A Chefs' Guide to the Culinary Riches of South Carolina

There are so many reasons why the Palmetto State is a must-visit destination for food-lovers.

charleston south carolina city street
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There is history in flavor. South Carolina packs a lot of culinary diversity into an easily traversable geographic area, making it an ideal travel destination for anyone who's looking to taste a wealth of food and flavors. Here are just a few things that the 2020 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors recommend you add to your plate to get a taste of the Palmetto State.

The Great Debates

When you sit down for a meal, you're entering a long tradition of personal pride intertwined with food. Indeed, South Carolina is the place to play out some great culinary debates around iconic dishes: What is the definitive recipe for shrimp and grits or the best ingredients for BBQ rubs and sauces? Is your Hoppin' John peppered with pork or turkey? These are debates where everyone—and their taste buds—win. "These are great conversations to have," says Chef Kevin Mitchell, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of Charleston and is the author of the upcoming cookbook Taste the State. Chef Mitchell is an expert on the preservation of southern ingredients and the historical significance of African American cuisine, which is a key feature in the state's iconic cooking. "Food is always about the conversation and understanding the history. It's important to educate in history and to have a respect for those ingredients," he says.

While you don't want to miss the classics, that doesn't mean you shouldn't expect to enjoy some variety within a dish. "From the gravy to shrimp and grits to Hoppin' John, choose the one for your taste," says Chef Mitchell. If so inclined, you could create an entire food itinerary of eating different versions of shrimp and grits. The same goes for the search for the perfect BBQ. "Everyone's rubs have different seasoning," says Chef Jamie Daskalis, owner of Johnny D's Waffles and Bakery in Myrtle Beach and author of the cookbook Making It Delicious. "People go out and want those mixture of flavors and are not afraid—especially in Charleston. A mustard or a bitter sauce—it just depends on what you want."

Chef Rafaele Dall'Erta, executive chef of Hamptons in Sumter, originally hails from Italy, but loves the food of his adopted home. "Everyone here thinks they make the greatest BBQ—it's kind of like Italy and Bolognese." In Charleston, there's the highly-recommended Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ which uses traditional cooking techniques to give the meat a unique flavor. "It's very simple, but the way he does it…," says Chef Dall'Erta. Swing & Swine BBQ uses high-quality hardwoods to smoke the meat. While ribs might take center stage, don't forget to try sides such as mac and cheese, as well as a smoked turkey sandwich, which Chef Mitchell recommends.

Around the World in Charleston

The city has always taken in flavors, ingredients, and influences from all over the world. "Charleston is a port city and people and spices from around the world make their way here," says Chef Mitchell. That applies to chefs too, who make it a stop before settling across the region. "Charleston has always been a culinary mecca. So many people come through there and out of there," says Chef Jason Tufts, executive chef at Malia's in Aiken, who studied in Charleston.

It's a city that appreciates food and all that has gone into it from the cultural history to the ingredients. There are a lot of choices, from elevated dining at Circa 1886 to family restaurants like Martha Lou's Kitchen and Hannibal's Kitchen. For a taste of some authentic flavors you can't go wrong at Bertha's Kitchen with platters of fried pork chops, fish, and smoked turkey or at Dave's Carry-Out with its seafood and soul food classics. In such a crowded field of amazing cooking, which to try? "Go to several," says Mitchell. "And you also shouldn't miss the booths on Market Street to shop home-prepared goods."

Gold-Standard Grains

Carolina culture is rich in grains. Carolina gold rice is the gold standard with its clean, sweet flavor. "It has almost like a floral taste, very distinct," says Chef Dall'Erta. Anson Mills in Columbia, grows and mills Carolina gold rice along with grits, heirloom grains, legumes, and seeds to offer native stone-ground organic ingredients to chefs and consumers alike. They also offer regional crops such as Sea Island benne seeds. Cooking with ingredients transferred from Africa like benne seeds that slaves brought to the Carolina Sea Islands in the early 18th century, shows how deep the African influence is on Southern food and keeps those flavors alive, says Chef Mitchell. The contributions and influence of enslaved and freed cooks on the food of the South is an important part of its culinary story. Grits are practically a blank canvas for restaurant chefs and they're rooted in history. "The creation of shrimp and grits on the shrimp boats was to feed the shrimpers. The beauty of being in this area is to hold on to those iconic ingredients," says Chef Mitchell.

"I had to get accustomed to grits," says Chef Daskalis, who grew up in a restaurant family in New York, before settling in South Carolina. "I didn't understand the fascination at first. Then I realized you can get stone-ground grits." Today she adds a dollop of whipped butter and maple syrup to her grits and uses Adluh grits from Allen Bros. Milling Company in Columbia, which produces flour and cornmeal in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Properties. Stop by the market at Geechie Boy Mills, home to four working mills on Edisto Island, to pick up small-batch grits and cornmeal, homemade preserves like red pepper jelly, and Edisto sweet onions. And, of course, there are also biscuits: Callie's Hot Little Biscuits in Charleston blends the old into new territory with BLT biscuits, pimento cheese biscuits, cinnamon biscuits, and more.

Farm Life

Follow the crops, and it's easy to eat your heart out at harvest celebrations across the state. Food festival season—with its struts, boils, and bogs—celebrating peaches, okra, watermelon, collard greens, oysters, and more, stretches far into the year. The climate is conducive to a plentiful, year-round growing season. "We have the best ingredients in the world," says Chef Dall'Erta.

And there is the bounty of farmers' markets and produce stands. Chef Tufts runs off a list in his region: Woods Farm Market, Titan Farms, known for its peaches, and Cook's Farm for boiled peanuts, jams, jellies. He also recommends the historic Aiken Farmer's Market, which uses the same stands built in the early 1950s. One of Chef Dell'Ertas recommendations is the artisan cheese from Forx Farm in Anderson. The owners immigrated from the Netherlands, their Smoked Gouda and Bacon Gouda are hits.

Let the Spirits Move You

There's a lot brewing in South Carolina. Breweries and distilleries are using local ingredients to create distinct flavors. Chef Mitchell recommends Gullah Cream Ale from Revelry Brewery in Charleston made with heirloom corn from Geechie Boy Mills. At Holy City Brewing in North Charleston, there is Oyster Stout, which Chef Tufts calls "sweet upfront and kind of briny." Visit High Wire Distilling Company for small batch, artisan spirits or Dixie Vodka for award-winning Wildflower Honey Vodka. Chef Rafealle recommends Sumter Original Brewery, a brewery and taproom in downtown Sumter, where you can try Sumter Stout. Chef Daskalis recommends Twelve 33, a small production distillery in Little River that produces Carolina Peach Vodka.

What's Next?

South Carolina makes the most of its locale, showcasing innovative cooking that interprets its past and reaches for the future. "We just have a unique flavor that you can't find anywhere else," says Chef Tufts.

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