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Meet the Black Entrepreneurs Behind The Holy City’s Thriving Culinary Scene

From a music-loving sommelier to a veritable professor of local food history, learn about the innovators making Charleston a dining tour de force—and start planning a vacation filled with incredible eats.

Chorizo-Stuffed Portobello with granny smith apple, garlic aioli, and balsamic is a new dish created by chef Marcus Shell.

Chorizo-Stuffed Portobello with granny smith apple, garlic aioli, and balsamic is a new dish created by chef Marcus Shell.

Photo by Paul Chemis

If ever a place was the embodiment of a great food destination, it’s Charleston. The Holy City (aptly named for its abundance of ornate churches) boasts fertile farmland, coastal bounty, and long, abundant growing seasons—plus cuisine steeped in rich African, English, and French Huguenot traditions.

Since the South Carolina city’s founding, resourceful Black chefs, both free and enslaved, passed culinary wisdom down through the generations. Like entrepreneurs such as Nat Fuller, an enslaved man who operated one of the most progressive and respected restaurants in Charleston during the Civil War, the city’s chefs today take guests on a dining journey that honors the legacy of those who came before them. We sat down with three of the gastronomy scene’s brightest stars to learn more.

Chef Kevin Mitchell

Chef Kevin Mitchell is the first Black chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

Chef Kevin Mitchell is the first Black chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

Photo by Teka Coaxum

The family kitchen, where chef Kevin Mitchell got his start cleaning collard and mustard greens for his grandmother, first sparked his interest in cooking. These early experiences led to a lifelong love of food and history that made him the acclaimed cook he is today.

Mitchell earned culinary arts degrees in occupational studies and management from the Culinary Institute of America and a master’s in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, where he studied Southern foodways, the preservation of Southern ingredients, and the history of African Americans in the culinary arts. He’s also the first Black chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, a Nathalie Dupree Graduate Fellow of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and a 2020 South Carolina Chef Ambassador, where he advocated for the preservation of Southern ingredients like Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island red peas.

Now a culinary scholar, the classically trained chef’s work examines the culture and history of the global South, giving voice to the African diaspora through the lens of food. “As a chef, I look at food not only through the physical act of cooking, but also by connecting the dots between the food and the people who grow and produce it,” Mitchell says. “My passion is uncovering the stories of formerly enslaved cooks and chefs and those who came after them.” Look out for events he holds in Charleston that pair delicious food with enrichment about local food culture.

Sommelier Femi Oyeridan

Femi Oyeridan is a sommelier and a self-professed “music junkie.”

Femi Oyeridan is a sommelier and a self-professed “music junkie.”

Photo by Lizzy Rollins

Before he was an award-winning sommelier, Femi Oyeridan was a DJ. Now the self-professed “music junkie” co-helms Graft Wine Shop & Bar—which of course, pairs everything with a stellar playlist.

Music set Oyeridan on a path of wine exploration and education. When he was 20, he applied for a job at Charleston Grill so he could rub elbows with legendary local musician Quentin Baxte. There, he met his mentor, former wine director Rick Rubel, and passed the first three levels of the Court of Master Sommeliers within two years.

Eventually he and fellow music lover Miles White opened Graft, where they revel in making wine approachable. In addition to the on-site wine bar where guests can enjoy cheese plates and charcuterie, Graft also holds tastings, pop-up events, and classes.

Oyeridan is a two-time national finalist for the Chaine des Rotisseurs Best Young Sommelier in America competition, was featured on Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2018 “40 Under 40” list, and won Food & Wine Sommelier Of The Year honors in 2019.

Chef Marcus Shell

Marcus Shell is the head chef at historic Charleston brasserie 39 Rue de Jean.

Marcus Shell is the head chef at historic Charleston brasserie 39 Rue de Jean.

Photo by Paul Chemis

Marcus Shell’s love of cooking started early, nurtured by his mother, and by 2011 he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. After relocating to South Carolina, Shell spent a year as sous chef at 82 Queen before taking on the role of executive chef at historic French brasserie 39 Rue de Jean. Here, he pairs technical skills with innovation to bring a creative twist to classic dishes such as coq au vin, roasted trout amandine, and duck confit croquettes for a sublime match of traditional and contemporary styles.

In January 2023, Shell was named a 2023 South Carolina Chef Ambassador. Established in 2015, the Ambassador program recognizes top chefs who best represent the state’s culinary culture. The chef’s professional creativity and personal style must also promote authentic South Carolina culinary experiences and encourage the consumption of locally produced foods. Shell credits his success to the opportunity to work for and with great leaders. “At the end of the day, I’m just a guy who wakes up and tries hard,” he says. “The Ambassador program will continue to nurture my thirst for knowledge and desire to be better.”

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