This is a feel good story. A story about family who found their roots at Palmetto Bluff.
Those roots were nourished while walking row after row of the adjacent Lowcountry Farms property. We actually started this story four issues ago, when we told the tale of local farmers, highlighting those farms in which the chefs of the Bluff’s many restaurants were sourcing local products and finding inspiration for their menus. Back then, it was Chef Brandon Carter who would spend hour upon hour each week with farmer Ryan Williamson. Conversations paired with picking vegetables can apparently create quite the bond.
The two wondered if one day a restaurant collaboration would be in the cards. Until then though, they kept planting and tasting and talking. Fast forward two years and the duo, plus a third partner, are opening the doors to their new, 45-seat restaurant in Old Town Bluffton, dubbed FARM.
And, oh, those doors. Custom made with materials reclaimed and deconstructed from a 100-year-old barn in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the exposed and oxidized face on all of the lumber was preserved to create the rich, rustic charm of a time gone by. Sounds silly, but the heirloom quality of those doors almost tells you all you need to know.
My father used to tell me that you can judge a restaurant (and your impending culinary experience) on the bread. If the bread was good, you knew the rest would be great. I still agree on the bread theory, but I felt similarly the first time I saw the doors to FARM. I knew something special was going to happen behind them. The doors had recently been installed while extensive work was still happening on the inside. Amidst the flying dust and dozens of craftsmen putting the finishing touches on the interior space, I saw only the doors. They appeared to be rich with history, and their texture reflected their age – suggesting decades of stories to tell. But you could also feel the immense amount of work that went into restoring the doors, a story in itself.
“When the doors came in, it was a moving experience. I hadn’t seen them before they were in the building, so to see it come together was moving,” said Carter. “Especially in an experience that has been so humbling.” By humbling Carter means the road blocks they’ve experienced in building a new business, and a new building. “You take things for granted that others will do, and then when people are responsible for a wider scope you realize what it takes to put something like this together. So, when I say humbling, I mean humbling but positive – I will appreciate it a lot more. This entire experience will help me to be a better chef in the end,” Carter said.
I am not sure he needed any help being a better chef, as I still dream of the first dish he ever made for me. Scallops seared just enough to have a caramelized shell, over a bed of spinach sautéed with garlic. He basically had me at hello. Back then to hear him talk about his dream, it wasn’t about notoriety or owning his own restaurant – it was (and still is) all about the food, the ingredients, and the people. It was, after all, his family and food experiences growing up that shaped his career path, which in addition to Palmetto Bluff has included The Ritz-Carlton Naples in South Florida, the Belly General Store and Mumbo Jumbo Bar and Grill.
With people being paramount, it is no surprise that Carter bonded so quickly with Williamson and their third partner, Josh Heaton. Their philosophies are oddly (or ironically, or harmoniously) similar.
It was the men in Williamson’s family who taught him to love cooking. He grew up doing most of the grunt work — heading shrimp, picking crab, tending to the garden – in and around the kitchen and at large family gatherings. His father and Uncle Johnny enjoyed hosting and entertaining as many people as they could talk into coming to a party (a trait they inherited from their father) and thus, it was only natural that Ryan would follow in their footsteps – toward foodways.
Williamson’s mother taught him everything else — about hard work (she often worked two to three jobs to make ends meet), and family, and the importance of a big heart, of connecting with and giving to others. Williamson ran operations for Savannah Bee Company until 2011 when his triplets (yes, triplets!) arrived and he became a stay-at-home dad. In June 2013, Williamson and his wife Joanne purchased a five-acre farm next to Palmetto Bluff. Lowcountry Farms shares a border with the community, but that’s hardly Williamson’s only connection to Palmetto Bluff. He and Joanne were married there in 2008, and it’s been a perennial favorite destination ever since.
