The OpenTable team just touched down in Charleston for the city’s annual Wine & Food Fest, where we’ll be hosting a VIP hospitality lounge for all chefs and media. In anticipation of an exciting weekend ahead we talked to Jeremiah Bacon, one of Charleston’s best chefs, who helms Oak Steakhouse and The Macintosh. Here, he tells us what’s special about the Charleston restaurant scene, his biggest business challenges, local chefs he admires, and much more.
Read the Q&A below to get inspired, and if you’re in town, come by and see us!
You grew up in Charleston and then cooked for years in New York. What made you want to come back?
Growing up here and going to College of Charleston, I was like, I’ve got to get out and see the world. As soon as I graduated I took a year off on a work visa in the U.K. and traveled through Europe. It was my mid-life crisis: What are you going to do?
I had been interested in cooking for a long time, so I said, let’s get the plan together. When I got back I started working in two restaurants in Charleston to gain experience. I went to the CIA up in Hudson Valley. I would say, “I’m never coming back to Charleston!” I think everyone who leaves their hometown will go through that. I was caught up in the big city. A few more years and I was like, “I sure wouldn’t mind going back.”
After 10 years of being gone, I came back. It was really just getting back to the water; I grew up swimming, surfing, and fishing. As I look back on it, leaving was just as important as coming back. New York is such a capital for the food scene — it was fascinating and exciting to be involved in it up there.
Now, Charleston is one of the most exciting cities in the country for dining. Did you ever anticipate it would become the major food scene it is now?
It had always been that way for us, but it wasn’t on the level that it hit right around 2009 — it started taking off exponentially. I never anticipated it to that level. It’s exciting to be involved and watch it happen to my hometown.
Tell me about your concepts, Oak Steakhouse and The Macintosh. How do Charleston traditions tie into your cuisine?
With Oak, we are a traditional steakhouse. One thing we try to do is incorporate a local feel whenever we can. Our fish of the day can change every day, whatever we’re getting in. We’ll have local oysters in our season. Clams are year-round. Things like iceberg lettuce — on a wedge salad we go with local greens, hydroponic Bibb instead. We try to push that in there as much as we can.
And The Macintosh…When I went to England I worked in a pub, and I really got exposed to the pub culture embedded in their society. There are elements of that. This is a local neighborhood den — the living room of the neighborhood. That casual elegance, rustic elegance, we talk about a lot here.
The Spotted Pig and Prune — those were the places I used to go to as a line cook in New York. These guys are doing really good food on a more casual level. I was working in the top-tier places doing everything so formal: tablecloths, real silver, service. This is a little bit more of an accessible level. We try to exceed expectations but keep it real.
I think it’s the way people dine these days. People like to be comfortable. They still have the high expectations of service and food and wine list and bar program, but it’s a little bit less fussy.
What are you seeing in Charleston’s restaurant scene today that’s special, or that you’re excited about?
Folks like myself and Mike Lata and Jacques Larson and Sean Brock — people that had grown up and cut their teeth in Charleston — now it’s their turn to open a spot and put out a product and environment that’s a product of their experiences.
My first chef was Frank Lee, and he’s still going strong — still working at SNOB. But to see that second generation go out into the world and do what they wanted to do… It’s been interesting.
And there’s a nice spirit in the city of being open to all sorts of concepts and platforms. It’s gotta have good food and a good experience, but it can be in a spot where there’s zero parking or it’s a rough part of town. That willingness and acceptance to experiment and go forward is inspirational, and it’s drawing that like-minded energy. It’s not stopping.
Do you see any parallels in what this “second generation” is doing that hasn’t been done in the past? Any common threads?
I definitely think there’s a common thread with ingredients; we’re buying from the same farms, the same fishermen. Then it gets more personalized at the restaurant.
Years ago, I was asking myself and stressing, “What’s my style? I need a style!” Yes, I do — and it’s a product of all my experiences, the chefs I’ve worked with, the cities I’ve worked in, what I like to eat.
