Story by April Dudash
Charleston chef Marc Collins maneuvers his massive Ford truck down the cobblestone streets alongside the old War of 1812 cannons of Battery Park, and we pass rows of towering Southern antebellum homes, with their chalky white columns framed by waving palmettos and winding balconies bursting with rocking chairs. It's easy living down by the water, where past dwellers would watch the Civil War unfold at their front porch steps.
Today, the Lowcountry, or the low-lying coast stretching from South Carolina to Georgia, has made Charleston an epicenter for multiculturally infused cuisine. History has blended Cajun, Caribbean and Native American traditions to form Charleston's Lowcountry dishes, which celebrate the proximity of fresh seafood with the kick of spices welcomed into the Port of Charleston centuries ago.
Collins is executive chef of Circa 1886, a charming carriage house turned high-end restaurant nestled next to the historic Wentworth Mansion. The 39-year-old Erie, Pa., native moved here in 2001, and the foodie destination has enveloped him ever since.
There are restaurants on every downtown corner, overwhelmingly diverse in their offerings and a huge tourism draw, so the chefs here know how to put twists on traditional Southern flavors.
Collins took us out to the Tattooed Moose that afternoon, a wooden shack of a place better suited for the chilled backwoods of Wisconsin. Families and couples gathered around wooden tables scrawled with markered names and carved drawings. A giant moose head stared back from behind the bar, next to a small sign: Beware of Attack Moose.
It's a small place where the waitresses squeeze around chairs while carrying bright red baskets. We ordered Mike's Famous Duck Club, Tattooed Moose's staple. For $13.50, you get a triple-decker duck confit sandwich on sweet Hawaiian bread, piled with smoked bacon, cheddar, red onion, lettuce, tomato and slathered with a garlic aioli that mixes with the duck juices as it drips onto crinkled paper. It takes a lot of will power to stop from swiping at the remnants with sticky fingers.
"It's a heart attack on a plate, you know," Collins says.
We know. But the three of us don't seem to care as we eat in pleasurable silence, paying homage the sweetness of the meaty fowl.
Collins admits he was pretty shy when he first moved into Charleston's chef scene. But it turned out to be a city that lacks chef-to-chef aggression and the arrogance associated with wanting to be better than the next guy.
He's a family man, with two young boys and a wife at home. Despite his shy start, he's gotten to know the chefs here, and his name is linked to one of the biggest Charleston culinary tributes - he helped found the Wine and Food Festival, which takes place downtown every spring.
Collins named a few of his favorite restaurants around town. One is 39 Rue de Jean, a swanky French cafe on John Street that, surprisingly, offers some of the best 10-ounce burgers, slathered in artisan cheese, in town.
Basil is also a strange choice; it's housed in an old Waffle House on King Street. The green and red curries, as well as the pad thai, gives usual Thai dishes an upscale kick.
Collins also praised the work of a few well-known chefs in Charleston, such as Sean Brock and his fine Southern dining restaurants Husk and McCrady's, Mike Lata at the local Lowcountry favorite Fig and Michelle Weaver and her pure, lush, Southern and cosmopolitan menu categories at Charleston Grill.
Collins drinks a Bud Light and comments that upscale Southern dining infused with worldly flavors is the path Charleston is taking. The need for fresh ingredients is paired with the satisfaction of invention, to make strange flavors that, as a whole, make a heck of a lot of sense to the palate.
At the beginning of Collins' Charleston culinary adventure, he bought a used book, "200 Years of Charleston Cooking," online. When he received it in the mail, he realized the book had been purchased down the street, on Rutledge Avenue, in 1941.
The history makes the restaurants here, where people grab dinner and stroll past a church where George Washington once worshipped. Charleston is famous for its history, gardens and plantations, but the food might overtake the reputation.
Or, perhaps, it's the perfect combination. At Circa, the food complements the building, a towering brick beauty cast in black iron built in 1885 by a wealthy cotton merchant.
When Collins moved to the city in 2001, he stayed in one of the basement rooms, but the true view was up the wooden spiral staircase to the roof overlooking all of Charleston.
"People realize just what we have here," he says. "Most people who move here never leave here."
Collins says his town has overtaken San Francisco as a food destination. About 30 percent of his business at Circa is local. He feeds more than 100 every night, and former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sat at his table, to a backdrop of historic carriage house doors converted into wine bottle shelves.
When there's downtime in the kitchen, he and his sous chef are thinking up new menu offerings.
"I don't think I've ever done the same thing twice."
This is how his mind works: He pinpoints seasonal fruits or vegetables - spring peas, for example - then dreams up ways to incorporate them, whether it's in a custard, in a sauce or whole on the plate. Spring peas work well with prosciutto and potatoes - Collins has a delicious spring pea and potato hash.
One of the more exotic items on the menu is the antelope meat from Broken Arrow Ranch, a home to free-range venison, antelope and boar in Texas. The animals are given relaxers before they meet their demise, a process that keeps the meat "super tender and beautiful."
Collins sits at the table at Tattooed Moose thinking up dishes in his head. He remarks that the antelope meat tastes rich and bloody. The sweet potato puree underneath, as well as a bit of sprinkled cinnamon, adds some sweetness and something delightfully Southern to the dish.
"You can taste all of these things in your mouth, and you're salivating," Collins says. "I'm salivating right now, thinking about it. It's 'Boom, you're done.'"
It takes time to learn such flavor interactions and ways to put twists on the traditional. Hoisin duck with collard greens kimchi could go dangerously awry, but in Collins' hands, it makes for the perfect sweet and savory combination.
"Our food has transcended," he says.
"I want people to look at my menu and go, 'There's a lot of crazy things going on; let's go here.' "
Executive chef Marc Collins likes to snap and share photos of his food with the popular app Instagram. Find him on Twitter: @ChefMarcCollins