A Feast Fit for An Island
Stories of the Stewardship and Sustainability Shepherded by Chef Rollison at the Callawassie Clubhouse
Being the executive chef of a place like Callawassie Island, it’s only natural that for Clayton Rollison, every dish is only as good as the story behind it. It’s twice as good when it’s not just the dish but digging deeper into each ingredient and what their care and origin means for the island and the low, Lowcountry sprawling out beyond.
Rollison’s “passion-meets-business-model,” models that of the man behind the seafood coming into the island, Charles Russo – a third generation fishmonger who, every day, has a list of “what he has, where it’s from, and how it’s caught.”
It’s a natural shift for Chef to talk vendors, regions, source, and love of the Lowcountry. Ask him his own background and despite a Curriculum Vitae (CV) filled with restaurateur ship and participating in James Beard dinners and sustainability programs, Rollison always points to a partner or two who makes it more possible.
Russo’s Fresh Seafood
“I’ve been working with him for north of a decade.” Rollison says rolling into Russo’s story instead, whose grandfather started in the fish monger business in 1946 on the corner of Waters Avenue and 31st Lane in Savannah, GA. Now they’re “celebrating over 74 years of serving cut-to-order fresh fish, fresh and frozen local shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, live crabs, crabmeat, and much more worldwide.”
Currently Bluffton-based and the family behind “the first fish market built in Savannah,” Russo is a bit of a fish runner from the coastal Carolinas to the gulf, not only sharing the catch but creating a fishmonger network of favor, carting other’s wares to where they need to go, which is the magic of how Callawassie members and guests find such exquisite seafood offerings on their plate at the newly renovated Callawassie Island Clubhouse.
Tuten Farms & CSA Program
Rollison returns, “My sous-chef picks up from Russo every day and is able to check the quality of what we’re getting regionally,” but it’s not just a fish tale he tells of maintaining the balance of nature and community at Callawassie, it’s lore that comes also from the land:
“I’ve got to mention too, Larry Tuten, not only what we get from them in the way of farm fresh local produce we use every day, but the monthly CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] baskets that come on Tuesdays for members.” This is a story not only of the value of what’s on the plate, but an all-inclusive benefit to diners at the club, household kitchens on the island (and off through other programs), and the farm itself that is more deeply rooted (literally) in the soil of the Lowcountry than most know.
“Go out to Jasper County and you’ll find this road that ends at the land that has been deeded to the Tuten family since King George,” Rollinson says with deep respect for those who work that land. “It’s worked that long because of the way they care for it – covered beds and different crop rotations are surrounded by trees that put more into the ground than they pull from it keeping the whole operation nitrogen negative. By what we buy and through those buying the CSA memberships – even just through the CSA membership half, you’re able to play a huge important part in small, local farms staying in existence.” Not just a pitch or figurative, Rollison tells the story of the week the Bush Hog broke on the farm and one month’s CSA income from Callawassie members simply putting fresh local produce on their home tables paid for 99% of the repair costs. Balance.
“All those vegetables that he would nickel and dime at Farmers Markets and had to pick anyway, he got paid for work he had to do either way but no guarantee he’s going to move that produce.” Produce delivered to the front door of the Clubhouse on the island for cheaper than the grocery store, processed in organic farming practices (not certified) that the Tutens welcome anyone out at any time to come see. “The mother makes pickles, jellies, jams – what they do has a direct impact on our quality of life here,” Rollison continues, still elevating others’ roles behind what gets prepared in his kitchen.
Served Well at the Clubhouse
With a little nudging, he lists a few of the events and milestones he’s presided over during the last few years on the island like having guest chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate William Dissen of Market Place Restaurant in Asheville or working with Marvin Ross whose Peculiar Pig Farm was featured in the New York Times for their approach to raising heritage breeds of “old line hogs, cows, goats, ducks, chickens, and geese” outdoors, “in wooded lots, rotated accordingly,” on a 5th generation family farm in Dorchester, SC.
These are just the starters in a rich menu of people, places, and profound flavor profiles that Rollison is serving on this “island away from the island.” Rollison reports, “A la carte dining on the island is the busiest it’s ever been, and fall is traditionally even busier, when everyone is here and home – busy and more vibrant than ever.”
Rollison says he’s finishing the summer by looking forward to fall and fall flavors, intentional about continuing to keep everything “a lot more localized in thoughtfulness and seasonal ingredients – waiting on what Larry’s going to have; hard fall squashes and hearty leaf greens, or what we’re going to see come in from Russo’s in a diversity of local seafood that’s always at its best in the fall with all the inshore fish like black drum sheepshead, speckled sea trout are vibrant and active, available starting into September, and swordfish and all the migratory fish running back out of the south Atlantic.”
From fresh summer veggies to autumnal Atlantic migrations, Rollison serves to steward of both land and sea, and the sustainable culinary environment at the Clubhouse at Callawassie, inviting guests and members to the community table through menu and through CSA membership baskets that make every home and table a part of that perfect balance.