"The first thing I do is to see if we have any cocktail parties coming up — and if we do, I spend most of my day making tiny canapés and platters," says Chef Eva Keilty, describing a typical morning at Ted's Butcherblock, the gourmet eatery and butcher shop on East Bay Street, where she runs the kitchen. "I talk to people every day about menus we can do for their parties. I think about what I want to make and put in the front case."
Keilty duties at Ted's can be time-consuming, but she loves the open-ended opportunity for culinary creativity at the shop.
"I think that people have stopped thinking of us as just a place to grab a sandwich, which makes me really happy," she adds. "I love our lunch crowd and I love making different sandwiches, but it's far more exciting to do special dinners and events."
Originally from Boston, Keilty has been cooking professionally for more than a decade. She worked in restaurants in Florida before relocating to Charleston in 2000 where she did stints at Circa 1886 and High Cotton.
In 2004, she and her husband Ragan moved to San Diego, where she worked as the executive chef at a boutique hotel, but they returned to Charleston in '05, and she started her private chef service, Wren Culinaire. Keilty landed the job at Ted's Butcherblock in 2008.
"She actually just came in and handed me a resumé," remembers owner Ted Dombrowski. "I had just let my previous chef go, so the timing was unbelievable. I told her we would try it out for a week or so to see how the fit was. After two weeks, I told her I couldn't afford her, but I would love her to stay. She's been the best hire I ever made."
As the head chef at Ted's, Keilty strikes a balance between the meaty main fare and lighter seasonal flavors. She currently works with two assistants in the kitchen, Farrah Osment and Nathan Digilio. The trio are perfectly comfortable switching from the kind of seafood and Southern fare most Charlestonians are familiar with to wild game, exotic produce, and fowl. They also delve into European, North African, and Mediterranean styles with ease.
They don't have a fryer in the kitchen at Ted's, which suits Keilty just fine. She'd rather experiment with homemade ice creams and sorbets, braise fresh rabbits in fat, fine-tune an original sausage recipe, whip up unusual vinaigrette dressings, and add glugs of ale to cake and dessert sauces. Dombrowski allows Keilty to have total creative control over the menus.
"Eva is probably the most underrated chef in Charleston," boasts Dombrowski. "She deserves recognition. I'm always impressed with the amount of flavor she can get out of simple ingredients. She truly complements the overall theme of Ted's Butcherblock, which is using the best ingredients to create flavorful dishes."
Dombrowski and Keilty team up every week for Friday night wine tastings, offering four or five wines and an assortment of hors d'oeuvres. Three years ago, with additional guidance from former Butcherblock staffer and Charleston Beer Exchange co-owner Scott Shor, Ted's kicked off a monthly series of four-course beer dinners, too.
"I think that tastings or beer dinners are good venues to get people to try things they might not try if ordering on their own," says Dombrowski. "Sometimes it doesn't work, but most of the time people are excited to try something new. I'm very proud of the quality of the meats I sell. Everyone knows what a ribeye tastes like, but they may have never tried a teres major."
Keilty regularly cooks with beer, and she puts serious effort into the food pairings at her dinners.
"It's fun and it's never a chore," she says. "There's usually something very slow-cooked. Every couple of beer dinners, we'll do a sausage."
These days, with the popularity of craft beer as a capable partner for fine food, a number of Charleston restaurants hold ongoing dinners to highlight the complexities of beer. Ted's was one of the early pioneers.
When pressed for her proudest beer dinner accomplishment, Keilty picks the entire four-course Renaissance beer dinner held last January as her most successful. "Overall, the dishes paired the best with their beers," she says. "I'd been joking with Ted for a year about doing a Renaissance festival style dinner, with big turkey legs and all of that. We actually played Monty Python and the Holy Grail during the dinner. All four courses were really tight and paired nicely, and the third course was especially delicious."
The Renaissance menu started off with a light, cold-smoked Gouda and stout soup with chives and "rabbit biscuits" served with a glass of the honey-accented Dogfish Head Midas Touch ale.
"The soup was as light as a cheese soup can be," she says. Course two featured grilled duck sausage made with fresh fennel and juniper topped with soft-boiled quail eggs. The main entrée was a pork loin stuffed with rye bread and cherries, paired with Monk's Café Flemish Sour Ale. Dessert featured a walnut cake made with malted milk and honey with a Guinness caramel turtle sauce.
"So many people use chocolate or coffee-flavored desserts with beer, but I try not to do that too much," says Keilty.
Ted's next beer dinner is scheduled for Thurs. Jan. 27 with a New Year/New Beer theme. The menu has a variety of ales and lagers paired with four ample courses, including a radish salad with cured salmon, Duck confit l'orange hash with ginger and Szechuan flapjacks, black hog pork samosas with cherries and braised Moroccan kale, and a peanut butter mousse and chocolate torte with caramelized bananas and espresso butterscotch.
"I'm lucky that I have a pastry background, because some chefs don't have that advantage," says Keilty. "I do what I know how to do. You're not going to see me with an immersion machine or trying to make tapioca balls out of olives. And I'm not good at making pizza, either. I have a style I've developed over the years as a cook, and I'm not going to do something off the wall just because it sounds cool."