Friday, November 4, 2011

Charleston Social Diary

Dinner under a canopy of trees at the Lowcountry Field Feast at Dirthugger Farm on James Island.
Charleston's Celebration of Farm-to-Table Cuisine
by Ned Brown

with a writing assist from Stephanie Barna, Editor, Charleston City Paper
background research, Annie Byrd Hamnett

When friends in New York and Washington, DC ask me why the food and restaurants in Charleston are so good, my response is "authenticity." There are only a handful of locales anywhere in the world where you have the combination of superb local ingredients and very talented chefs that know how to spin them into magical dishes.

Mike Lata, co-owner and chef at FIG (Food Is Good), is one of those maestros and an early promoter of farm-to-table cuisine. What the late Gilbert LeCoze was to fish at his award-winning restaurant, Le Bernardin in New York, Lata is to veggies. Both chefs have a similar approach. LeCoze learned about fish directly from the fishermen in Brittany. Lata works directly with the farmers who grow his produce, and reputedly has very high quality standards.

Meg Moore of Dirthugger Farm and Jamee Haley of Lowcountry Local First
A slight divergence from my story: I often get asked about the newly opened HUSK Restaurant under the guidance of executive chef Sean Brock, who, on the three occasions I ate there, I have yet to see. HUSK is in a gorgeous facility in a beautifully restored former home. It has a bar in a separate building that has an unmatched selection of bourbons and good burgers. But when I am looking for great Lowcountry/Haute Cuisine/Farm-to table cooking, I have always been impressed with FIG. In Charleston, the locals go to FIG and the tourists go to HUSK.

For the past three years, Mike Lata pays his respects to the South Carolina farmers, who grow many of the superb veggies used in his dishes, by serving as the chef for the Lowcountry Field Feast. Originally created by Charleston food p.r. maven, Annie Byrd Hamnett, to benefit Lowcountry Local First, a not-for-profit that supports local new farm initiatives. Lata and his partner in FIG, Adam Nemirow, have become dedicated supporters of Lowcountry Field Feast, even attracting other local chefs to support the cause.

This year's event was held at Dirthugger Farm on James Island. The farm is on land owned by Jane Maybank; the Maybanks are an old, well-known land-owning Charleston family. She splits her time between New York and Charleston. For years, Jane was looking for a farmer to work the land again. She found it in Meg Moore, who established Dirthugger Farm, where Meg now grows much sought vegetables (by local chefs) and even fresh ginger. The setting for the Field Feast dinner could not have been more spectacular with massive live oak trees providing a canopy and a sunset over the marshes that radiated like a carpet of gold.
The tables, the dinner menu, and the Farmhand Fizz.
Garden & Gun bags on chairs.
Serving chicken liver tartine with pickled 'shrooms. Seven minute egg ratatouille.
Oysters on the half-shell.
The October Field Feast dinner started with guests being greeted with the local drink specialty, the Farmhand Fizz cocktail (a blend of Gin, Lemon, Honey, Soda and Cucumber), delicious local oysters on the half-shell, and seven-minute eggs. Pre-dinner entertainment was provided by the band, Shrimp City Slim.

Dinner under the live oak trees was served on red cloth-topped tables. Dinner was produced entirely from local ingredients. It began with bowls of just-churned sheep's milk ricotta to be eaten with fresh-baked bread. This was followed by white shrimp escabeche, garnished with shards of the local ginger, and porchetta tonnato. Next was a hearty pasta e fagioli soup made from local butter peas. The main course was a wood-grilled chicken and bread salad dotted with sweet currants. Topping off dinner was a luscious dessert of pear tarte tatin with honey syrup and pistachios.
Cocktails before dinner.
The Shrimp City Slim Band.
Michael Carmody, David Hay, Marriana Hay, and Nancy Carmody.
Heather Barrie.
The Byrd-Hamnett Family.
Sunset over the marsh.
Guests gather under a canopy of Live Oaks.
Chef Ken Vedrinski, Sara Donahue, and Angel Postell.
While the annual Lowcountry Field Feast dinner is an event locals look forward to each fall, it's important to remember how it began and what it is all about. Says Annie Byrd Hamnett who conceived the idea several years ago when attending a similar event on Pawley's Island, SC (the first locale I experienced in South Carolina and a place more NYSD readers should seek out), "I fell in love with the concept. The dinner got my wheels turning about a similar event in Charleston, utilizing our great chefs, local farmers, and what makes the Lowcountry such a unique, special place. I began gathering a group of local professionals who have similar interests in food and wine, and we were off."

The dinner benefits Lowcountry Local First (LLF), which has several programs that support new farming initiatives. Jamee Haley, the executive director of LLF, takes a longer-term view of the challenges ahead: "South Carolina is facing the issue of an aging farmer population. With the average age of a farmer at 58, it is imperative that we train a new generation of growers to produce our food. It is exciting to see the interest in local food increasing and now we must work towards meeting this need by providing the resources, technical training and land access for those committed to growing food for our future."
Hand-churned ricotta spread.
Pasta e fagioli soup made from local butter peas.
White shrimp escabeche, garnished with shards of the local ginger, and porchetta tonnato.
Wood-grilled chicken.
The finished product: wood-grilled chicken and bread salad dotted with sweet currants.
Over 170 people enjoyed this year's Lowcountry Field Feast. People are discovering the event from all over, including a couple who flew in from California. Among the local attendees were: David (Editor) and Jenny DiBenedetto of Garden & Gun magazine, Carrie Bailey-Morey and Callie White, owners of Callie's Biscuits, Tommy Baker, Ken Vedrinski of Lucca Restaurant (another excellent local favorite), Susan Bass of Slow Food Charleston, Karalee Nielson of REV Food Group, Angel Postell of Charleston Wine & Food Festival, Marni Rothschild Durlach of Marni Photography and her husband, Marc Durlach of Durlach Properties.
Chef Mike Lata (center) and fans.

Photographs by Brennan Wesley

Click here
for NYSD contents.