I've eaten some food. It's my chosen profession and in order to train your palate you need to eat lots of different types of food. As you train your 'taste palate', you also need to train your 'experience palate'. You need to eat in lots of different restaurants, lots of different locations, lots of different ethnicities. I've done all of these things and I continue to do them in order to hone my craft. I've been lucky enough to have eaten in Michelin starred dining rooms in Europe and the US; eaten the best hot dog with everything; pulled produce straight from the ground of my garden and put it in my mouth. Suffice it to say; I had some food. That brings me to Martha Lou.
I spent the end of last week in Charleston, S.C. celebrating my mom's birthday. Before I left, I texted chef Sean Brock and asked him if he could give me a few suggestions of places to eat while I was in Charleston. He told me about Martha Lou's and said that it would change my life. That's all I needed.
Sure, I'd seen the TV specials of folks visiting, in fact, I think Sean takes Andrew Zimmern there, so I thought I had a little idea about what we were getting into; I didn't.
The building is a concrete block structure set just off the road. It's pink. That's all you need to know. The action takes place inside.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by Martha Lou herself and shown to a table. We ordered our food and drinks and then were told that the meats were cooked to order so our food would be out when it was ready. About 20 minutes later, we were presented with our food and that's where this story really begins.
I knew my meat was going to be very hot so I decided to eat the vegetables first. On the first mouthful, I was stopped in my tracks. Like I said, I've eaten a lot of food and cooked a fair bit of food, too. The first bite I took made me contemplate every bit of food I've ever cooked or eaten.
So simple, but so packed with flavor and 'feel'. 'Feel' isn't a term we kick around too much in the culinary world, and maybe that's why it's so lacking in today's professional cooking. The other two vegetables I ate had the same flavor and feel; a realization that the person cooking this food knew what they were doing, loved what they were doing and had been doing it for decades. That last part is really important. It takes time and hard work to achieve the flavors she achieved using humble ingredients. Time and hard work.
I caught Martha Lou out of the corner of my eye and for a split second I was reminded of my great aunt. You see, my great aunt cooked what would be considered simple food, but she could take a few ingredients and make them sing. Take a little bit of dough, some oysters, some diary, lots of feel and BAM, you'd have a dish that would make your head spin with its combination of simplicity and ethereal voice. She could cook, period.
We need more cooks like Martha Lou today and not just in the local meat and three. Professional cooking has become a sick game of keeping up with the Joneses. The plate combinations are becoming strange just for the sake of being shocking and plate presentations are basically uniform. In a strange twist of fate, the restaurants that claim to be the most creative have the plates that look the most alike. I consider myself guilty of this at times.
You might notice that I haven't listed what I ate last friday for lunch and I won't. Because it doesn't matter and it's not the point. Martha Lou could cook me an old tire and I would hop on a plane to go eat it and so would legions of other people.
Sean was right, that meal changed my life. It changed the way I look at cooking(the feel, the soul, the love and craft) and the bar has been raised for every bite of food I put in my mouth. I hope with all my heart that we are able to give our guests at Josephine a little bit of what Martha Lou gave me. I'm not sure if we do or not, but that's what we're chasing. The standard set by an amazing lady cooking in a little cinderblock building on the side of the road in South Carolina.