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Celebrated chefs from across the state dish up iconic local ingredients

From the Lowcountry to the Upstate, South Carolina features farmers, ingredients, restaurants, and chefs that define farm-to-table fare. From centuries-old farms straight to ever-changing modern menus, South Carolina's long-time signature foods--with occasional twists--are better than ever. Just ask a chef.

Shaun Garcia, Soby's, Greenville
Opened downtown in 1997, Soby's started a tasty dining revolution in Greenville. South Carolina native Shaun Garcia's been there since 2003, continuing the tradition of creative southern fare at Soby's and back at his mother's kitchen and grandmother's restaurant near Spartanburg.

Garcia says his two favorite South Carolina ingredients are corn and tomatoes. "You can use them in so many ways," he adds, mentioning fresh creamed corn, cornmeal dredge, grits, spoonbread, and raw, stewed, smoked, and sliced tomatoes.

Along with local corn and tomatoes served up many ways, Garcia says the other most southern dish on the current menu is Crisp Fried Chicken, served with mashed potatoes, turnip greens, and a buttermilk biscuit with black pepper honey. It's an ode to his mom and grandmother. "I spent afternoons and summers playing in and around the kitchen in my grandmother's restaurant," he says, savoring the memory.

Chef Garcia and his crew maintain a garden for the restaurant that includes okra, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, squash, field peas, watermelon, peppers, arugula, broccoli, brussel sprouts, collards, and more. He's among many Greenville chefs leading the locavore movement in South Carolina. Other standouts include Vicky Moore at The Lazy Goat, Joe Clarke at American Grocery, Spencer Thomson at Devereaux's, and Anthony Gray at High Cotton.

While you're here, plan to eat local.

Craig Deihl, Cypress, Charleston
Charleston has become synonymous with the use of local ingredients, with fresh produce, seafood, meats and more on the menus of dozens of Holy City restaurants. East Bay Street's Cypress and chef Craig Deihl provide a perfect example of the possibilities.

Seasonal local ingredients can be found throughout the ever-changing menu at Cypress, but chef Deihl says soft shell crabs are his favorite South Carolina ingredients hands-down. "I never had them until I moved to Charleston," he says. "They were on the special menu when I started at Magnolias and it was love at first bite."

Also part of Hospitality Management Group, Magnolias is just up the street from Cypress and--along with Slightly North of Broad and chef Frank Lee across East Bay--has to be credited with making Charleston (and the entire state) a farm-to-table destination before 'locavore' became part of the foodie lexicon. "Magnolias has shaped the way that I look at food and create dishes for Cypress," Deihl says.

Along with the creative use of soft shell crabs, chef Deihl loves putting South Carolina favorites such as pickled shrimp and crispy pork shoulder (with housemade hominy) on the menu whenever possible. "It wasn't until I moved to Charleston that I ever had grits, collards, or pimento cheese and now these are all items that I love," he says.

Those who want to use South Carolina ingredients at home will want to purchase chef Deihl's cookbook, Cypress. "The Cypress cookbook is a glimpse at the fundamentals of how our food is composed," says chef Deihl. "It flows from a proper pantry to making stocks to composing our signature dishes." Like chef Deihl's soft shell crabs, those signature dishes are oh-so-South Carolina.

Patty Griffey, The Dining Room at Abingdon Manor, Latta
Located near I-95, but a world away in Latta, Abingdon Manor has always been a tasteful and tasty destination--thanks to exquisite accommodations, upscale amenities, and creative fare prepared by chef and co-owner Patty Griffey. Originally opened in 1995, the addition of The Dining Room at Abingdon Manor in 2002 made the inn--and Griffey's cuisine--a culinary destination worth the drive.

"The restaurant was created by demand," says Griffey. "We say that the world comes to us." That includes coming for Griffey's popular weekend cooking school, where she's taught more than 350 people how to cook with South Carolina ingredients.

"One of my favorite ingredients is crayfish, which I get seasonally from a local farmer who also has catfish ponds," she says. "I make etouffee with the crayfish and, yes, I really use lard in the preparation of the roux." Griffey, who tends a garden on the sprawling grounds grows many of her own herbs and vegetables. The menu changes nightly and chef Griffey also enjoys putting her unique shredded collard salad with pickled apples on the menu whenever possible.

Breakfast is still served as well. "I really like smothered quail braised with a gravy over toast points or waffles," she says. "Talk about a southern breakfast."

From supper South Carolina-style to an overnight at a world-class inn, Griffey and her husband, Michael, welcome hungry visitors with open arms--and menus.

Mike Davis, Terra, Columbia
South Carolina's capital city of Columbia is becoming known as a bastion of local food served well, thanks to chefs like Terra's Mike Davis. "The food scene in Columbia is really getting going and we are proud to be at the forefront of that," says chef Davis.

With a menu that focuses on local meats and produce, Davis says butter beans rank as one of his favorite South Carolina ingredients. "I love them in succotash or in a rice pirlau with dill and crabmeat."

