Every year, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) is the start of the high season in Charleston, S.C. Earlier this month the city swelled with approximately 40,000 attendees, many of whom travelled with their dogs and camo gear to see birds-of-prey demonstrations, buy nature-themed art, and generally celebrate nature conservation and preservation.
The epicenter for the action is always Marion Square, and in the middle of it was the Certified South Carolina Grown tent, housing local foodstuffs and a demo stage, where for the third year in a row, cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee hosted and curated a selection of South Carolina chef-and-farmer cooking demos throughout the three-day weekend. Their demos were mostly standing-room only, proving how successful a chef activation can be through expert curation, messaging, and pairing chefs with producers.
Full disclosure: I have been invited by the Lees the last two years to participate as a guest emcee on stage with them, and I’ve attended and covered SEWE for many years before that, so I’ve watched as this event has blossomed into a place where chefs want to be. But that wasn’t always the case. The Certified South Carolina Grown program from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture (SCDA) is a cooperative effort with farmers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers to brand and promote South Carolina products, and the SCDA’s Fresh on the Menu program brings that into the restaurant space, providing messaging and amplification of that “eat local” message for chefs who agree to prepare menus that dedicate at least 25% of their ingredients to in-season Certified South Carolina Grown products.
It’s easy to make the leap as to why the SCDA would want a presence at SEWE: promoting agricultural commerce helps keep farmers on their land, an important aspect of rural conservation. But when they began participating in SEWE 11 years ago, there was no Certified SC Grown program nor Fresh on the Menu, and no demo stage for chefs to participate for the first couple of years. Once those programs came on board and cooking demos began to be programmed, each year has improved, and now the partnership with the Lee Bros. has propelled it into a premier chef-participation event.
“The Lee Brothers have those strong food writer connections,” says Ansley Turnblad, Program Coordinator for Certified SC Grown, “and they follow the scene in Charleston and beyond. They tell great stories, but they also listen to other people when they tell their stories, and they are genuinely passionate about working to connect chefs with farmers. They’ve been very valuable to us as an agency.”
The Lees have been working with the SCDA since 2009, but only took over curation for the stage in the last three years, as they saw that there was a “real opportunity to diversify the types of chefs involved. The ways local ingredients are purchased are applicable across the board, and everyone is part of that system,” Matt explains, so they include a variety of culinary professionals, from food trucks to corporate chefs to those in fine dining restaurants. The Lees begin planning in August, making a case for the chefs who should be invited, and then collaborate with SCDA for matchmaking each chef with a farmer or producer. “It’s a year-long project, and it really feels like it. Our philosophy is that it requires one-on-one personal communication. The chefs and the farmers have a direct line to us throughout the year, and we continue the drum beat of regular communication with them.”
Once the stage is lit and a chef and farmer is on it, it’s not like many food festivals or charity events, where lots of chefs are competing for the attention of attendees. The Fresh on the Menu stage is really the main food component of the festival throughout the weekend, so chefs and farmers get to be showcased. “It’s not like the usual charity function,” says Chef Marc Collins of Circa 1886 in Charleston, who this year was paired with a WK Price Farms, a beef producer from Fork, S.C. “We aren’t raising awareness or money for a charity, but for an idea—eating local. It’s nice to be able to have the farmer on stage. I think that symbiosis is important, to get their voice there too, something I’ve incorporated into how we build the menus at the restaurant.”
And the Lees make sure that those voices are heard, directing the conversation, sometimes asking for more of a story or inquiring about a cooking technique or farm detail. There’s banter, laughter, plenty of encouraging the crowd to ask questions (with branded giveaway rewards), and samples from each chef in two-ounce portions. Essentially, the space is much more home kitchen than restaurant kitchen. “You know, for chefs, the home kitchen space often isn’t very familiar, and they don’t usually have the opportunity to be in that space,” Matt explains. There is a liberation, and suddenly the chef isn’t a god dispensing wisdom, but a fallible human being who has workshopped and perfected the dish in real time. “They are so much more relatable in that environment,” Matt says.
And about those partnerships? The farmers and chefs not only get the word out about their respective businesses, but they make connections with one another through the programming. Josh Johnson, farmer with Old Tyme Bean Co. in Cameron, S.C., was paired with the Lees for his demo and says that he likes to be involved to share “how much thought, prep, and effort it takes to get something on the fork for people to eat.”
Tania Harris, pastry chef of The Lazy Goat in Greenville, S.C., made kumquat jam with Stan (“the Citrus Man”) McKenzie of McKenzie Farms & Nursery in Scranton, S.C. She says, “As a chef, we normally don’t talk person-to-person with the farmer. We’ll email or something, but this was my first time talking to Stan, and to see his love and respect for the work and his products really made an impression on me. It’s different, it’s personal.”
And that’s what the SEWE Fresh on the Menu stage provides for all: authentic personal interaction. “Starting conversations, dialogues with chefs and farmers is what it’s all about,” Ted says. “And the crowd at SEWE is usually half locals, half visitors. We work to bring them together too, to find common interest even if they aren’t from South Carolina, and that usually comes down to the cooking that’s happening on stage. We want everyone to have something they can take away from the event.”