Charleston is to food what the SEC is to college football. Which is fitting considering one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs—Jason Stanhope of FIG—was a Division II college football player. While the Topeka, Kansas native could be considered one of Charleston’s MVP’s today, the Le Cordon Bleu trained Chef didn’t grow up with a slotted spoon in his mouth. Instead, his family meals were all about the ritual of experience, which the James Beard-nominated Executive Chef has mastered at the downtown Charleston spot.
Find out Stanhope’s answers to our nine burning questions, below (we’ve been meaning to get them checked), and find out why he’ll tackle you if you make shitty kimchi.
1. What’s an underrated food city and why?
Nashville, though it may be a stretch in the underrated category. I knew it was getting some great press, but I was blown away on a recent visit. The nostalgic Arnold’s always delivers. Pat Martin is a true student of whole hog barbecue. If you can get him to take you to the Corner Pub with Peg Leg Porker on a Thursday night, you will leave a changed person. And probably wake up with a headache. You can get PBR and fried bologna sandwich while listening to country music at Robert’s Western World on Broadway or you can have refined, unpretentious, and insanely delicious cuisine at Tandy Wilson’s City House. That list is just the beginning.
2. What food/food trend are you tired of?
I’m exhausted by half-assed kimchi. I have an incredible respect for traditional kimchi, but I can do without the 5 gallon bucket version that has become so popular. I’m sure most of the trendy kimchi production is done with little to no knowledge of the classic version. It’s an injustice to a dish that is so important to the foodways of an important culinary culture.
3. How do you feel about Yelp?
Yelp can be pretty entertaining. I’ve definitely let it get to me in the past. The negative Yelper isn’t accidentally angry. If you can sort through all of the poor grammar and subjective slander, there is a lot to learn from misguided negativity. Everyone deserves to be heard, but some choose better platforms than others.
4. If your kitchen is burning down, what’s the one gadget you save?
I would fill my Hawks & Doves knife roll with all of my Middleton Made Knives. Both are crafted by incredibly talented artists. In my other hand would be my Vitamix. That unassuming yet beautiful piece of technology purées all day, every day at FIG. I would give up my cellphone before my Vitamix.
5. Your guilty pleasure food?
Chinese delivery. Ordering too much Chinese food and watching a movie with my gorgeous girlfriend, Anna Kate, sounds pretty perfect on a Sunday evening.
6. If you could cook for one person—who would it be and what would you make them?
I would cook for my dad. He passed away before I started cooking. I would roast a chicken, accompanied by a big bowl of arugula, and perfect potato purée. If I was feeling fancy, I’d cover it with a blanket of alba white truffles. We would probably skip dessert and finish with a cold Bud Light and a cigar. Truffles and cheap beer sounds pretty dreamy. Dad would be proud.
7. What are five ingredients that are always in your pantry?
Great eggs. Celeste Albers taught me how special and perfectly complete and egg can be. Carolina Gold Rice speaks to my soul. It is mill-fresh and difficult to cook properly. There is a reverence in the FIG kitchen for this floral, historical grain. We get it from Anson Mills. Arbequina olive oil is also one of the pillars of our cuisine. When we use olive oil, it is a crucial ingredient. It’s not just a cooking medium. It can add necessary fat to lean fish or be a vital and forward-flavor in the perfect arugula salad. Fleur de sel is not just a seasoning agent. It can bring out the full potential of a single ingredient while maintaining its own textural and aesthetic integrity. I can’t live without lemons. There aren’t many things that a squeeze of lemon won’t help. You don’t have to taste the lemon, but you can create an unidentifiable nuance in a dish that will take it from great to memorable.
8. What’s the biggest mistake home cooks make?
We can always be more prepared. Cooking should happen long before you serve something. Cook things while you have time, without the distraction of entertaining guests. Figure out how to store and reheat with finesse. The final product will be better that way. When in doubt, cover your sins with sauce.
9. What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor, Mike Lata, is a never-ending wealth of real-world knowledge. I’ve got a Moleskin filled with his Lata-isms. We get philosophical about everything from chaos theory to maintaining relationships to the trials of bestowing principle. The lesson that motivates most of my decisions in, and out of, the kitchen is about being humble enough to recognize your weaknesses, being confident enough to transform them into strengths and being wise enough to pass those lessons on to those around you. Making someone better than they thought they knew they could be starts with being humble.
LEARN TO BRAISE SHORT RIBS LIKE A PRO