We’re on the ground for an exciting and action-packed weekend at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, where OpenTable is hosting a hospitality lounge for chefs and media. Yesterday we sat down with Michelle Weaver, Executive Chef at the Charleston Grill, one of the cities most iconic restaurants. Here, she tells us all about her early food memories, global flavor inspirations, and why her staff calls her “Mama.”
You grew up in Alabama. Was traditional Southern food a big part of your childhood?
Oh yeah. My mother always had a garden, and she preserved — put up vegetables, is what we call it in the South, to feed us all year long. It’s just how we grew up.
Did you learn to cook from her?
She was a great Southern cook. My first experiences were standing in a chair with her at the stove with a cast-iron skillet. That happened to be the theme of our event today, using cast-iron and Cowboy Cauldrons.
What were some of her signature dishes?
Southern vegetables for sure — fried okra, fried hand pies, all that good stuff. Just veggies. Meat in our house was more like a seasoning, because it was expensive. We always had tons of vegetables, which was wonderful.
You went up north for culinary school. Did you always know you wanted to come back to the South?
I went to New England Culinary School in Vermont. After two winters in Vermont I decided I was probably not suited for cold weather. I literally had a little red Cavalier then, and I packed up every turtleneck, snow shoe, boot, sock, and put it in a box and dropped it off at the Goodwill on my way home. I was like, I will never live where I ever have to wear this ever again. Two good winters in Vermont will do that to you.
Describe the food and experience at the Charleston Grill.
We’re very lucky at the Grill, because our menu is kind of broken up into four mini menus. We have a side of our menu that’s southern, where we rely on our low-country roots, my southern roots, to inspire the menu. That’s especially for tourists who are looking for that southern taste.
Then I have a lush side, which is like the caviar, the foie gras, for the global travelers. Then I also have a cosmopolitan side, which I think for chefs challenges you to study and play with other cuisines from around the world. So your food doesn’t get stagnant; you’re always looking for something new and flavorful.
And then we just have a pure side, where it’s the best steak or the best lamb chop that I can get. Simply prepared, let it shine, and be a star on the plate.
With the cosmopolitan side, are there any cuisines or flavors that you’re really inspired by right now?
I have a Thai fish on my menu right now that has lemongrass and chile broth, and pineapple and shrimp stock that I love. It’s one of my favorites.
How has the food evolved at the restaurant since you took the helm in 2009?
Playing with more global flavors. Bob [Waggoner, former Executive Chef at Charleston Grill] was my mentor and I was a southern girl, so I had my southern education and my palate, and then I had my French training. Then my palate decided, where else could we go? So I started traveling the world with tongue, so to speak, to try to find other flavors.
I read that your staff calls you Mama. Tell me a little bit about the culture in your kitchen.
They do. It started so many years ago, because I guess I was almost like a sergeant: the first one to swing my finger at you, and also the first one to give you a hug if you need it.
Charleston restaurants are on fire. What are you seeing in the Charleston dining scene today that you’re excited about?
I like vegetables being pushed more. We have some great farmers here, and we have access to a lot of beautiful vegetables. Seeing those take over bigger part of the plate, as opposed to just a big piece of protein, is so awesome. There are so many flavors that you can get from these beautiful vegetables.
Did you ever think the city’s dining scene would blow up the way it has now? Why all the attention, in your opinion?
I’ve been here for 20 years. I moved here in ‘97, and there was just a small handful of us here starting the fine dining scene. Watching it become what it’s become is so exciting.
At some point I was like, is the bubble going to burst? But it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And I love it — there are so many aspects of the cuisine here that you can go, casual to fine dining and in between. It’s hard to find a bad meal here, and for a city our size…
What’s the future of Southern food?
It’s hard to predict the future. I hope more ethnic flavors have evolved; I love to see that cross between some of the things I’ve seen over the weekend, like people using these beautiful southern ingredients with an ethnic flair in there from a local standpoint.
Steven Satterfield I was with today and he was doing these beautiful carrots, using a benne seed tahini — as our local sesame — with za’atar. They were so delicious.
What are you most excited about at the festival this weekend?
I love to see it come and I love to see it go. [Laughs.] I get really excited thinking about it, and then about midway through, I’m like, OK, I’m done. It’s a good time.