Last fall, the Boston Globe published a travel feature under the headline: “Charleston’s rise as a top destination has been fueled by more than its charming historic district and warm weather: It’s also a food lover’s paradise.”
The Washington Post, New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and Southern Living have run similar paeans to the genteel South Carolina city and its culinary repute in recent years.
Star chefs such as Sean Brock and Mike Lata, and upscale tasting menu and seasonality bistros with botanically hip names such as Fig and Husk and, old school, at least in moniker, McCrady’s, draw the crowds and wow the critics.
Still, celebrity in the kitchen has a tenuous shelf life. An exception in Charleston is a fellow named Frank Lee, who in the 1990s opened his acclaimed Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.) and High Cotton, and was there in the kitchen in 2016 to be named Charleston Chef of the Year by Thrillist, a New York-based online site covering food, drink, travel and entertainment.
Patrons of Westerly’s Weekapaug Inn, who go back to the mid-1980s and the era of owners Chet Buffum and his wife, Jane, might recall that the same Frank Lee worked the kitchen at the venerable inn by the salt pond and ocean for two summers.
This, reads the Thrillist profile honoring Lee, is who matriculated from his sous chef days at the Weekapaug Inn:
“ … Frank Lee, the chef whose vision guided S.N.O.B. to respect and prominence as Charleston’s most forward-thinking restaurant nearly a quarter century ago. Before the words ‘farm-to-table’ were ever printed, Lee thumbed his nose at distributor seafood and produce in favor of local offerings. Lee served the city’s first plate of pad thai. He pioneered the first charcuterie program in town. For a time, he strived to be known as the ‘Tamale King’ of Charleston. That’s all in the confines of a restaurant generally pegged as ‘Southern cuisine,’ where blue jeans share space with seersucker and it’s still possible to eat a meal for under $20.
“But why Frank Lee for Thrillist Charleston’s Chef of the Year, right now?
“Frank Lee is Charleston’s rock. Most importantly, he’s Charleston’s food and beverage mentor. The list of chefs who came of age under Lee’s tutelage is stunning — Kevin Johnson (The Grocery), Josh Hopkins (Empire State South, Atlanta), Chris Newsome (Ollie Irene, Birmingham), Graham Dailey (Peninsula Grill, Charleston), and on and on. These once-aspiring cooks gained culinary skills, of course, but they also learned responsibility and how to run an efficient business. Lee calls his kitchen ‘a study, a workshop, and an altar.’ It’s a place where young cooks learn how to respect ingredients, customers, and each other.”
Lee, who is retired today and lives on Isle of Palms outside Charleston, told me by phone the other week that his kitchen was known, affectionately, as “Frank Lee’s home for wayward boys and troubled girls.”
Lee and his wife, Robin, were drafted to the Weekapaug Inn in 1984 or so by another renowned Carolina chef named Malcom Hudson, with whom Lee had worked in Columbia, S.C., and who was running the kitchen at Weekapaug.
“We had been in Chicago and Malcolm said come up to Weekapaug,” recalled Lee. “It was just lovely. We worked only eight-hour days. We got to stay in a little fancy cottage in back. It was just the civility of the place. I was in the kitchen with Malcolm and it really opened my eyes to the fact you could make a living in a pleasant environment. I came back for a second summer.”
He remembered hearing Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival and dancing to a tiny radio in a back room at Roxy’s in Westerly.
“If you worked the morning shift, you were off by 4 in the afternoon and you would walk down the stony path to the beaches,” he said. “I learned how to windsurf in the lagoon. … It was almost a vacation from normal restaurant work.”
But it wasn’t all play, not matter how little the stress. On Thursdays, there would be what he called a “New York shrimp cookout” at the inn, with fresh corn and salads and strip steaks and baked potatoes. “We served the guests. I’m not sure we served the public. If we did it was minimal,” he said. “No question the guests were well-heeled, but they didn’t show their wealth. Owner Chet Buffum and his wife Bunny were very laid back. They made the mellow spirit of the place.”
After Weekapaug, Lee worked in several places, including Washington, D.C., settled in Charleston, and then on his own and with partners, opened an array of eateries: Slightly North of Broad, High Cotton (and eventually another High Cotton in Greenville, S.C.), Slightly Up in Creek in Mount Pleasant, High Hammock on Pawley’s Island among others under the management group Maverick Southern Kitchens and three Charleston Cooks kitchen shops.
He wrote a cookbook — “The S.N.O.B. Experience Cookbook by Chef Frank Lee” — and after some 45 years of standing at the stove, retired from the kitchen.
His lasting memory of his summers at the Weekapaug Inn?
“It was a unique experience,” he said. “Not to be repeated.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.