VOL. 24: Wine + Food

written by Kristen Gehrman | photograph by Sully Sullivan

In the 1920s, only a select few knew Paris to be a haven of high culture, creative expression, and impeccable taste. Writers and artists living in the Left Bank had little notion of what their cultural hotbed would represent a century later—they simply flocked to the community that encouraged their art.

This is the comparison that Patrick Emerson, top sommelier of Maverick Southern Kitchens, makes to Charleston on the eve of the 2012 BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival. And judging by the roster of internationally renowned chefs, luxury wine importers, and high-profile guests from across the country, all drawn to the talent and camaraderie of Charleston’s culinary milieu, he might be on to something.

“Charleston is in a renaissance of food and culture.

We don’t always recognize it, because we are in it. Do you think James Joyce knew what he was a part of in Paris?” Emerson asks. “I’ve been in New York and San Francisco and all over the country; there is no culinary scene as hot as here. We really are on fire.”

The Festival, preparing for its eighth year, draws over 21,000 guests to restaurants and venues downtown for four days in March. Of those guests, 38 percent come from out of town, many visiting Charleston for the first time. In 2012,
the weekend brought $8.6 million to the local economy, up $2 million from the previous year.

Despite a guest list studded with Five-Diamond winners, Michelin-Star bearers, and Top 50-titleholders, the Festival still places local chefs at the forefront. “We’ve thought a lot about how to attract the country’s premier talent and still keep the focus on Lowcountry cuisine,” says Richard Jerue, chair of the board of directors.

Opening night’s Salute to Charleston’s Chefs at the South Carolina Aquarium achieves exactly this, setting the flavor of the entire weekend with amuses from over fifty local restaurants. For chefs, it’s a night to pull out all the stops, luring new patrons with a single bite. “I wanted to serve a dish that was provocative and unique but also incredibly delicious,” says James Beard Award-winner Sean Brock of McCrady’s restaurant. “So we went with octopus paired with fennel, parsnip, and hazelnut black truffle.”

On the other side of the Aquarium, Chef Mike Lata of FIG plates root vegetables, Macintosh chef Jeremiah Bacon ladles hot and sour pork belly soup, and chef de cuisine Ryley McGillis of Kiawah Island’s Jasmine Porch dresses arugula with local chevre.

Chef Andrew Venable of The Ocean Room at Kiawah Island sees the evening as an opportunity to showcase his Forbes Four-Star/AAA Four-Diamond steakhouse to a downtown crowd. Serving up a fried green tomato mahi roll, he marvels over how high Charleston ranks in national cuisine. “Our city has gathered so much national recognition. Tonight is a great chance to show off what we are doing out on Kiawah.”

The premier event is only a taste of the decadence to come. Friday continues Thursday night’s momentum with casual dine-arounds and classic Lowcountry luncheons hosted around town.

La Dolce Vita Luncheon, hosted at the eighteenth-century Society Street home of Tami and Frank McCann, brings the Festival’s evening glamour into warm midday sun. Guests enter the English-style garden in a cavalcade of sun hats and sandals, a celebration of eighty-degree temperatures in early March.

“We envisioned a great, long Italian lunch,” says Beth Anne Crane, owner of MUSE Restaurant & Wine Bar and the luncheon’s culinary host. “In Italy, these types of lunches are commonplace, always set alfresco, and prepared with a rustic feel.”

Rustic, of course, is a loose term when matched with downtown elegance and historical intrigue. While the artisanal cheeses taste of earthy flora and the tables are laden with pastoral delicacies, the setting in the McCann’s historic home lauds the refinery of the Old South. Conversation centers around the riveting history of the house.

As guests relish the history lesson and ask questions about remnants of the past, like the backyard grave plot and the architecture of the carriage house, it is easy to pinpoint what makes the Charleston Wine + Food Festival special. Not only are guests treated to fine wine and cuisine but also to the intimacy and intrigue of a private home.

“This luncheon is beautiful, sophisticated, but not overly formal,” said local cookbook author Holly Herrick. “Kind of like the city itself.”

If opening night is an hors d’oeuvre and the luncheon an appetizer, then Friday evening’s Perfectly Paired Dinners are most certainly the main course of the Wine + Food Festival. Showcasing the finery of seventeen local restaurants by pairing each local chef with a celebrated guest chef, the dinners highlight a unique collaboration in five courses.

At East Bay Street’s Magnolias, executive chef Don Drake partners with chef Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans to concoct the perfect pairing of Lowcountry and Louisiana flavors. The result: five unique dishes that speak to a new tradition of culinary teamwork.

Chef Drake’s stone crab garnished with Cajun-style avocado, mango, and cucumber are followed by wild Louisiana white shrimp brought in Chef McPhail’s suitcase and andouille sausage with red beans. The competing delicacy of the third and fourth courses proves that two award-winning chefs need not settle on just one main dish. Chef Drake’s chicory coffee-lacquered quail follows Chef McPhail’s red fish topped with bright orange Bayou crawfish.

