"I have a theory," Sean Brock said from the stage at the start of his cooking demonstration at Bluffton's Music to Your Mouth festival. "Southern food is the best food in the world."
And then he set about proving it by deep-frying some catfish.
The Culinary Festival on Saturday afternoon (Nov. 20) was the cornerstone of the week-long Music to Your Mouth event at the Palmetto Bluff resort. Twenty-five chefs from around the South, including an impressive contingent from local Bluffton and Hilton Head restaurants, dished up small-plate creations from long lines of tables under a giant tent on the grounds of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, while winemakers from a dozen small-batch wineries poured glasses for the strolling diners to sample.
Brock was paired with Top Chef alum Kevin Gillespie of Atlanta's Woodfire Grill, whose demonstration merged two old Southern favorites: deviled eggs and pimento cheese. Gillespie explained that it was something he invented when he couldn't decide whether to make deviled eggs or pimento cheese. "Why not do both?" his sous chef suggested, and Gillespie did.
The results are magnificent — tender eggs filled with a dense, savory blend of hardboiled yolks and spicy pimento cheese, and made even better because they're topped with a swirl of sweet and smoky bacon jam and served, as Gillespie put it, on a glass tray borrowed from the United Methodist Women's League.
Deviled eggs and pimento cheese are pretty humble choices, but Bill Smith, the chef at Chapel Hill's Crook's Corner had an even simpler one: strawberry ice cream. It's about as basic as a recipe can be: strawberries mixed with sugar, put through a food mill, and plopped in an ice cream churn along with whole buttermilk. And that's it. (Though I have to admit, the brandied cherry ice cream that Smith also served at his booth, topped with a sprinkling of sugared pecans, was even better than the strawberry.)
It might seem odd for a famous chef to come 300 miles just to demonstrate homemade ice cream-making (not to mention to make and serve over 700 servings worth), but it's actually emblematic of where fine dining in the South is heading in these days of the New New Southern cooking.
Pioneers like Charleston's Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad and Donald Barickman at Magnolia's were among to the first to serve classic Southern foods in a fine dining setting, making the then-novel case that our native cuisine is nothing to be embarrassed about. (Both were there in Bluffton, too, Barickman serving deviled eggs with prosciutto and Lee roasted squab from the Sumter Pigeon Plant with plantation rice studded with shrimp, tomatoes, and okra.) That revelation opened the doors for a whole generation of chefs to begin experimenting.
And experiment they did. They took old Southern favorites and applied to them the French-centric techniques they'd learned in culinary school. They took the natural produce of the South and subjected it to fanciful twists of molecular gastronomy to see what would happen. They pushed back relentlessly into the past to find heirloom varieties of pork, corn, and vegetables and started poking around their own backyards for fresh or novel ingredients. They tracked down the few remaining artisan producers of country ham and stoneground grits and put them in the places of prominence once reserved for the best truffles and fleur de sal.
Two decades later, if the display at Bluffton is any indication, that focus has now come back to the local and the simple, focusing on the purity and intensity of flavors and the sheer joy of eating.
At his new restaurant, Husk, which opened earlier this month on Queen Street, Brock has made the bold statement that he will serve no food that's not produced in the South — meaning olive oil from Texas, plenty of lard, and lots of pickled peaches. At the moment, he admits, he is thoroughly enraptured by catfish. The expression sheer joy on his face when he pulled half a dozen golden brown filets from the deep fryer onstage at Bluffton shows how deeply the passion runs. He served them atop a shrimp succotash made with creek shrimp, lady peas, and corn — a dish that is simple, intense, and thoroughly Southern.
This intensified focus on traditional regional flavors doesn't mean that the hallmarks of French cuisine have been jettisoned altogether. Tory McPhail of Commander's Palace in New Orleans, for example, dished up a rich pumpkin soup dressed with foie gras and cream that was stunningly delicious. And there seemed no dissonance at all between those rich Old World flavors and the succulent pulled pork barbecue from Ted Huffman of Bluffton BBQ or the seared redfish that Lee Lucier of Hilton Head's eat! served over collards and blackeyed peas in a delightful slow-steeped pot liquor.
It's not just Southern-born chefs who are studying and refining the local cuisine. Tom Condron of Charlotte's Liberty Gastropub paired the traditional bangers of his native England — which he makes in-house using pork from two different varieties of heirloom pigs — with pimento cheese and hot pepper jelly. It's a global treat that suggests Southern cooking might soon start influencing cooks in other parts of the world in the same way that French and Italian cuisine so influenced chefs here.
The star of Southern cooking is still on the rise. As shown by the hundreds of diners who made their way to Bluffton for a long weekend of eating and drinking under the old Lowcountry oaks, people are now coming in from across the country — from Seattle, from Chicago, from New York City — to see what all the fuss is about.