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A ‘Top Chef’ Guide to Charleston's Culinary Scene

Alums Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson dish on the season's best local spots
Top Chef with Charleston's Hat Ladies
Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Since its inception, Bravo's game-changing cooking competition, Top Chef, has been just as much about the digs as the dishes. Much like a culinary version of the Real World, each new season picks a different city to serve as its backdrop, giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the most exciting local culinary scenes around the country. From New York and Chicago to Las Vegas and Seattle, the locations have not only provided inspiration for the challenges on-screen, they've also opened our eyes—and our appetites—up to a whole new batch of crave-worthy travel spots.

Top Chef Charleston winner Brooke Williamson and runner-up Shirley Chung stopped by the Tasting Table office to give us their takes on season 14's best chefs and restaurants. Make sure to check out this Padma Lakshmi-approved restaurant guide before planning your next South Carolina getaway.

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The Long Room at McCrady's Tavern

Episode two: "Southern Hospitality"

"One of the first restaurants we cooked in was McCrady's," Williamson said. "That was a great experience." McCrady's partner/chef Sean Brock was also the first Lowcountry local to hit the screen this season, acting as host of the elimination challenge dinner at his 239-year-old tavern for a family style meal inspired by some good old-fashioned home cooking.

Offscreen, diners can relive the star-studded episode with Brock's soulful yet refined menu, which features delicacies like deviled crab-stuffed clams and a calf's-head soup made from a recipe that dates back to 1885. And though their kitchens never made an appearance, the other restaurants represented on the "Southern Hospitality" illustrious judges' panel—including chef Michelle Weaver's Charleston Grill, chef Kevin Johnson's The Grocery, and chef Robert Stehling's Hominy Grill and S.N.O.B.—are certainly worth a visit.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Chef BJ Dennis

Episode two: "Southern Hospitality"

Before heading to McCrady's for the elimination challenge, the cheftestants were invited to join two Charleston chefs at their personal dinner tables. The veteran team was given the opportunity to dine with esteemed caterer BJ Dennis, and for Chung, sampling his regional cuisine was a life changer.

"BJ Dennis—I have to give him a shout-out," Chung said. "He does Gullah cuisine, and it's hands down the best food ever. It's so soulful, but it's not heavy; it's light and very seasonal. And the way he cooked his collard greens was so beautiful and simple."

If you're in town, keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events featuring chef Dennis's Gullah Geechee specialities, a genre of cooking that merges West African, West Indian and Southern traditions.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Callie’s Charleston Biscuits

Episode two: "Southern Hospitality"

The rookies, on the other hand, were assigned to visit the home of biscuit maker extraordinaire Carrie Morey for a hearty, rib-sticking Southern feast. The celebrated baker gave the newbies a crash course in biscuit perfection, letting them in on her family's secret ingredient: cream cheese. Apparently, all there is to making the best biscuits in the South is just a little extra fat. See for yourself by copping a few of Morey's buttery masterpieces from her online shop.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

FIG

Episode four: "The Feast of Seven Trash Fishes"

Every culinary enthusiast knows that when in Charleston, you must FIG—and the Top Chef team is no exception.

"Chef Mike Latta is a genuinely great chef, and his kitchen was beautiful," Chung remembered, naming FIG as one of her favorite shooting locations. "We had a really good time cooking there."

Despite FIG's winning good looks, Lata's episode was definitively focused on embracing the, er, trashier side of life. The holiday-themed competition followed the chefs as they prepared the Feast of the Seven Fishes using a selection of seafood usually dismissed for its low quality. That's not to say Lata's menu is teeming with undesirables—slow-baked black bass accompanied by green garlic and clam potage, and a crudo of Cape Bay scallops topped with tangy citrus mignonette are just two of FIG's markedly prime fish options.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Scott's BBQ (Hemingway)

Episode five: "Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em"

According to Williamson and Chung—as well as just about every meat-loving viewer out there—the barbecue challenge starring pitmaster Rodney Scott was one of the season's most memorable. After splitting the group into teams and taking them on a saucy tour around Greater Charleston's top smoke shacks (including a stop into Holly Hill's beloved Sweatman’s BBQ), chef Scott brought them back to his family's 45-year-old barbecue joint in nearby Hemingway, South Carolina, and set them up for a whole-hog feast.

"Rodney Scott's BBQ! Oh my God, so good," Chung raved. "It's way out in the boonies, and they're only open three days [a] week."

"It's because they do whole hog, which is, like, 14 hours. And they just sell until they run out, so it's pretty great," Williamson added. "It was way out of the city, but it's totally worth the trip."

Heaping plates of pulled pork, smoked chicken and whole pit-cooked barbecue hogs, smothered in house-made sauce with a side of spiced boiled peanuts? Sounds worth the trip to us.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Middleton Place

Episode six: "A Southern Legend"

This extremely poignant mid-season episode was one of the most emotionally powerful and Charleston-centric of the lot. Just after the Quickfire concluded, chef Alexander Smalls and journalist Toni Tipton-Martin, both experts in the field of African American foodways, entered the Top Chef kitchen and introduced the cheftestants to their elimination challenge: to cook a meal that pays homage to late Southern cuisine pioneer Edna Lewis inside her very own kitchen at Middleton Place.

Over at the sprawling Lowcountry restaurant and estate, chef Lewis's spirit appeared to seep into every aspect of this challenge, from Sheldon Simeon's simple pork and cabbage dish to Sylva Senat's masterful skillet-fried snapper. It was as if all of Charleston's storied history had been beautifully arranged on a silver platter, and everyone, including the local guest judges, chef BJ Dennis and chef/author Nathalie Dupree, were visibly moved.  

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

"For me, I think I'm always going for the most soulful angle," Chung explained. "Chef BJ Dennis and chef Edna Lewis, even Charleston as a city—it's how they respected their heritage that really inspired me. That reflects in their cuisine, and so all their dishes tell a story. That's very similar to how I cook, except I didn't know that about myself until I came to Charleston."

For Williamson, gaining a better understanding of Southern cooking expanded her horizons and made her view her own culinary traditions in a new light. "I think the ingredients inspired me more than anything," she said. "You know, I had never worked with benne seeds, I hadn't worked with a lot of different types of grits—those ingredients were everywhere and so abundant. I'm from California, and Southern food is so polar opposite from California cuisine. I feel like some of the ingredients do carry over, but it's just that the style in which they're prepared is totally, completely different."

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Shem Creek

Episode 10: "Shrimp Boats and Hat Ladies"

Shem Creek served as the setting for the season's epic shrimp boat excursion led by, who else, head judge Tom Colicchio (along with professional shrimper Tommy Edwards). After the trip, the competitors set up shop right there on the docks for a heated Quickfire, which challenged the chefs to make the most of their respective hauls. To experience a Top Chef-quality sea-to-table experience minus all that pesky physical labor, pop over to Shem Creek for fresh local seafood at one of the area's many fish houses.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

The elimination challenge was held at The River House at Lowndes Grove, a breathtaking event space perched on the banks of the Ashley River. It was there that the crew whipped up Southern brunch with a twist for Charleston's famous Hat Ladies, a whimsical collective of local women dressed to the nines in the wildest hats imaginable. And, yes, Padma couldn't help but join the fun.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

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