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Business: Ambassador chef captures Atlanta
By Nikki Best
Keep your farms close and your seafood even closer. Buy local. That’s the way of chef Adam Kirby.
Hot off winning the People’s Choice Award at Hammock Shops Shrimp and Grits Cook-Off, Kirby received another accolade for his cooking.
Earlier this month he attended the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival as one of the 2017 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. He, with the help of sous chef Rob Larobardiere, won the Best of the Fest competition, defeating 58 other entrants from more than 15 states including his fellow S.C. ambassadors.
“They give everyone a little token, next thing you know toward the end everyone was throwing their tokens in for us,” Kirby said. “They did a press release and told me I won the thing.”
It was the shrimp and grits. The signature Lowcountry dish steeped in Gullah history. When mixed with a dash of Kirby’s skill, it’s always a crowd pleaser.
“I run two different shrimp and grits between the restaurants,” he said, referring to the Bistro 217 and Rustic Table concepts he co-owns with Anne Hardee in Pawleys Island. “It was actually Rustic’s grits with Bistro’s shrimp and sauce.”
What makes a winning dish? First, the ingredients. He keeps them local.
“I think the most important thing to do is start off with really good shrimp and I believe that South Carolina, literally right here, has the best shrimp on the planet,” Kirby said. His shrimp comes directly from Charles Clark, the Shrimp Man. You’ve probably seen the Shrimp Man on the corner of Highway 17 and North Causeway peddling his wares. “They’re the sweetest, the white ones,” Kirby said. “They have the roe. They’re beautiful.”
Grits from Adluh in Columbia. “I have local corn and we make iron skillet creamed corn, your grandma would call it fried corn, and I fold that into my grits.”
Heirloom tomatoes from Inlet Culinary Garden. “I’m pretty sure I put chocolate stripes and purple Cherokees in there,” he said. “That’s about as good as it gets.”
Cheese from Worley Lane Farms in Loris and Happy Cow Butter from the Happy Cow Creamery in the Upstate. “That Happy Cow Butter, I call it holy cow because every time I eat it, I’m like holy cow,” Kirby said. “It’s so good. It changed my life.” Life-changing butter aside, even the chicken stock is made in-house from Coleman Farms chicken.
An important literal element he doesn’t get locally is seasoning. There is no Pawleys Island Sea Salt company. Yet. “I would love somebody to do that,” he said.
Seasoning can’t be taken lightly, or applied heavily, all at once. Adding a shake or shimmy of seasoning as a recipe progresses is paramount to a fantastic final product. “Each time you’re cooking something, at each different level, you put a little seasoning here and there and the chemical reactions that happen with that add to your food,” he said.
Technical aspects, check. The second step to a winning dish is realizing it’s about feelings, as Kirby calls them. It’s where cooking becomes more than just adding heat to food and where training comes into play.
Kirby is a trained chef. He learned from his grandmother, mother, Le Cordon Bleu of the Western Culinary School, chefs in Hawaii, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Atlanta for starters. Now he learns from his coworkers, the other chef ambassadors and anywhere he can. “You’ve got to learn from everyone around you all the time otherwise you fall behind,” he said. “You have to evolve.”
But that evolution doesn’t mean ignoring your roots. Despite being trained primarily on the West Coast, Kirby is from Atlanta, a Southern boy at heart. He acknowledges the duality in the two restaurants. For one, they’re both heavy on the fish. He likes cooking it, he says. “Bistro’s kind of like what I was taught to cook, with a lot of influence of all the guys I’ve worked for and a lot of influence with the guys who work for me,” he said. Rustic Table, “is kind of what I grew up eating. Southern comfort food with a little twist and kind of uppity.”
It’s hard to figure out what makes Rustic Table a little more down home, maybe it’s the celery root slaw or the way the tables were built in Murrells Inlet from trees retrieved from the Waccamaw River, but Kirby is right. It’s just like home. Southern comfort, next level.
Hardee, Kirby’s business partner, brought him in as the chef at Bistro 217 about 13 years ago. They opened Rustic 2 1/2 years ago. “It’s cool that they’re next door,” Kirby said. “It’s a lot of walking back and forth, but I can be in two places at once.”
Comfort is one of the good feelings good food will give a person. There’s also bitter, hot, cold and crunchy. It’s not about aromas, Kirby said. “It’s touch you know. Sour makes you pucker up when you suck on a lemon. It’s a feeling you feel.”
Adding as many food feelings as possible to a dish may seem cavalier, but there’s a method to the madness. “You try to balance all those things out,” he said. “Whether they know it’s in there or not, you try to get it in there.”
Local ingredients, a little skill and feelings. That’s how you create an award-winning dish.
The Chef Ambassador program is in its third year. It’s sponsored by the state Department of Agriculture and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Chefs showcase the culinary offerings and tourism destinations in the state by competing and attending events like the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. Still on deck is Euphoria in Greenville this fall.
Kirby will continue as an S.C. Chef Ambassador for awhile yet. He helps serve Pawleys Island, and its local flavor, to a larger audience. “Pawleys is like a food destination now,” he said. “There’s so much cool stuff to go see, plus you’re on the beach, you’re on the river, you’re surrounded by water, and then you’ve got all these nice restaurants to come eat in. I just want them to come eat at my restaurant one day of the week.”
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