What a difference a decade makes.
In a move revolutionary for private clubs at the time, The Kiawah Island Club enlisted a top New York chef to consult in the opening of its signature restaurant in 2000. On the heels of winning the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef, New York” Award, and on the eve of opening his flagship Craft Restaurant, Tom Colicchio teamed up with the Club’s Executive Chef, Doug Blair, in the creation of Voysey’s Restaurant at Cassique. This inspired collaboration set a precedent for five-star talent merging with five-star amenities across the American private club landscape.
In the years since, a multitude of major changes have transformed Colicchio’s career, elevated the Club lifestyle, and prompted an evolution in culinary practices. For his part, Colicchio and his restaurant empire have rocketed to international acclaim. His presence on the “Top Chef” series helped bolster Bravo TV ratings to staggering numbers, and a string of coveted culinary awards have been added to his portfolio. The Kiawah Island Club has grown impressively, both in services, and amenity offerings. And even the American palate, always curious but fickle, has developed a taste for something new, embracing all things local.
In a recent discussion, Colicchio and Blair speak on topics ranging from Tom’s enthusiasm for their ongoing Club collaboration, to current dining trends, to (SPOILER ALERT!) spring and summer surprises on the Voysey’s menu.
TOM: Years ago when we first started, Doug came to New York and spent time in the Craft kitchen. He was there for the opening and we spent a lot of time talking about menus and talking about dishes, but I think the most important takeaway was the product sourcing we were doing. Because that’s what it’s really all about—not doing a whole lot to the food but sourcing great ingredients and letting those ingredients speak for themselves. At this point, Doug is really leading the way in sourcing some great stuff to make great dishes at Voysey’s.
DOUG: It’s exciting what we’re seeing here locally now. The southeast has exploded with the small, younger farmer producing things, whereas when we first started, our reference points were all the sourcing you did up in New York—so we were flying everything in. We knew that couldn’t last forever but we had to do that in the beginning to ensure a certain quality. And then, all of a sudden, you could see the wheels starting to turn and people started to plant some things down here and started to master the growing season and now we’re able to rely greatly on what we can get locally. For the most part, we can source most of our menu regionally.
TOM: Yes. Flying stuff down from New York is unsustainable for many reasons. But I think the entire food movement has changed so much since we opened Voysey’s. Back then, we were just starting to hear words and phrases like “Locavore” and “local food movement” and now it’s become so commonplace that there’s no reason to source products outside of your regional area. Of course, when we’re talking “local,” we’re not just talking festivals and farmers, we’re talking fisherman, we’re talking people raising animals. Out at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, which is hyper local, there’s even a small-town salt maker residing in Amagansett. What big changes have you seen in the last 10 years?
DOUG: Starting with fishing and being part of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, we are utilizing fisheries and have started honoring restrictions. We use only what’s in season and what’s local and try to stay away from bringing in product from the Gulf. So we have to be creative in what we can find—like sourcing North Carolina flounder and grouper when it’s in and putting snapper on the menu when it’s local. We have some great oysters coming out of Beaufort—the Carolina Cups are fantastic.
TOM: And what about crab?
DOUG: Yes, soft shell season is one of the biggest highlights of the year. We have Members that call down to ask “when are they coming?” It’s almost like people plan their trips around it. We’ve even seen stone crabs at different seasons. It’s pretty cool. It’s not a big enough crop to start an industry, but if you keep your ear to the ground and listen to the locals, you can find it. And you just have to be there at the right time to grab it. The other thing that’s really exciting is we have this young guy who’s started raising hogs here. It’s called Holy City Hogs. He’s raising eight different varieties and we’re in talks now about doing our own custom cross. We’re doing full butchery like we’ve always done, and now we’re adding whole hogs to the list because we’ve got our own charcuterie, our own prosciutto. I talk with this guy three times a week now about just what’s possible and what’s coming up.
TOM: And, of course, shrimp is a standard down there…
DOUG: Absolutely. And we’re really excited about the season for white shrimp. We never use any other shrimp because these local whites are amazing.
