The Food Film Festival was the creation of filmmaker, photographer, Travel Channel show host, and Festival Director George Motz and Chef Harry Hawk in New York City in 2007. Several years later they took this concept to Chicago, and later Charleston. What is the Food Film Fest? It is a “multi-sensory” experience! In each venue, a film is selected and while the film is playing, guests sample the food presented onscreen. As you are noshing on “movie food” you are simultaneously visually and auditorily stimulated by what’s on the screen. It’s as if you are part of the film.
The concept of the Food Film Fest is unique and entertaining. I like it. They’ve got a pretty ingenious arrangement in place. As you’re seated watching the movie, Food Film Fest staff come to your row with a tray full of food samples. Each person takes a sample and passes the tray along to the end, where another staff member picks up the empty tray. Every seat has a trash bag to collect your containers and utensils so you’re not left holding your trash. Who doesn’t like to eat while watching a movie? The cool thing here is that you’re eating what you’re watching. That ups the cool factor by a bunch. Once the film is over you move on to the after-food, which in this case was sometimes an expansion of what you saw on the screen, and at other times new foods entirely.
This particular Food Film Fest was in Charleston, SC. The world premiere of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Charleston, SC episode was hosted on 11 November 2015 in the Cedar Room at the Cigar Factory in Charleston.
Located only blocks from the Ravenel Bridge, the Cigar Factory, originally built in 1881 as a cotton factory, was given new life in 2014. Ownership of this historic property has changed hands several times over the last century. After the devastating earthquake in 1886, the factory changed ownership and was eventually leased to the American Cigar Company in 1903. A constant employer in the Charleston community for over 70 years, the American Cigar Company eventually shut its doors in Charleston in the 1960s in response to increasing government tobacco restrictions.
After closing the doors to cigar manufacturing, the factory was leased to various businesses while the landlord tried to figure out the best use for the space. In 1980 the Cigar Factory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and eventually this space was leased to the culinary school, Johnson & Wales.
When Johnson & Wales moved their culinary school to Charlotte in 2006, a void was left for the new owners to fill. Unfortunately, plans for a mixed use space fell through, leaving the Cigar Factory empty once again. In 2014 new owners plunged ahead with plans to refurbish the factory, giving new life to this historic building. Today, the Cedar Room serves as a venue for events and weddings with exposed brick, large beams, and architectural remnants serving as the backdrop.
On this night, under the dimmed lights of the Cedar Room, guests of the Food Film Fest gathered to sample food presented in the season finale of Parts Unknown – Charleston. After opening the doors in an effort to get everyone in and settled, the premiere began about 20 minutes after 7. George Motz, founder of the Food Film Festival, opened the festival with a brief introduction and then it was on to viewing Parts Unknown and sampling the food from the show!
Sadly, Bourdain was not in Charleston for the fest. He did, however send a message which was played prior to the beginning of the episode. Parts Unknown: Charleston started off with Sean Brock, James Beard Award-winning Executive Chef of Husk Restaurant and Bourdain recounting his [Bourdain’s] previous disastrous visit to Charleston years ago. Not wanting to suffer another champagne and barbecue faux pas, Bourdain was leaning on Brock as his Charleston culinary and cultural guide. A comical fellow, Brock started off the episode with decidedly non-local drinks – beer and Jägermeister. Neither beer nor Jägermeister being my thing, thanks to great fun in my long-gone youth, I passed up on round one to save my fellow attendees.
What does one do after a night of drinking Jäger and beer? Eat! The Waffle House was the first to be featured in the episode, and accordingly, the first food to be sampled. Bourdain, like many other non-Southerners, had no idea what a Waffle House is, let alone know that it was a Southerner’s go-to place for diner food for the last 60 years. The closest thing the Waffle House resembles is, perhaps, an IHOP. But the food is good and they’re open 24/7. We noshed on hash browns while listening to Brock give Bourdain, a novice, a block of instructions on how to navigate the Waffle House menu.
Brock, along with many other Charleston chefs, is revolutionizing Southern cuisine. Focusing on local food and historic recipes, presented with a new twist, these chefs are creating an environment of appreciation for Southern cuisine.
Bourdain and Brock met up with actor Bill Murray, resident of Charleston and part owner of the Charleston River Dogs baseball team. They discussed the food culture in the South and the food revolution happening in Charleston. Murray, a transplanted New Yorker, joked “I’m right on the edge here, like telling people that this is a really nice place to come and really I don’t want anyone else to come. I like it the way it is. There’s a lot of insects. It’s really, really hot in the summer. And the traffic is worse than it ever was.” A collective cheer erupted in the dark room, which I found ironic as I’m sure many of the people there were also transplants. It’s a phenomenon that is happing across the South and many towns are beginning to look anything like the charming town they once were with the influx of people. Even Charleston, although my favorite city and still quite charming, has a different vibe than it had a few years ago. Rather than having its own identity, Charleston is becoming more mainstream and its uniqueness is slowly fading away.
