By Han Vance | Photography by Michael Santini
STARTING IN SAVANNAH
On a lightly misty morning we perched atop the fabled Historic District of Savannah, where I found myself contemplating founding father Oglethorpe's great grid. That still internationally studied early model of old colonial American urban planning, which I have watched slowly become increasingly modernized and almost contemporary-feeling over my roughly semiannual visits.
Yet she, clearly a city with soft feminine charms, remains distinctively Old South, an ancient metropolis cloaked in Spanish moss-covered live oak trees. Shadows dance to different drummers on her sidewalks, and a tipsy ghost of a sailor sauntering down an alley could still appear as a normal part of the scenery here.
Soon enough I would rouse my severely over-served, deeply slumbering compatriots from their recoveries. We would vacate across the big suspension bridge to South Carolina, where my friend Chef Brandon Carter was set to open the purest of farm-to-table restaurant in the charming little town of Bluffton.
ACROSS THE BRIDGE
Scenery suddenly shifted from old urban and skyway water views to bucolic beauty as we crossed into The Palmetto State. This is the Low Country. A dank with verdant foliage, nearly full jungle of dense woods, less an icky Florida-like swamp and more a fantasyland of exotic life forms vegetable and animal. A stunningly wide-winged white beach bird soared to my right above the flowing ferns. To my left a country store shack, which caused Chef Carter to exclaim, "I want to make that a Burnbox popup, maybe. That's my barbecue concept, Burnbox."
As is true of most of America's older enclaves, water is the central life force and root reason for existence. Harvested for generations by the descendants of local African slaves known as the Gullah people, the shining May River served as our starting point in Bluffton, South Carolina. I took off my shirt and soaked up some Southern sun at the edge of this shell-banked, almost oceanic river that produces what Chef Carter calls the finest oysters in the world, and he would know.
Chef Carter wanted his named title most of his life and headed off to the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park of New York state after matriculating from Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia. After culinary school, he worked under the infamously cantankerous top-rated chef in Atlanta, Guenter Seeger and then under Seeger's protege Chef Shaun Doty at trendy Downtown food and lounge lizard nightlife hotspot Mumbo Jumbo and then MidCity Cuisine, a well-reviewed north Midtown Atlanta space burdened by a less than ideal traffic flow scenario, a common problem in the sprawling and especially then car-centric capital of the South.
"I love to be on all that water," Chef Carter stated of his time spent growing his craft in Florida working at the Ritz in Naples. Craving a more authentically Southern experience somewhat mirroring his Georgia upbringing after, Chef Carter wound up at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, perhaps the most highly acclaimed foodie resort in the United States. There, he finally made executive chef. But the rest isn't history, as they say.
He was sourcing produce from a local Bluffton farmer when he was recruited to leave his position at the Inn to help create and oversee the kitchen at FARM in the cutesy little nearby downtown of Bluffton.
The built out area there in the heart of new and spit polished Bluffton reminded me some of my beloved vacation spot on Florida's 30A, Rosemary Beach or another New Urbanists mixed-use, high density development at the community of Serenbe, south of the Atlanta airport in Fulton County.
Though far from a vegetarian restaurant, FARM will feature vegetable-driven cuisine with a hyper-local focus, sourcing the produce from their farm a mere few blocks away. They also scored the premium location at the edge of the entertainment zone. A tentatively scheduled June 2016 opening date should be a smashing success for the classically educated Carter.
BACK IN THE BIG CITY
It must be later than 10:30 p.m. because they are open.
Recall all the trouble bad guy Doc Oc gave The Amazing Spider-Man, eight arms battling our hero? That's how hard it is to pigeonhole the enriching work Chef Duane Kulers is doing at his East Atlanta late night food and booze takeover restaurant, Octopus Bar.
My friend "Du-Knice," was an open until 4 a.m. European coffeehouse waiter at the old rundown location of Cafe Intermezzo on Peachtree Street in South Buckhead Atlanta when an idea fully crystallized: he wanted to be a chef. He wanted to cook good food, which was interesting inspiration considering Cafe Intermezzo was and is known strictly for its vast selection of cakes. Their other food is generally just a subpar accompaniment to the glass case displayed cheesecakes and giant bohemian lattes.
Never just a pretty face, web slinger Chef Kulers has hands all over the place now. An arm extending to his Pacific upbringing at the American Riviera, where he was captain of the high school water polo team in Santa Barbara. A hand in the Mediterranean, as he is half-Italian, and long arms reaching to Southeast Asia and the 7,000 plus islands of the Philippines, where the other half of his kin hailed, under the typhoon skies. A hand in this Southern soil, and a hand reaching up to New York City where chef's of influence continue to inspire, though he plainly does his own thing right here.
He hustled to get here. A pizza cook at a restaurant in the W Hotel, then a stint at solid Decatur restaurant Cakes & Ale, before a break working under the umbrella of Athens, Georgia, celebrity chef Hugh Acheson, at his Empire State South eatery in Midtown Atlanta.
Then it happened. Chefs Nhan Le and Angus Brown, the folks behind So Ba Vietnamese restaurant, saw their covered patio get requested more and later as the buzzed East Atlanta crowd craved somewhere to hang out and eat after hours. That spot now shifts gears and becomes Octopus Bar, where Chef Kulers runs the show.
A fried shell-on oyster is being grated across baby leeks that would make Chef Carter smile, Chef Kulers telling me, "It was kind of a happy accident. The base is leek and shrimp puree and I wanted some flakes of shrimp zest on top of the dish."
There are no accidents in this business, it seems to me, as the patio swells with food service industry types downing tequila cocktails and sharing dishes such as beef dumplings flavored with lime, scallions and a drizzle of chili oil. Only strong will and innovation and learning and hustle and love ... at the end of the day, quality food, at its essence, may be about the narratives of our intertwined lives. It's really about love.