Heaton, who will handle front of house operations, dubs himself a forager. I would dare to add cocktail master and pickler/preserver to his resume as well. A resume that includes his relocation from Southern California eight years ago, when Starbucks Coffee Company assigned him to a then-struggling location on Hilton Head Island. After implementing strategies that led to growth in Starbucks’ top key performance measures, Heaton went on to do the same at the high profile location in the heart of Savannah’s Historic District. An inspired home cook, Heaton loves to uncover and tell stories about where our food (and drink) comes from, and what it takes to bring them to the table. Heaton’s home garden is also something of a showpiece — kiwi vines, Muscadine grapes, asparagus, blueberries, raspberries, hops, and other food producing plants have been flourishing since his arrival in Bluffton.
When I asked Heaton what the most crucial ingredient for a restaurant was, his response was immediate: “People.” When asked to explain, he used his “Pear Necessity” cocktail (recipe below) as the example. “The gin was crafted by Tony, who lives on Hilton Head. The ginger is grown by family farmers Spade and Clover, [who live] up on Johns Island. The Kombucha mother culture was gifted to me by my buddy Scott. And the pear tree was planted a long time ago, by whom, I do not know (but it was almost certainly a person). We are dependent on the talents and hard work of people whose stories are too often unknown or untold. At FARM, we intend to connect our guests to the stories behind their food and engage diners at a whole new level. A cocktail doesn’t come from a bottle, it comes from people,” said Heaton.
Gives you chills doesn’t it?
As I type, opening day is looming and Carter is testing recipes. He notes, “We had all these plans to create this restaurant that we could see in our head, but didn’t know what it was going to look like. And every time another piece of the puzzle is put in place and starts to reveal what the picture is… it’s moving.” Like the wood-fire oven that will take center stage in the space. It is Williamson’s favorite part of the entire restaurant. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Chef Brandon can create with such a versatile piece of equipment. The dishes that come out of it will certainly be rustic yet refined. As a lover of cooking toys myself, this was an easy addition to the kitchen,” Williamson said.
As for the menu, Carter says, “It has been in my head my whole life. It will be fresh, simple, and clean – so you can go out to eat and still feel good about yourself.”
Carter said he has been writing down five or six ideas every day – “What if we did this?” His approach to the menu include a lot of questions to Williamson, “Can you grow this?”
While testing recipes with other chef friends, Carter has changed the way he approaches food, but, back to the people, it is his management style has shifted a little bit, too. “The menu doesn’t have to be about me or my idea – there is a vision, but everybody has input – bartenders, servers, cooks – we can all collaborate and this can be our restaurant.”
He’s giving his kitchen team the leeway to run with stuff (under a watchful eye so they don’t derail something), but he believes that if someone is the owner of a dish, chances are that dish is always going to be made better. It will always be special to them. “This is an unconventional way of thinking for me, but turns out … I like it,” said Carter.
The FARM concept is so much more than farm to table – but first, it actually is farm to table, which many claim but few execute authentically. Many of the ingredients will be grown just a few miles down the road at Williamson’s Lowcountry Farms or in Heaton’s backyard garden. But with a commitment to building community through food, Carter looks throughout the Lowcountry region to source the best product, and works with other local chefs to share ideas. “I work with Clayton at Lucky Rooster a lot, even though we are in the same market, we are working toward a common goal,” Carter said. “I like to source my chickens through Grassroots Farm. I introduced them to Clayton and now he works with Grassroots too. This makes it easier for the farmer – now he knows when he comes to Bluffton he can bring 100 chickens to multiple restaurants, making it mutually beneficial for everyone.”
As I listen to each of the partners tell their story and their purpose, my enthusiasm for FARM grows (see what I did there?).
Heaton’s recipe for the perfect cocktail.
1 1/2 oz Bullrush Gin
3/4 Homegrown Pear & Ginger syrup
Shaken, strained and topped with house-brewed Kombucha
Garnish with preserved pear and ginger pickled in homemade malt vinegar.
What is Kombucha? Great question.
Kombucha is a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drinks that are commonly intended as functional beverages for their health benefits.
Written by Courtney Hampson
Photography by Rob Kaufman