean Brock at McCrady's, and Jacob Huder, who has earned Bacon's trust working alongside him for the last few years.
With this kind of experience and creative focus, one might expect an elaborate menu at the Macintosh, brimming with the latest trends and fashion, but Bacon considers his approach timeless. In keeping with his quiet demeanor, the prototypical menu speaks simply and softly but with considerable soul. A shrimp sauté promises them head-on, with spicy Szechuan peppercorns and a "spiked broth." Housemade bratwurst gets a "melted-cabbage-mustard emulsion and elderflower." A simple triggerfish is plated with "fingerling potato confit, Dave's clams, and arugula pudding sauce."
These dishes are not overwrought in nature, perhaps because, for Bacon, there is nothing to prove. But looking into that kitchen as the final touches go on and the food begins to arrive, one sees a full measure of Bacon's life experience — the creative collaboration of Keller, the focused discipline of Ripert, and, in the menu, perhaps the soulful leanings of a British gastropub and his experiences in London. Beyond that, the food takes care of itself.
"We want to cook really good, focused food," he says, "and that means giving people what they expect. So right now it better be farm-to-table, people expect us to source local seafood, it better have hand-crafted cocktails, and we'd better have an accessible wine list. Those things are simply the new standard."
Perhaps this is the real contribution that Bacon will make to the city's cuisine, one that has been enamored with provenance for the last few years. Bacon seems to simply assume that the ingredient should be top-notch, meaning fresh, handmade, crafted, and authentic. It's the treatment of ingredient that he's primarily focused on. His cuisine seeks a place beyond the showcase of a singular product. Just as he displays a maturity beyond the confines of ego, he shies away from a culinary philosophy that infuses green beans grown by someone else with a cult of personality. He seeks an alert creation, one that brings various elements together from across the functions of the kitchen and transforms them, the whole becoming more than the grass-fed, locally raised, historically referenced parts.
"We are technique driven," he says. "And that means that every day is a challenge for us all to become more of a team." I have a feeling that it's a winning one.