Our next round of in-house restaurant samplings to be passed along on the tray included Country Ham (very different from the ham you’ve eaten at a family meal such as Easter) with House-made Bread and Butter Pickles on a skewer from Husk Restaurant. The ham reminded me of a prosciutto – salty, thinly sliced – sandwiched between the bread and butter pickle slices. To start off the first skewer bite, however, I munched the most airy, light, slightly chewy, flavorful pork rind I have ever tasted.
As Parts Unknown kept playing the food kept coming. Next up was Conch and Peanut Stew by Chef BJ Dennis. Sitting at a table on James Island, Chef Dennis speaks to his personal mission of preserving the culinary traditions brought to our shores by slaves from West Africa many decades ago, while serving up tasty dishes to his guests. The Gullah Geechee, found in the low-country region, are descendants of enslaved Africans and it is important to preserve their traditions and culture. African slaves heavily influenced Southern cuisine, although on one point I must disagree with Anthony Bourdain. Although you can easily see the African influences in Southern foods, Bourdain propagated the misconception that all Southerners were served by African slaves when he stated “Fact of the matter is, in the old south back when the dishes, flavors, and ingredients of southern cooking, which is to say American cooking as opposed to European, chances are that food was grown, gathered, produced and prepared by African slaves.” The real fact of the matter is that not everyone owned a slave in the South. According to census records, less than one-third of people in the South owned slaves. Most people in the South did not own slaves and had numerous children to help with farming and farm chores, and they grew, gathered, produced, and prepared their own food ,while still heavily influenced by African foods such as okra, rice, benne (sesame seed), and preparation styles.
I am not a seafood person, for the most part. Mostly, I don’t mind tasting a bite or two of seafood, but don’t want an entire seafood meal. This was a first for me, I’ve never eaten conch before. Surprisingly, the conch and peanut stew lacked the “fishy” taste common in many seafood dishes and it was deliciously savory. For those of you that are not familiar with boiled peanuts, they are a common treat in the south. Done correctly, a boiled peanut is slightly salty with a soft, almost silky texture, and utterly addictive. The peanuts in the conch stew had much this same soft texture and when combined with the conch, made for a hearty stew. Also served was a flaky smoked fish prepared by Abundant Sea Food, which was not fishy either. In fact it had a delicate smoky flavor that I quite enjoyed.
Probably my favorite food featured in Parts Unknown was the Anson Mills and FIG Restaurant Rice and Red Peas. Never heard of a red pea? Me either. I am here to tell you, you need to try them! Glenn Roberts did many things in his life before founding Anson Mills and embarking on a journey to restore Carolina Gold rice and other heirloom grains to local tables around the South. Today, these grains are milled fresh for tables across the region and beyond. The Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice and Red Peas were so flavorful they needed nothing extra to make them taste better. So what is a red pea? Without soundly snarky, it’s a small red pea with a dark spot on one side, similar to a black-eyed pea. Unlike a regular pea or lima bean, this pea was not mealy. It had a smooth texture with almost a “pop” when you bite down on it. I loved this dish! By far, this was my favorite of all the food served while watching the premiere. When I visit local operating mills I always buy yellow grits so I can compare the grits with other mill’s grits. I love the idea of supporting a local mill, and Anson Mills is truly doing something unique here. Reintroducing lost Southern grains from the Antebellum Southern pantry is quite a feat, one they are conquering! Rather than recounting the entire episode, you can watch it here.
I sampled more Carolina Gold rice (I am hooked!), Rabbit Terrine en Croute from FIG Restaurant, and cola from Sugar in the Raw (I use Sugar in the Raw in my tea every morning). Rodney Scott, Pitmaster of the award-winning Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC was also there serving up his famous whole hog BBQ with crunchy pork skins. The “secret family recipe” sauce is vinegar based and offers a little zing to this juicy pulled pork. My favorite after-food food was the Benne Wafer Gelato from Paolo’s Gelato Italiano. Oh. My. God. A benne wafer is a thin sesame seed cookie-ish type wafer from the low-country and Paolo took this little delight and turned it into the most glorious, creamy gelato. I could have eaten buckets of this stuff but had to settle for two teenie cones instead, which was better than nothing.
The Food Film Fest is a charity fundraiser benefitting Slow Food Charleston and Grow Food Carolina. Each of these local organizations each work to preserve local foods, local culture, and traditions through sustainable development and focusing on agriculture. It is important for us to preserve our local foods, culture, and traditions to ensure future generations have access to these gastronomic goodies.To quote Slow Food, “slow the fork down,” get off the hamster wheel and enjoy local cuisine no matter where you travel!