Charlestonians have been known to grumble about invaders from the North. They were even suspicious when Robert Stehling, a North Carolina native, slipped into this genteel South Carolina seaport and transformed an old barbershop into the Hominy Grill. Once they tried Stehling's updated versions of local favorites like hominy stew and buttermilk pie, however, they bestowed on him their highest honor: They'll wait in line for a table.
Robert now calls Charleston home, but his roots in North Carolina run deep. Growing up in rural Kernersville, he and his younger brother, Johnan acclaimed chef in his own right as an owner of the Early Girl Eatery in Asheville, North Carolinahelped their parents grow organic vegetables in a bank of lean red clay behind the house. And they were put to work in the kitchen at a young age. "Ever since we were old enough to hold a vegetable peeler," Robert says, "Mama made us cook one meal a week."
Much has changed for the Stehling family. That red clay, after many years of composting, is now rich black soil and the envy of Forsyth County. Their father is the one lending his sons a hand, delivering stone-ground grits to their restaurants every month from an eighteenth-century water-powered grist mill near Greensboro, North Carolina. (He spends his days working at a brick-oven bakery, after retiring from the insurance business three years ago.) And the Stehling boys have gone from once-a-week cooks to professional chefs.
The transformation began when Robert took a job as a dishwasher at Chapel Hill's Crook's Corner, the North Carolina institution known for bringing meticulous technique to often-overlooked Southern classics like country captain (a mild, tomato-based chicken curry). He quickly moved up the ranks until he was head chef. "The first time Robert came home for Thanksgiving from working at Crook's, I was mesmerized," John says. "We gathered around as he taught Dad how to flip and mince like a chef; before we knew it, we were sitting down to Thanksgiving two hours late."
Robert continued his career in New York City, training at Arizona 206, then at Home. In 1996, he moved to Charleston to open the Hominy Grill with his wife, Nunally Kersch, and immersed himself in the distinctive cuisine of the South Carolina coastal plainthe low countrywith its bounty of oysters, shrimp and crab, and long history of rice cultivation. "I always look for a sensible connection to the past," Robert saysso he devoured the region's essential cookbooks, like Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife.
"A lot of my customers are 'new' Southerners," he adds. "They love their cell phones and SUVs but can't turn their back on liver pudding."
So Robert tweaks the flavors of many of the region's classics. And when he prepares a Thanksgiving meal in Charleston, the menu naturally reflects this approach. Robert reimagines every element of the hot-pepper jelly and cream cheese on crackers ubiquitous at Charleston cocktail parties: Where most commercial jellies are firm and dyed green, with a timid jalapeño flavor, Robert's homemade brick-red jelly is softer and uses a bracing blend of ancho and chipotle peppers. He replaces cream cheese with goat cheese and bakes the crackers himself with sesame seeds, an ingredient brought to the low country in the seventeenth century by slaves.
There's turkey, of course, moist and smoky with a puree of bacon and thyme massaged under the skin. Robert brightens pickled shrimp with fresh orange and turmeric, and folds mashed sweet potato and cumin into spoon bread. A gumbo plays the classic Southern tomato-and-okra pairing against the delicate sweetness of fresh blue crab and chopped basil. And the pumpkin pie, studded with pecans, gets a kick from two jiggers of bourbon.
Watching Robert and John put the finishing touches on dinner, their father clearly sees himself as a disciple. "Everything I know," he says proudly, "I inherited from them."
Matt Lee and Ted Lee, contributing editors at Travel + Leisure, write frequently about food and travel.
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