Also, as far as the team — at The Macintosh it’s a very group-oriented think tank. We’re not an Italian restaurant; we’re not locked in. We can kind of do whatever we want as far as ingredients and concept. That gives us a lot of fun wiggle room to experiment. We try to get the guys excited and push them and have a very constructive environment. When you have a team like that, there’s no boundaries.
That’s something I learned at Per Se. Every day we had the menu meeting, and I’m like, “Why are you asking me for input? You’re Thomas Keller.” But as I look around the room… I was at Le Bernardin. The guy next to me was at Daniel. The guy next to him was at Gramercy. The guy next to him was coming from the Laundry.
I was like, “This guy’s got everybody tapped from all the major restaurants in the city. It’s brilliant!” He guides us, encourages us, would challenge us, but you start doing that and your team grows exponentially. We try to provide that same kind of environment. That spirit is rampant in the younger generation: If you want to get good fast, surround yourself by good people.”
What are your biggest challenges? Is there anything related to your work that keeps you up at night?
Finding that next generation of people who want to be in the restaurants and cooking. It seems to be different than when we were coming up; I don’t know if that’s a product of the Instagram generation, where people have been working for a year and are like, “That’s it, I need to be running my own restaurant.” I don’t have those answers, but it’s a different shift. One of our challenges is figuring out that generation and working with them. What motivates these guys and gals? How does that fit in? How do we change that and inspire that?
With the farmers, I see a lot of younger people attracted to that industry. But you get down to the docks –no one wants to work in the shrimping industry anymore. It’s too hard. How do you get these guys inspired to this lifestyle?
Who are some Charleston chefs you admire and why?
I really admire Jill Mathias and Juan Cassalett. They’ve got a restaurant called Chez Nous a couple of blocks away. I worked with Jill years ago, and I really admire her talent and approach to food – it’s very honest. They’ve got a little 45-seat restaurant, and it’s the two of them and one other person plugging along, cooking lunch and dinner every day. They’re married; it’s an old-school mom-and-pop, a lot of hard work, but the food they do has that casual elegance, which resonates with me a lot.
Josh Keeler at Two Boroughs Larder. Same thing, he and his wife are over there. He does very inspirational dishes.
I’m excited about Reid [Henninger] over at Edmund’s Oast. It’s a concept that my buddies Scott and Rich started, and how they’re making it work and be part of this elevated small brewery. They have about 50 beers on tap; it’s like going into a beer library, a pretty phenomenal thing going on. They are very well respected in their industry, doing something kind of cool.
Is Southern hospitality alive and well in Charleston? How do you see it playing out?
Definitely. It’s so inherent in who we are. We’ve had some challenges this year, and how that played a part of it – it’s so inspiring.
The answer is yes. What’s the question? What can we do for you? That’s part of our culture. It goes hand in hand.
What are you most excited about at the festival this weekend?
I’m fortunate enough to do two dinners: we’re doing our dinner with Rob McDaniel of SpringHouse over at Oak on Friday night; it’s so different from the one here [at The Macintosh]. It will be on the third floor with the dressier tables.
Saturday at The Mac we’re doing it outside on the patio, so it will be a wood-burning grill out here. We do that family-style, so it’s a nice balance of rustic versus elegant. Sunday is a fun day for me – typically all the commitments are done. Then I get to run the tents and goof around and go visit everybody.
Also Saturday, we’re doing a Krug tasting – myself and Mike Lata and Jacques Larson and Sean Brock. It’s about 30 people with four or five different flights. I got paired with the rose, which I love.
There’s just such great, fun energy. Everywhere you turn is a chef you’ve met before and are excited to see, or someone new. There are so many new faces coming this year that we’re excited to meet. By Monday we’re wiped out, but we look forward to this week every year. It’s one of our favorite weeks of the year.