Underground supper clubs transform Charleston’s culinary scene
By Abby Deering
It’s no secret Charleston has one of the hottest food scenes in the country. Attracting the finest culinary talent, it’s a mecca for foodies. What you might not know about is the small and growing number of gastronomic enterprises operating outside the confines of the traditional restaurant. With roots in the guerrilla food movement, this isn’t concept for concept’s sake; this is about commensalism: the social aspect of bringing people together around food. Chefs and culinary veterans are coming up with inventive ways to connect suppliers, creators and diners in a celebration of food and community. Here are a few of the folks delivering Charleston’s most thoughtful and unique dining experiences.
“Supper cults” and “underground dining clubs” bring to mind exclusive “don’t ask, don’t tell” soirees in Manhattan — flash-in-the-pan affairs never to be heard of again. Swap community for exclusivity and we get Commune, a supper cult with staying power and all of the intrigue of its predecessors.
Founder Becky Burke, a veteran of the Charleston food scene, says, “I’m a firm believer in getting folks around the table to eat, drink and commune.”
Turns out this is a belief shared by many, making the dinners hugely sought after and an enormous success.
“Diners want something different; they want an experience. They don’t just want to go to a restaurant and order off a menu; they want to feel connected to what they’re eating, to have a sense of community,” Burke explains.
Started in 2014, Commune dinners are served family style, with creative pairings intended to highlight a local purveyor. Celebrated chefs are brought together to collaborate in a unique environment. The settings are site-specific, bringing guests direct to the source of the meals’ ingredients.
There have been dinners on fishing docks, in breweries and distilleries, on farms, and even on a boat.
No doubt organizing each event is a challenging feat, but the reward is bountiful.
Burke explains, “Finding a purveyor, chef and date that works for everyone is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It takes time. But seeing an event come together with guests, chefs and purveyors is so rewarding.”
“We’re a kitchen, not a restaurant,” says chef-owner Ross Webb.
“I built everything myself — that’s why it’s a little rough around the edges — but it makes it feel like home, like you’re walking into your friend’s home on Thanksgiving, not a restaurant.”
R Kitchen is something Webb has been dreaming up since he was as young as 15. Some of his original notes, sketching out the space and concept, can be found shellacked on the tables.
These notes are like prescient blueprints, providing the foundation for what has come to life present-day: an intimate space that’s about community and putting the product up front.
Behind an unassuming storefront on Rutledge Avenue, the division between diner and chef dissolves. There are three seatings a night, each one a performance. The chefs prepare the meals in front of the guests, chatting and explaining the dishes as the five-course meal progresses. It’s lively and entertaining. It’s a show, and the guests are part of this show, complicit in producing the experience. Close quarters and a space brimming with personalities force interactions. It’s participatory theater Brecht would approve of, the fourth wall broken.
This convivial atmosphere spreads among the diners. “You can have someone from Charleston, someone from Chicago, and someone from San Francisco. They sit down, and before you know it, they’re swapping emails,” says Webb.
A new menu is written every day. Webb is proud of this. He’s conscious of buying seasonally and locally, but he’s not beholden to any one ethos. As long as he’s purchasing from local purveyors, he’s happy. He plays pool with the guys who work the boats at Crosby’s down by Folly Beach. He’s usually the first to know when a fresh catch comes in.
Webb is smart and in his words, salubrious. Such a nimble and nuanced approach requires this, and he counts himself lucky to have chefs Chris Seley and William Chambers Boyd on his team.
A few hours before service, they design the menu. This is based on an ever-changing mix: what they have, the whims of the chefs, a run to the Veggie Bin, the dietary needs of diners. It’s culinary improv.
The chefs are adaptable, changing things up if a dietary curveball is thrown and taking feedback from diners. It’s a dance. The menu can change from seating to seating. “The joke is, ‘If we start by 6 p.m., we’ll have it right by 9 p.m., and then, it’s like a snowflake; it’s gone.’ ” Webb says this wryly. The reality is, the 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. seatings could be totally different experiences, but all are remarkable. “It’s an hourly evolution, and then you start from scratch again.”
It’s hard to get a reservation at R Kitchen. Luckily, Webb is opening a West Ashley location. As ever, Webb is starting from the ground up, pushing the envelope.
“Farm-to-table is too easy. I always like to think of different things, so at the West Ashley space, it’s front door-to-table. We walk outside, and I have a half-acre growing everything.” It’s true. The new location sits on farmland that Webb cultivated and tilled. A hydroponic system waters the raised garden beds. Inside, the dining space features two 10-by-4 seating areas that Webb built from reclaimed wood and old chef’s tables. In other words, expect the same magic.
Introducing Sushikon, Charleston’s first roving sushi bus and brewery tour. This is a mobile dining experience that is letting folks see Charleston and interact with the city in an entirely new way. Guests board the retro-fitted, custom-designed sushi bar-bus-restaurant, stopping at three breweries and enjoying a three-course set menu along the way. Tours are led by a native award-winning brewer and are currently offered for Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch. The meal is Omikase, the Japanese tradition of letting the chef choose your order, a style which is gaining in popularity around the world. Omikase translates literally as “I trust the chef.” Asking guests to let go of control is an important part of the experience for Hewitt Emerson, the creative force behind the concept. “I want you to be eating in an environment that’s totally foreign — I want everything to be foreign to a traditional dining experience.”
It turns out this is an idea with legs, or rather, wheels. Emerson and his team are already busy designing and building out a bus for the Asheville market and have plans to roll out a franchise program across the country. Talk about putting the “roll” in “sushi roll.”
Leading the pack of ultra-hip boutique hotels in downtown Charleston is Zero George. The hotel has created an innovative program of guest experiences to enhance their guests’ stay. Part of this was establishing The Zero George Cooking School, also open to the public. Recently distinguished by FOOD + WINE as offering one of the best new cooking classes in the world, this certainly isn’t your regular cooking school. The two-hour classes are led by Executive Chef Vinson Petrillo and Sous Chef Amanda Black in the hotel’s professional display kitchen, which is in the c.1804 Kitchen Carriage House and features a signature Lacanche French enamel range.
Guests learn how to create a range of traditional and contemporary dishes in a demonstration-style class. While Petrillo and Black prepare the food, guests take notes and enjoy tasting the dishes as they are presented in a multi-course meal with wine pairings. At the end of the class, guests walk away able to recreate the menu at home.
Out-of-town guests visiting Charleston can opt for the “Create & Savor Cooking Class Package” which includes a two-night stay in the hotel’s luxurious accommodations and a Monday evening intimate cooking class from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. with chef. This package also includes a $100 restaurant credit for use at Zero Restaurant + Bar. E