From an early age, Christian Hunter found solace in his grandparents' garden.
They grew cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage. According to Hunter, the new chef de cuisine at Sorghum & Salt, stepping into that beloved garden is one of those memories that just sticks with him, as it was his first introduction to really fresh food and in many ways the initial step in finding his passion for local goods. This core belief led the chef to explore different parts of the country that exposed him to a wide variety of produce, making him an ideal candidate to lead the vegetable-driven menu at S&S.
As one of seven children, Hunter forged his own path as the middle child, and he loved to spend time in the kitchen with his mother. "I would see, smell, or look at something then immediately want to imitate it," says Hunter, who started to cook more and more as he moved from middle school to high school where he often manned the grill at social gatherings. When it came time to look at colleges, the Kentucky native realized that he had inadvertently spent his entire life preparing himself for culinary school.
Stepping on to the campus of Paul Smith's College in Adirondack Park, N.Y. was a culture shock for Hunter. Especially when it began to snow. But he quickly became accustomed to this tiny place in the middle of the woods as he realized the area had an abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms. The students would bring this produce back to school for classes, and Hunter's curiosity took him to different restaurants and farmers markets, allowing him to connect to an area completely different from the one he grew up in.
After culinary school, Hunter accepted a job with the Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel brand at the Lake Placid Lodge. Following that, he headed four hours south to the Glenmere Mansion in Chester, N.Y., another five star hotel under the R&C umbrella. There, he was excited by the local offerings, from apples to veggies grown in "black dirt," a nutrient-dense, rich soil producing produce that astonished the chef.
These two experiences not only afforded Hunter the opportunity to work in a fine dining environment — they also allowed him to learn the ways in which local vegetables can work their way onto a menu. After a pit stop in New York City to help open French food hall Le District and Rhode Island to helm the kitchen at the Weekapaug Inn, Hunter decided he was ready to come back to the South. Charleston seemed like a translatable choice, especially after a 2014 visit brought him to McCrady's, Lewis Barbecue, and Xiao Bao Biscuit. With the taste of brisket and okonomiyaki still fresh in his mind, Hunter finally made the move in December of 2016.
The kitchen at Xiao Bao Biscuit was his first stop, but he was quickly blown away by Tres Jackson's vegetable-driven concept when he met the Sorghum & Salt owner prior to the restaurant's 2017 opening. Local sourcing and sustainability were hallmarks of the eatery then just as they are now, and Hunter hopes to continue to use their tasting counter as an avenue to push the envelope. But what does "vegetable-driven" truly entail? According to Hunter, "it means that we are going to look at our list from the farms, what they are pulling out of the ground, and then create a dish around the vegetable. To us, it's just like buying a steak and finding the sides to pair with it."
One dish on the menu right now epitomizing this mission while also highlighting Hunter's love for exotic spice, which he developed tasting dishes with his mom as a child, is their chaat.
This popular Indian snack food starts with local potatoes that are marinated in chili oil, garlic, and ginger before being tossed with cucumbers and tomatoes. Then comes the okra; Hunter explains that people are often put off by the vegetable's "stickiness," but he uses this to his advantage as a way to hold together the batter he applies before frying. The result is a light, crispy bite, and the okra joins some local feta atop the potatoes to form a reimagined South Carolina dish with global flavors, "which is something we have been doing all along here at Sorghum & Salt."
Many restaurants tend to use "local" and "sustainability" simply as buzz words, but not at Sorghum & Salt, where each dish is crafted behind this principle. With the help of suppliers and farms like GrowFood, Joseph Family Farm, Three Oaks Farm, and Spade & Clover (just to name a few), Hunter hopes to prove that vegetables can be the star at a restaurant that isn't necessarily vegetarian-only. With a knowledgeable staff eager to explain each dish, this rising chef looks to provide an all-encompassing dining experience at his small yet lively Coming Street spot.