Before choosing Callawassie Island as the place to practice his craft, Executive Chef Jim Spratling launched the kitchen of the most widely recognized restaurant in nearby Beaufort. The Saltus River Grill brought a finesse you’d find in the world’s capitals to our charming, genuine, neighboring seaside town. At Saltus, Jim not only knew how to simply prepare the food, but he also brought the culinary history and world influence to his cooking. And now, after six years at Callawassie Island, he knows the people who come to his tables just as well as he knows his food.
With a grandfather who ran shrimp boats and fishing boats in north Florida, Jim always spoke the language of fisheries and the sea – what’s best, what’s seasonal, what’s fresh today. The value of knowing “the crab guy, the shrimp buy,” and all the boats he can trust was something Jim learned deeply and long ago. Through trusted relationships like these, family continuity is one of the inspirations Jim brings to what he thinks about food, and what he knows.
Being close to the water, where he can make that knowledge count, is important, too. In fact, Jim came to Beaufort from the fine restaurants of Charleston, because “in Charleston you can see the water, but you can’t reach it,” Jim said.
Chef Jim’s influences are unusually vivid and wide. “When I was the sous chef at Dataw Island, my boss, the chef, was Japanese,” Jim said.” From the viewpoint of Asian cuisine I learned balance – what goes with what, and yet how opposites can work together.” Other chefs Jim worked for also contributed to his world view on food. And in Jim’s case, that perspective really is a world view.
“I had a Puerto Rican boss for a time. He brought a Caribbean view to things. And I worked in Costa Rica for a year-and-a-half as a cuisine consultant to a resort hotel,” Jim said. “Costa Rica has an ocean in front of it, and mountains behind it, so ‘locally-sourced’ isn’t just a trend there; it’s a way of life.” Jim worked with Costa Ricans who knew how to get the most from the abundance that their climate provides.
When you have a passion for food, it starts at home and then it can lead you all over the world for influences, Jim said. “It’s just that I’ve been fortunate to take in a lot of those influences in first-hand.”
“We have a widely-traveled residents at The Callawassie Island Club,” Jim said. “They come from interesting places, they’ve been everywhere, and they know every occasion, from dinner with a fine wine, to a family outing with cheeseburgers. It’s worth listening to them.”
Jim sees what people like, and often can make the connection between the foods they favor and the places they lived before they came to Callawassie Island. “Seeing who comes for what, and what dishes they come back for, I can often trace it to their hometown,” Jim said. “The dialogue is national, and as I get a feel for what people prefer, there’s often a hometown story behind that.”
Food is as much culture and heritage as it is nutrition, when you pay close attention to what people like, Jim pointed out. “There’s an element of trust involved in food. It’s intimate; you ingest it; it becomes part of you in a way.” That can lead to a family story behind a person’s favorite dishes. “Often I sense that people commune with a previous generation, or with the lives they had before they came to Callawassie Island,” when they ask for Italian, or German, or English dishes. “And there’s fellowship with the people around you,” Jim said.
Jim composes his menus like an artist. “I start with the best thing available, the freshest, the most interesting. Then I build around it.” It’s a matter of awareness and perspective, as much as technique. “And I think about it visually when it comes to the surrounding dishes,” Jim said. “Colors and textures are important to the experience people have at the table.”
Sometimes there’s a request that leads Chef Jim in a direction he hasn’t explored before. “The Callawassie Island Bocce Club has a theme behind their meetings this year, ‘Bocce Around the World.’” Well, for one meeting recently, the club asked for a Norwegian meal.” That took some research, and it was fun for Jim as well as for the Bocce Club members.
If there’s any doubt that cuisine is art, or that a chef can be an artist, a short visit with Chef Jim Spratling can clear that up. What drives Jim clearly comes from within. And like so many residents and Club members at Callawassie Island, he has found here a place to fulfill that destiny. “This is a pleasant experience, to be Chef here,” Jim said. “The management makes it that way. Believing in you. Having faith in you.”
The ripple effects of that faith, and the feeling it inspires in an artist, are enjoyed here at Callawassie Island – even at our tables – every day.