Let’s just get this out there now. Whenever possible, I shy away from corporate and chain businesses. Restaurants especially, but I’m a huge proponent of small businesses. I avoid Williams-Sonoma (Smoked Cracked Black Pepper is the exception to the rule) in favor of local stores like Kitchenware Outfitters of Savannah. David, Barbara, and the staff are experienced and knowledgeable and I’m confident that they cook and demo and use what they sell. So, when I get the invite to their Culinary Director’s publication party, I’m looking forward to sitting down to a chat with him.
Damon Lee Fowler has just released his seventh cookbook. “Savannah Chef’s Table” is a collection of recipes ‘focusing on Savannah’s growing and changing culinary scene.’ It includes places like Sapphire Grill, Elizabeth on 37th and Alligator Soul. It also includes smaller places to eat and rising stars in the culinary community like Adam Turoni and his Broughton Street wonderland of chocolates.
Sitting across from Damon, I immediately get the impression of the ingrained southern gentleman. I like this person across the table from me, exhibiting an easy charm and breezy style. His voice is gently melodic and gives you the impression that he’s letting you in on in inner workings of food in Savannah. Taking 17 months from start to finish, Damon took 5 months to reach out to the owners and chefs for their recipes for this beautiful culinary inspiration photographed by Christopher Shane.
As we sat and commiserated over the recent closing of so many restaurants like Sol & Sammy Greens, people are milling around, buying the book, and sampling the food placed around the store. I wonder what makes this book different. Certainly, it’s not the first “Savannah” cookbook to come on the scene. The Deen family alone could open a wing at the Library of Congress. Giving me a sideways glance, he notes that “Unlike previous books where I have collected things from other places like the historical books, I have thoroughly worked through the recipes. They really become my recipes because I have spent so much time with them.” he says. “So the recipes came directly from the chefs, as they were presented by the chefs, the only thing I did was clean them up.”
The question of favorites comes up. Recipe? Restaurant? “I don’t have one.” he says. “How do you choose? What time of year is it? What time of day is it? What did I have for lunch? People ask me all the time what’s my favorite restaurant and I don’t have one. My partner and I still go to Elizabeth’s for special occasion stuff and we love the food there and…they’re just such great, great people, so that’s our ‘go-to’ place.”
I wonder what he thinks makes Savannah cuisine different: “Well, Savannah cuisine is still not what you find in restaurants. The restaurant culture here is beginning to have its own identity, which is kind of exciting, like Charleston has an identity as a culinary destination and New Orleans has an identity as a culinary destination. Unlike New Orleans, there is a restaurant based cuisine that has a long history and to a certain extent, Charleston does; Savannah really hasn’t had a long culinary history in terms of restaurants. There have been some very good dining rooms here and I talk about them in the book.”
“Savannah’s real culinary identity was home cooking. I mean, the food that people came here to eat that Savannah was famous for was home cooking. It’s the stuff that people have had in Savannah for 100 years.” He points to a lovely lady, Susan Mason, who is a long time caterer in Savannah waiting to have her book signed, “She doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with it.” She replies, “I don’t do any foam.” Animatedly, Damon chimes in, “Foam makes it look like some dog spit up on the plate, it is NASTY!”
We return to the topic at hand, “There’s a lot of rice, a lot of seafood, a sort of collision of West Africa and England without quite as much as the French influence that’s in Charleston. One of the things that’s never really been explored is the strong Jewish influence on the cuisine.”
Farm to table dining has really exploded lately when asked about it, Damon gives a really fascinating insight on it: “It’s high time. It was part of the original city plan. Every lot in the city…was big enough to have a kitchen garden right there and every settler got a bigger plot outside the city palisades and then the squares were for all for keeping livestock…we’re coming back to that earth to table that was there from the beginning…and I think it’s really exciting.”
When he goes on to say, “I don’t think Savannah is ever going to be a restaurant town and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Not every city needs to be a restaurant town and I don’t think Savannah needs to be one,” I’m pretty surprised. I comment, “It’s amazing how many restaurants we do have, though, that are really such a high caliber.” Curious about Savannah not needing to be a restaurant town, I ask him what he thinks of Hugh Acheson making his Savannah debut. “I think he’ll be able to hold his own against our chefs that are here. Yeah, I think he’ll do okay…I don’t think he’s any better than any of them, I think we have a lot of incredible talent here.”
Damon’s 8th book is in the works and under contract so he can’t talk about it, but for his future, “I’m writing fiction. I’m wanting to get that fiction published. For me, it’s writing. I mean, I love cooking and I love food and I love writing about it, but for me it’s about the writing, so I just want to be writing and telling stories.”
I sense the bears are getting restless so I ask if he wants to say anything in closing. “One thing to understand about restaurants is that restaurants are run by human beings. No two cows are the same, no two cilantro plants are the same so everything in a restaurant is fluid. This is really hard to be consistent. If you go to a restaurant and you don’t have a wonderful experience with the food, don’t assume the restaurant is bad, give it a chance again because someone is working hard and place can have a bad night, anybody can have a bad night.” Makes me wonder if he has read some of my reviews. Ouch.
I head for the wine.
Written by Jessica Ghormly