A former Division II college football player at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., Jason Stanhope recently received some big accolades off the gridiron, as in the 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southeast.
The executive chef at FIG (Food Is Good) on Meeting Street, Stanhope serves seasonally inspired cuisine with a commitment to using local and sustainable foods. His boss and mentor, chef-owner Mike Lata, won the award six years ago. When he's not sourcing local ingredients (see his short list of where to go at the bottom of this article), Stanhope's always looking for new tastes and roaming the Lowcountry on his Harley.
WhereTraveler caught up with Chef Stanhope to talk food, travel and the best of Charleston.
What is your favorite thing to do in Charleston on a day off?
I usually spend time with girlfriend and take the Harley and go to Edisto or one of the other beaches—just get on the highway and off the peninsula. And visit farmers; I love doing that. I’m lucky in that I live in an apartment in downtown Charleston, so in my downtime when I’m there, we just grill out on my big porch and take it easy.
You have worked in San Francisco. How does the San Francisco food scene compare to Charleston’s?
There actually are incredible similarities with the driving forces behind our menus and cooking in the now. San Francisco, though, has huge diversity in culture, and California’s agriculture is so diverse with lots of different products, but with the heat and the water, the food that grows down here is very specific. Both have great food scenes.
What does it mean to you as a chef to win a James Beard Award?
That’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. I thought it might be a possibility because of the wonderful mentorship of Mike Lata [with whom Stanhope works at FIG]. I just never thought it would happen so soon. And he won it six years ago. So that’s two awards under one roof. It’s great confirmation that FIG is relevant after 13 years.
What cities are worth visiting just for the food?
Chicago: It’s continuing to grow; yet it’s very approachable. You don’t have to plan way ahead to get a seat somewhere. And there’s a great variety, everything from high-end cuisine to Peking duck. Austin, Texas: One of my favorite cities for eating. Again, it’s very approachable with a ton of fun concepts done very well. And there’s a great food-truck scene.
Where have you never been but want to go?
I’d love to take six months off and travel Japan or reintroduce myself to France, which is the root of our techniques.
What are your favorite restaurants anywhere?
Avec in Chicago: It has the most incredible focaccia. Then there’s Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. It’s sort of a hole-in-the-wall-type place, but people line up out the door for the food. It’s just a bunch of family members that do best seafood. And they are very true to their concept. They serve beer wine and champagne, but they will not serve anything that doesn’t go with the seafood you order.
What is your most memorable meal, and why?
This one changed my mind about dining. I had saved up a bunch of money to take my girlfriend to Daniel in New York City, but we got in big argument, so I went by myself. But they dazzled me with service and ambience. By the time I left, my brain was exploding on all sorts of levels. It made me appreciate fine dining, especially in a world where everything is going rustic and laid-back.
Jason Stanhope's Guide to Fresh Ingredients, in and Around Charleston
Shem Creek, at the Geechie Seafood Dock: My favorite fishermen and shrimper share that dock. You just walk up to the dock and purchase what you want. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Cindy Tarvin, Tarvin Seafood: Right across the dock from Geechie is Cindy. Her son goes out on the shrimp boat, and you can come buy them right there on the dock, either fresh or they will freeze them right. It’s the best shrimp in the world.
Ambrose Family Farm: They grow great, approachable vegetables—garlic, tomato, onions—stuff you can actually cook with and flavor your food with, not just make a plate look nice.
Geechie Boy Grits Market & Mill (Edisto, S.C.): Gregg Johnsman, who owns Geechie Boy, mills the best grits and corn meal. Not to mention, he seriously has some Lowcountry knowledge and knows all about the culture.
Celeste Albers, Green Grocer at the Charleston Farmers Market: She sells raw cow’s milk that can’t be served in a restaurant, but it has a cult following. People will drive for hours just to come get this stuff. She is one of the revolutionary agricultural figures in Charleston.
Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery: Owner Ben Johnson makes incredible bread. He and his guys have been around forever and just continue to get better.