Tahmiene Momtazi, a guest from Portland’s Maysara Winery and the youngest female winemaker in the United States, selected wine to accompany each course. A fiery addition to Magnolias’ traditional ambiance, Momtazi threw off all sommelier snobbery in favor of her personal philosophy for selecting wine: “Is it yum or yuck?”

Following a final course of white chocolate pistachio mousse, the two chefs returned for a final applause. “Tonight’s dinner was all about camaraderie,” said Chef Drake. “We welcome out-of-town chefs into our kitchens to learn from their techniques and to share some of our own. I have friends all over the country because of this festival, and I hope after tonight, you all can say the same.”

By Saturday, everything is in place for a magnificent finale. For most, the Festival ends with a circus-themed fanfare at the Bus Shed. Following a day of wine tastings (the Festival hosts seven different sommelier panels, including one on a Charleston Harbor cruise), the finale party has the rowdy appeal of a street bazaar. Acrobats and musicians parade through the crowd, as chefs from opening night serve gourmet sliders, tacos, fries, and pot stickers.

But for a select few, the Wine + Food Festival climaxes at the epitome of luxury, high above the city. Dinner with a View, the Festival’s most exclusive event, is what host Mickey Bakst calls “hands down, Charleston’s best dinner of the year.”

An intimate gathering of sixty-eight guests, hosted in a lavish penthouse with a 360-degree view of Charleston, the dinner showcases the most-celebrated international chefs at the Festival. The romantic, black-tie beau of La Dolce Vita Luncheon, the 2012 Food + Wine with a View featured the Italian fare of world-renowned New York City chefs Andrew Carmellini and Mark Ladner, Philadelphia’s Marc Vetri, and San Francisco’s Michael Tusk.

“When I thought about the chefs for this dinner, I asked myself, who would I like to have my last meal with?” said Bakst. Known as the spoil-you-rotten general manager of the Charleston Grill, Bakst is on first-name terms with scores of elite cuisiniers. As the six-year host of Food + Wine with a View, his past selections have included the likes of chefs Tom Colicchio and Daniel Boulud. “How fortunate we are to bring chefs of his caliber to our city to make magic for our guests.”

Tickets to Dinner with a View run $1,000 a seat, the Festival’s most expensive but also the most coveted. “Every year, it is the first event to sell out,” says event planner Denise Barto. “People line up for these tickets starting in September.”

Ajit George and his wife, Sarah Brown, attend food and wine festivals around the world and rank Dinner with a View among their favorite events. “This event is so impressive, but also unpretentious. We are still friends with the people who sat at our table last year.”

Hosted in the home of Terri Henning atop the People’s Building on Broad Street, the dinner offers grandeur and coziness that would be hard to find at a big city festival. Considered a skyscraper when it was built in 1911, the building’s top floor boasts seventy-two floor-to-ceiling windows and a rooftop view extending all the way to the Atlantic.

“The way Mickey transforms this place into a five-star restaurant is magical,” says Henning. “I can’t even describe how excited I am to have these fabulous chefs cook in my kitchen.”

While guests mingle over hors d’oeuvres and Dalla Terra wines, Henning’s kitchen becomes a bustling cucina Italiana. Even with limited space, the four chefs orchestrate plates like a symphony.

The menu is propelled by pasta, carne, and the sweet, smoky flavors of Italy. Each chef handles a course, sending out delicacies like grilled squab with lentil-huckleberry polpetone and veal braciole over roasted porcini mushrooms and broccoli blossoms.

The evening grows merrier with every wine course, and the dining room fills with laughter. Guests savor, scrutinize, and applaud each dish, sending compliment after compliment to the celebrities in the kitchen. The atmosphere transforms from one of luxury to one of friendship. Bakst floats to every table, shaking hands and kissing cheeks, making sure every need has been met and every whim satisfied.

Following dessert, guests linger over a final Chianti and throw up a standing ovation for Carmellini, Ladner, Vetri, and Tusk, who make their anticipated appearance at the end of the meal. Each guest is sent home with an armful of white orchids, the kind that bloom for weeks—a reminder of an evening they will never forget.

When Patrick Emerson compared Charleston to 1920s Paris, he wasn’t alluding to some glamorous cliché. Sashaying from restaurant to restaurant, discussing fine Italian wine, and dining on spectacular hors d’oeuvres, have little to do with brooding bohemian writers. But he is right; there is no telling how significant Charleston will be to the culinary world in the future. Joyce and Hemingway knew they were good at what they did but had no idea the foundation they laid for future generations. In 2013, the Wine + Food Festival turns eight years old. Even though it is still young, it attracts more talent every year—the kind of talent that can make a chic, cozy city world-famous. Even still, the culinary world is already in love with Charleston, not for what it could become but for what it has always been.

“Charleston is going to keep pushing the envelope in terms of wine and cuisine,” says Emerson. “But it’s what we already have that makes us special. A historic tradition of warmth, elegance, and spirit—you can’t list it on a menu. It is simply
a part of our culture.” — K.G.

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