TOM: Do you have anybody doing local eggs and chicken?
DOUG: Yes. In fact, Limehouse is local and they do a beautiful job with field-raised eggs. He’s also expanded his farming production considerably this year right across from Cassique on the Kiawah Island Parkway—he’s farming all the way up Betsy Kerrison.
TOM: Have you seen, in the last 10 years, Members becoming more interested in food not just from a culinary standpoint but where it’s produced? How it’s raised?
DOUG: We really have. From a Member dining at The Beach Club asking if his fish came directly from the ocean right in front of him to the wide variety of vegetables we’re serving at Cassique, we’re fielding a lot of questions on where our product is coming from. There’s this great new local program called “Dirt Works” and we’ve got a tie-in with them, in tandem with Clemson University. They’ve sponsored six or seven young farmers with an acre each right off of Betsy Kerrison. They like to hear what we want and they grow proportionally to what we’re asking for. They’re doing a lot of interesting stuff. It’s really exciting to know that this growth is happening right here.
TOM: What we’re seeing in the northeast, and we’ve kind of pushed it a bit at Topping Rose, is we’re cutting back on protein sizes and increasing the vegetable content. There’s this trend toward eating healthier food and people seem to really be on board with that. In fact, on the menu we’re even printing the vegetables first.
DOUG: We’re seeing some of that. We have done that by way of expanding our small plate portion of the menu and the reception is more enthusiastic every time we expand it. I think we need to move beyond the word ‘appetizer’ and focus on small plates. And proportional portions so you can take the construction of items that might be an entrée and introduce them into that small plate arena and work more within that presentation than these cowboy-sized steaks and huge items.
TOM: (laughing) Yeah, I just can’t eat a lot of food anymore. I get full sooner. You know, two appetizers is about the amount of food I want to eat in one sitting. But I still want to try different things. And I think, also, when you get a 16-ounce steak in front of you, it sort of gets boring after a while. So the idea of eating smaller, varied things and finding the flavor not solely in proteins but in produce that’s fresh out of the ground is the way I think people are going.
DOUG: I also think it’s a lot more exciting. All of us chefs in our careers have exhaustively researched different proteins from pheasants to different ducks to test what can you do to this and that. But now let’s take that knowledge and bring it in with the stuff that we all know changes seasonally.
TOM: Are you seeing Members not expecting strawberries in the winter anymore? Are they getting in touch more with seasonal stuff?
DOUG: There will always be people saying in January, “But I saw some strawberries in the grocery store that looked really good…”
TOM: Yes (Tom laughs), but they’re terrible! So if you demand strawberries in the middle of winter and you get them and they’re terrible, you can’t complain. They may look good but they don’t taste good. Looks can be deceiving. As long as the chef offers them alternatives that are really delicious, they will begin to trust you.
DOUG: Yes. The trust certainly builds up over time.
TOM: So what’s coming up on the menu?
DOUG: On the menu we’ll see ramps. We’ll see morels. We’ll see peas. That’s sort of the trifecta of the season. Cooking gets really easy when those things start to arrive. The local arugula will be here and it’s really great, sort of peppery hot and really small and delicate. When we’re in the winter and in other seasons we tend to say “Let’s not over flood the menu with seasonal offerings like too much butternut squash or other seasonal vegetables.” But in the spring, you have license to be as redundant as you want to. Put anything green on the menu. Just go with it. It’s just such a fabulous time for vegetal variety. It’s sort of this big celebration—spring—it’s on everyone’s conscience and to have that play out on a menu is exciting.
TOM: (Laughing) I’m thinking about my first chef’s job at a restaurant. I’m 26 and I’m becoming known and I had this very famous French chef come in to the kitchen. And he looked at the menu and said, “Well Tom. You have a tasty menu. But Tom, everything is green. Why is everything green?” And I said, “Well, you know, it’s spring. And he kind of scratched his head and went, “Well, O.K., then, O.K.”