Food for the Soul
If Southern food is the gastronomic equivalent of a smile, then cooking from the Lowcountry is a warm embrace. Michelle Weaver, executive chef at Charleston Grill, talks us through this storied region’s unique culinary traditions.
“SOUTHERN FOOD IS a celebration of life,” explains Chef Weaver. She should know. With two decades’ experience at our lauded restaurant, the Charleston Grill, she has risen to become one of South Carolina’s most respected chefs.
She’s part of a new generation taking the traditions of the Lowcountry and imbuing them with bold flair. Growing up in Decatur, Alabama, the principles of Southern cuisine were instilled in her from an early age. As a toddler, Weaver would clamber onto a high-chair to watch her mother at work. “I learned the ABCs of Southern cooking from my mother,” she says. Years later, the student has undoubtedly become the master. She brings to the kitchen all the warmth of a family home—staff at the Charleston Grill even call her “Mama”.
Outsiders often think of Southern cooking as one, all-encompassing cuisine. Yet Chef Weaver illustrates that this is clearly not the case. “The Lowcountry is about an 80-mile stretch of coastal South Carolina and Georgia,” she explains. “Because of the rich estuaries we have an abundance of crab, shrimp, oysters and fish.”
Naturally, the region’s unique geography has much to do with its culinary distinction. South Carolina’s subtropical climate means the growing season lasts longer than most, while the prevalence of marshland has made rice a staple. Lowcountry cooking is a jumble of foreign influences. Weaver considers the most significant to be “Gullah Geechee”, the descendants of enslaved Africans who brought with them a knowledge of rice cultivation.
When we ask Chef Weaver what comes to mind when she thinks of Lowcountry cooking, she responds without hesitation: “seafood and rice”. The cuisine of the South is generally considered comfort food. Here, however, the freshness and quality of ingredients elevates it to an almost poetic level.
Trying she-crab soup—far tastier than the male counterpart—for the first time can be a lyrical experience, a rich and creamy culinary sensation. Chef says a good broth requires “butter, cream, good dry sherry, about 12 female blue crabs—and a proper hand” for constant stirring. The Palmetto Cafe’s recipe, which adds crab roe to intensify colour and flavour, is the best in town.
Anyone visiting over New Year must try Hoppin’ John—black-eyed peas boiled with fatty pork or spicy sausage and rice. Charlestonian tradition dictates that eating the dish on New Year's Day, accompanied by cornbread and collard greens, will bring luck and prosperity. Leftovers (known as Skippin’ Jenny) are luckier still. Yet, even if you visit in June, it’s a delightful and warming dish.
Chef Weaver also recommends Hannibal’s Kitchen for great crab rice, Martha Lou’s Kitchen for out-of-this-world fried chicken, and the garlic crabs at Charlie Brown’s Seafood. They’re so good you could eat a bucket full. Divine oysters—both fresh and roasted—are available all over town. Visitors should also try Frogmore stew, red rice and benne wafers. Local Chef BJ Dennis runs pop-up dinners at restaurants across Charleston—if you get the chance to attend one, take it.
Of course, some of the most unmissable Lowcountry cooking is produced by Chef Weaver herself. Her menu at the Charleston Grill is broken up into four mini menus. She explains: “We have a menu that’s Southern, where we rely on our Lowcountry roots—my roots—to inspire.” Dishes such as shrimp and grits are given “modernistic and even edgy interpretations”. Weaver continues: “We look for inspiration in the cultural history.” Even when she strays away from Lowcountry traditions, the same ethos runs through Weaver’s work: “Use what is in season. Make sure it’s fresh. Don’t over complicate it. Sprinkle it with love”.
“The real South,” as Chef Weaver puts it, “is a glorious hodgepodge of colourful contradictions, where old meets new”. It’s difficult to imagine a more elegant and delicious cultural collision than the food of the Lowcountry. Don’t just take our word for it, however. Come and taste it for yourself.
We have a menu that’s Southern, where we rely on our Lowcountry roots—my roots—to inspire.