He also loves his "cue." I love ribs, shoulder, and whole hog cooking." When possible, Terra's menu features BBQ Lamb Shoulder Stuffed Mac & Cheese Gratin. "It takes two southern favorites and combines them into a rich explosion of flavor," he says, adding that patrons need only to ask for "Lamb Mac."

Davis is among many who trained with beloved South Carolina chefs Don Drake and Donald Barickman, and attended in-state cooking schools like Charleston's former Johnson & Wales location or--today--the city's Culinary Institute of Charleston and The Art Institute of Charleston's International Culinary School.

Davis says Columbia's locavore trend will continue to grow. "Folks here have been interested in eating locally and we are involved with Slow Food Columbia, which is doing a lot of great work to bring awareness to eating locally grown foods." It's no surprise that the Lowcountry and Upstate also have Slow Food chapters.

Charlotte Jenkins, Gullah Cuisine, Mt. Pleasant
Chef Charlotte Jenkins cooks--and talks--with a distinctly Southern accent that's rooted in South Carolina's Gullah cuisine. With a heritage that dates back generations, it's easy to get a taste of Gullah at Mt. Pleasant's bustling Gullah Cuisine.

Owner and chef Jenkins introduces visitors to Gullah culture through her menu. the Johnson & Wales graduate opened Gullah Cuisine in 1997 and operates a catering company with her husband.

The menu is an ode to a special type of Southern cooking. "It's very local," says Jenkins, an Awendaw native who started cooking when she was nine. "It's the way my mother and grandmother cooked."

When asked what her favorite ingredients include, Jenkins says anything fresh from her herb garden--including the garlic she adds to many dishes. Her favorites include okra gumbo, fried chicken, collards and Gullah rice--a rich dish that includes shrimp, chicken, sausage and vegetables.

Gullah Cuisine's lunch menu includes local seafood and a choice of more than a dozen Southern-leaning side dishes (think candied yams, mac and cheese, and succotash). The dinner menu adds smothered pork chops, crab cakes, and okra pirlau (okra-flavored rice with ham). To-die-for desserts include pecan pie, bread pudding and peach cobbler.

Jenkins and her friendly staff also prepare a 2-+ item lunch buffet from Monday to Saturday and a Gullah Brunch on Sundays. As Jenkins is known to say, "It's the food that speaks to ya!"

Robert Irvine, Robert Irvine's Eat!, Hilton Head Island
For more than 25 years, Chef Robert Irvine has cooked his way through Europe, the Far East, the Caribbean, cruise ships, and the Americas. Robert Irvine's Eat! on Hilton Head Island is an ode to that experience--with a Southern accent.

Irvine is famed for hosting Food Network's Dinner: Impossible, Restaurant: Impossible, and Worst Cooks in America, but he loves heading back to Hilton Head Island to work with South Carolina ingredients. His favorite? "That's a tough one--there are so many," he says. "But I'd go with grits."

He says that grits, when properly prepared, take on flavors well and offer a creamy texture that pairs nicely with many dishes. "I am currently doing a tomato havarti version in my Blackened Snapper & Grits dish. The rich butteriness and slight acidity of the grits really balance the spiciness of the fish." Irvine adds he uses local fish whenever possible.

Irvine also loves local tomatoes. "Fried Green Tomatoes are what many consider the most Southern dish on the menu. I take this traditional favorite and given it a modern spin by preparing it with brown butter--which gives it a nice, nutty flavor--and feta cheese, which brings some salty tanginess."

Irvine first learned about Hilton Head Island when visiting his friend Paula Deen just down the coast. "One day I made a trip over and fell in love with the island. The people were friendly, and I thought there was a dining niche I could fill. Hilton Head Island has really embraced me and my restaurant and is becoming an increasingly popular culinary destination."

For those who want to learn more about using South Carolina ingredients, the restaurant also hosts very popular monthly cooking classes. Irvine is also active with local charity work, including hosting the inaugural Dinner: Possible.

James Beard Awards Draw National Attention
Farm-to-table fare has been a part of South Carolina dining in homes and restaurants for centuries, but it took a trio of James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs and others to bring the state movement national attention. Hominy Grill's Robert Stehling won Beard's Best Southeastern Chef in 2008, while FIG's Mike Lata won in 2009 and McCrady's chef Sean Brock won in 2010--a feat for Charleston achieved by only one other city thus far (the Big Apple).

When asked about their favorite South Carolina ingredients, South Carolina's Beard trio had some unique responses. Stehling says Geechie Boy grits and fresh white shrimp ("Try as one might you can't mess up the combination."), Lata says roe shrimp ("Roe shrimp from our waters are the sweetest, most succulent seafood you will ever have the pleasure of eating."), and Brock says soft shell crabs ("Each year we count the days down for the arrival of the first softies of the season.").

There have been several other Beard nominees from South Carolina over the years (including Cypress's Craig Deihl), as well as those--like Terra's Mike Davis--who have prepared a dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. With as vibrant a food culture as South Carolina has, it's just a matter of time until more local chefs receive the national attention a Beard nomination, award, or dinner can bring to their restaurants--and the state.