The OpenTable team is heading down to Charleston this week for the city’s annual Wine & Food Fest, where we’re hosting a VIP hospitality lounge for all chefs and talent. In anticipation of an exciting and inspiring weekend ahead, we spoke to local Chef Elliot Cusher, who helms the kitchen at Indaco and will be participating in various events throughout the festival. Here, he tells us how Charleston’s restaurant scene has evolved, what he loves about the locals, and what he’s most looking forward to this weekend.
Read the Q&A below to get inspired, and if you’re in town, come by and see us!
You worked in London, Dublin, New Orleans, and Miami before landing in Charleston. What attracted you to the city then?
I’m actually from here originally. In my early 20s I backpacked Europe and was trying to stay over there. I had a Michelin guide and some working interviews, and I went around for about three months and did stages at a bunch of places.
I had a job lined up in Ireland and it fell through at the last minute. Then I came back to Charleston. I think I left when I was 28 and went back to Miami for a little time, and then I went to New Orleans for three years. I wanted to get some more exposure to different places. Then I decided that the grass was not always greener, and Charleston really blowing up, and I knew it was where I would eventually land. So I boogied back to Charleston after five years.
How have you seen the dining scene in Charleston evolve over the years?
It’s definitely getting more recognition nationally. Growing up here, cooking, I worked at some really amazing places, and those people were already developing relationships with local farmers. A lot of the farmers have been working with the local chefs for more than a decade already.
Just with how the restaurant scene has blown up here — if you’ve already got the relationship with the farmer and provider, then you’re already on that list of people they’re going to be working with. Your Jeremiah Bacons and Mike Latas and guys like that really get the top billing — they’re the guys that people go to first. But I’m lucky that I’ve had a relationship with all of these people and can continue to use local product that’s pretty amazing.
You opened Mercantile & Mash, and it seems like working with local producers is a huge part of the concept there. How has that impacted your approach at Indaco?
Absolutely. I’m still doing the same thing. We get whole and half pigs from Keegan-Filion Farm, which is maybe 20 miles away. We use local whenever we can. There are probably four different companies we get produce from locally; we only buy local shrimp from Cindy Tarvin, who’s out of Shem Creek. Shem Creek was a tiny shrimping village in Mount Pleasant. Over the years they’ve dwindled in number, and it’s such a part of Charleston history that for us it’s super important to support them.
It’s really a big part of what I enjoy doing, the human connection. When the people from Keegan-Filion drop our pigs off, just talking with them for 10 minutes about what’s going on with them, what they do… they think it’s kind of mundane but it’s exciting for us. Every time I talk to them I learn something new.
Tell me about the concept at Indaco — what makes it unique? How do you tie the restaurant and food to the traditions of South Carolina?
We consider ourselves a contemporary Italian restaurant. We lean in with about 70% traditional, and then another 30% of the menu we like to be fun and playful with. We’re taking products that are local to our region, like they would in Italy, and using them in ways that would reflect the Italian table. And then using current techniques — we do lots of wood fire, with wood-fired ovens for our pizza oven.
I love spring and I love fall, and we’re really starting to get spring produce in now. And we’re going to start to be getting in soft shell crabs soon. It’s about the rhythm of the seasons. We’ve got some pig parts coming down from being hung — coppas that we put up in the fall. It’s really cyclical, but the longer I do it the more I enjoy it. Just knowing that certain things you really like to work with, like ramps, are going to be popping up again.
Did you ever anticipate Charleston would become the food scene it is now?
I did. When I think Southern food I think Charleston and New Orleans. I moved away for five years, and moving back, it’s crazy to see how the city has grown. I would have never anticipated that the city would have grown in manner in which it has. It’s pretty exciting.
I had no idea how blessed I was, because it’s all I knew. Moving away and seeing other things was definitely eye-opening. Charleston has always been small but the amount of talented cooks — not even chefs, but cooks in the city — compared to when I got to Miami, a city of 3.5 million people, and New Orleans… that was pretty mind blowing.
A lot of chefs say staffing is their biggest challenge in the industry right now. Is that the case in Charleston?
It’s absolutely staffing. I read somewhere there are supposed to be another 60 restaurants opening in the area within the next six months. Which, to me, is crazy. In general, food and beverage has a lot of different issues with staffing that need to be addressed. For instance, with the festival they usually supply culinary students to help a lot of the chefs, but I guess enrollment is down, so they’re not going to be able to supply as many.
Nobody gets into this field of work for the money, it’s obviously for the love. But it’s our responsibility as chefs and restaurant owners to be able to work to find other things that are going to bring people to the table: fostering a sense of esprit de corps is really important, making sure your people in the kitchen feel vested in what they’re doing, that they have a hand and have input to help make their work meaningful. I’m super lucky; I have a very well seasoned and talented staff of incredibly happy people, and I would fight tooth and nail to keep everybody I have.
Who are some Charleston chefs you admire and why?
The first place I worked at was Atlanticville, for a chef named Phil Corr. I worked for him for about seven years, and then I thought I knew everything. Then I went to work for Chef Frank Lee for five years and got my butt kicked every day. He’s such an awesome guy. The rhythm of seasons and the rhythm of mise en place is verbatim Frank Lee. I’ve still to this day never worked for somebody who talks the talk and walks the walk harder than Frank Lee. He really is a Charleston icon.
Locally, Jacques Larson — I worked for him for a little while 10 years ago. He’s just got two awesome restaurants that are always busy. He’s kind of low profile, not into chasing awards, but he has amazing employee retention, he’s so well respected, he’s the nicest guy, his food is completely awesome, his restaurants are always busy…
The older I get, the more I’m like, that’s all I want. I want a busy restaurant doing good food with happy people. All the other trappings matter less and less as I get older.
Is Southern hospitality alive and well?
Definitely. I still meet people who come to town here, and they’re like, everyone’s so nice. When you grow up in it and you’re always around it, it’s just always there so you don’t even think about it. When I moved to Miami I would say “yes ma’am” — because when I didn’t say “yes ma’am” as a kid I would have to write it 100 times. People feel differently about calling women “ma’am” in Miami, and they would get upset. It’s something I don’t even think about. It’s definitely still alive and well here.
What are you most looking forward to at Charleston Food & Wine?
We get to work with Chef Matthew Jennings from The Townsman in Boston, which is very exciting, and also Chef Josh McFadden from Ava Gene’s in Portland. I’m pretty excited about that, to have other people into your house and get to work with new people and hopefully forge some long-lasting bonds, swap stories. That’s pretty exciting.
Photos courtesy of Indaco.