He is the artist, the river is his palette, and the plate is his canvas.
Words by Nicole Letts
Photos by Cameron Wilder
According to chef Brandon Carter at FARM Bluffton in Old Bluffton, South Carolina, the aromas of the nearby May River set the stage for a dining experience at his restaurant. “If the wind is blowing right, the first thing that you smell is salt air and mud,” he says. The restaurant sits just a few blocks from the May River, which pulses along the town and divides it from neighboring Palmetto Bluff. Without any upriver freshwater tributaries, it is fed by nearby saltwater bodies—mainly the Atlantic Ocean. Its salty, warm waters serve as a sanctuary for fish, oysters, and crabs, which, when plucked from the river’s arms, find their way to Brandon’s tables almost immediately. “We have fresh clams and shrimp that come off the boat and still have their heads on, and they're pristine. I always know when we get our shrimp order—If they’re not in bags, if they’re just kind of loose in the box with ice on top of them, that means that they picked them up from the boat on the way here,” he explains.
Brandon’s appreciation for the surrounding elements is evident in the way he speaks of his ingredients. They’re not simply sea critters; they’re respected gifts and are treated as such on his menu. May River blue crab rice flows to a seafood cassoulet made up of oyster sausage, Carolina shrimp and local flounder.
What inspired you to follow the path to chefhood?
There were a couple of deciding factors there. First, I was compelled by the allure of the kitchen. We used to travel to Italy every other summer to visit my stepbrother and stepsister. And the way that chefs were like rock stars there drew me in at a young age. I think I was 14 when I decided I was going to be a chef. Second, my parents just happened to become friends with these restaurateurs in Atlanta. They owned the Imperial Fez Restaurant. At 15, I was in there washing dishes and cleaning shrimp and cutting the shit out of my fingers. That and the fact that I was about as bad of a high school student as you could find. So, I got my GED, and before I should have even graduated high school, I was in culinary school.
In 2019, you were named as one of four South Carolina Chef Ambassadors for the year. What does that mean? And what does it mean for you as a chef?
It’s a great honor to be selected, and we get the opportunity to go around and preach the gospel of South Carolina grown and produced food. We also get to talk about the different regions of South Carolina and food experiences that you can have in those different regions.
How does FARM bluffton represent the south carolina Lowcountry?
I think that what really sets us apart is what we take out of the water. We represent that region on our menu with the oysters that we get. They’re usually still warm from the water. They’ve never been refrigerated before. [We also get] blue crab that we pick up from the Bluffton Oyster Company, which is one of the oldest operating oyster factories on the East Coast. They harvest the crabs themselves. They steam them there. And then they have all these ladies who pick the crab in-house. And that’s unheard of. I’ve been cooking for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen that before. We’ve got people who bring flounder. They go out on their boats, and they shine the light into the water, and when they see the twinkle of the flounder’s eyes, they spear it. When you harvest the fish that way, it’s a really quick kill. Lactic acid goes into the meat and starts to break it down the longer that the fish is dying. So, when they kill it really quickly like that, the quality of the fish is insane, and it makes for really good ceviches and crudos. We’re lucky to have such ingredients.
Despite our best efforts, farm to table has become a trendy term in dining. How do you distinguish your cuisine beyond that trendy title?
We intentionally try not to say this phrase. We’re all about farm to table, but we just feel like that’s the baseline. And from that baseline is where we build our cuisine. The way that we source is part of our DNA. I always tell people that we like to cook food that punctuates. You’re not going to find a whole lot of subtleties; we like things that make you feel something when you eat it—acid, texture, spice, lots of herbs—all those wonderful things that make your mouth jump around in a million different directions. That’s where we want to cook.
Is there something currently on your menu that is a good example of that?
We have this crab and candy roaster squash salad on the menu, and we julienne the squash raw and treat it like it’s a green papaya. We do all the flavors from a green papaya salad. So, it’s got fish sauce and ginger and chilies and lime juice and mint and cilantro and crispy shallots—all these different flavors and textures. And then we take this really beautiful crab that we get from the May River and mix it in there as well. That’s a really good example of punctuation.
You've mentioned sourcing. And I know that you even have an area on your website dedicated to your purveyors and farmers. How have you built those relationships, and why has that been an important part of the restaurant being successful?
Those relationships are one-on-one. They’re handshakes and text messages and phone calls. Our checkbook is filled with check stubs that were written to people and not big food distribution companies. It forces us to walk the walk. We have open dialogue with the people who grow our food and produce it, to the extent that we’re asking them to grow things for us, or we’re talking about what size oyster we’re looking for. All of these different things help both of us—both parties—be successful.
Rumor has it you guys are looking to expand to some other cities. Is that something that's still on the horizon, and why is expanding important to you?
Yes. We have a project underway in Savannah that we’ll be releasing more information about soon. For me, I think growing is important so that we have opportunities for our team. We’re looking to build a team of people who see a future and want to stay with us. Every time we open a new restaurant, that means there’s a chef position, and there’s a sous chef position, and there’s a GM position. This way, we can keep our family together and grow. Things that are important to us are how we source our food, how we serve our community, and how we serve and nurture our team. And that’s what makes FARM, FARM, you know?