The Fire and the Food
Executive Chef RJ Dye calls Callawassie Island to gather together and make connections over food, fire, friends, and some of the freshest local ingredients.
When you’re looking for the chef of a harmonious and high-end homestead like Callawassie Island, you search for select ingredients from the best sources: pedigree and passion for places and people – an understanding of how food sustains cultures, tells stories, and makes deep and lasting connections.
Chef RJ Dye comes to Callawassie Island carrying all of those as well as a lifelong appreciation for literal ingredients – what goes into a dish, a meal, a menu, a career, where it came from and what it means. He loves to tell their stories in conversation or cooking. He speaks in chapters of what the earth gives and when, and this winter, its cabbages, and chestnuts, oysters and crabs, ducks, and apples and “cold winter dishes.”
Dye’s culinary career drove him through Charleston at the Glass Onion and for four years at Fig and helping to open the Dewberry Hotel. It curved through the Caymans where he was the chef at two Italian restaurants owned by Italian friends who brought him to learn in Genoa. His wife, however, hailing from Hilton Head Island, is how he landed here, with a home in Port Royal, cooking up the best dish of all: their first child, born this year. (Still just a bun in the oven at the time of writing.)
But before all these twists and turns in the kitchen, Dye says, “some of my earliest memories are in the garden.”
“I grew up in rural North Carolina – Franklin County. Both of my parents were incredible green thumbs, so we grew a lot of our own produce. We had chicks, ducks, and lots of creeks. It was idyllic, our years dictated by the seasons. When the spring came around, we were digging early potatoes, shucking fresh garden peas. In the summer, we’d take the wheelbarrow through the corn field and sit around in the front yard and shuck corn. Mom had a room full of dried tomatoes and we’d can green beans and make our own applesauce. She was from upstate New York, so we got a lot of northern ingredients you didn’t always see in our area. The south-facing side of the house had this pretty hearty rhubarb plant and no one else in the area had anything like that. Dad, being from Tennessee, was an avid hunter and we were always hanging and butchering deer, rabbit, and dove in September and turkey in the end of summer.”
The food turned into ranged, through their interpretation, from regional to global. “Every Sunday, it was biscuits and gravy – gravy from white flour sauce and white flour biscuits, and it couldn’t get more unhealthy but so good and so Southern. But then, mother loved international foods, making Chinese and Indian foods, and you don’t grow up in that part of North Carolina having homemade lo mien or egg rolls.”
“That’s how you make this jump – being from a rural area, I was still exposed to the food of so many different cultures and global regions, and that informs the food that I cook now.”
Unpacking some of those “cold winter dishes,” Dye is so eager to share, he goes back to the spaetzle that’s on the top of his hit list. “Spaetzle itself is unique to a region where you get this German French clash of cultures indicative of the foods that came from that region. I like exploring niche-y cuisines.
That, and other regional ingredients, both literal and environmental, like the climate. “We get these hot, humid summers in the South, and while southern food is great, it’s also heavy and I like to think about what other regions explore when cooking in oppressive heat. I love making pho and lighter cold-noodle salads. It baffles me that you don’t see more of that here in this area,” though you do and will at Callawassie Island, one of the many elements that sets the Island fare apart.
Sets it apart as well as elevating and expanding the traditions, flavors, and favorites that you do see in this region. “Historically,” Dye mentions, “We do an oyster roast the day after Thanksgiving and it’s always a huge hit, so we asked ourselves why we just do it once? So, this year, we did another at the end of January. We’re focused on food and gatherings that are culturally significant and community building.”
Referencing similar cultural conventions, Dye recalls, “where I come from, there were ‘pig-pickings’ and ‘fish-fry’s by the Rotary Club. Here there are oyster roasts but there are a lot of people visiting or living here for the first time for whom an oyster roast is not something in their wheelhouse so it’s fun to introduce them to the whole thing, going through all the accoutrements, how you eat them, prepare them, the best way to serve them. Some are pro-cracker, pro-hot-sauce, pro-naked-and-unadulterated. In addition to the oyster roast we did a Lowcountry Boil – so they sit around tables and once they’ve had their fill of oysters, we can share a communal meal with the boil. It’s something you find in every culture – like the pig picking or the roast pig lechon in the Philippines. We had this ‘shatteringly crisp’ suckling pig when I worked in Grand Cayman – every culture has something like that that and you can always make that connection to food and food preparation and serving that connects people communally.”
Dye frequently describes food as the great peacemaker, in story after story of talking with others about their food memories and senses – friends, strangers, and especially Callawassie Island owners with whom he intentionally fosters those connections. “Sometimes food makes the connection itself like one gentleman who found out working with Peculiar Pig Farm in Dorchester – he had a connection back home to a local farmer when he wanted to cook with a whole pig head and we were able to connect him to Peculiar Pig here, so he has that avenue again, building his home here, and from there the conversation kept going, into a love of knockwurst, bratwurst, kraut – then you get the owners who reminisce about Skyline chili, or the pistachio flavors with Greek neighbors.”
It is not just the residents who get in on the food wine world, Dye mentions the longevity and local history of staff. “There’s so much history here and the staff is great – with their longevity at Callawassie Island and the region, I’ve learned from them. Willie for instance has been here for 16 years and used to go crabbing with his father so we did a seafood gumbo at the oyster roast because I knew we could get whole local crab and pick them and do it quicker and fresher because of him. Then there was another guy I found out had been smoking meat for years as a side job I can lean on when we do barbeque. There’s just a wealth of talent to lean on that’s so informative, I’m constantly able to continue learning.”
Speaking of barbeque, Dye points out, “More often you get a chef who’s excited about butchery or cooking meats, but vegetables have always been my first love, and there’s an incredible amount of produce gown in the area that we’re not yet serving so it’s fun for me to find the farms and farmers and expand that. We just made a connection with GrowFood Carolina who I used to work with in Charleston – they’re an arm of Coastal Conservation League and are a produce hub able to bring in produce from small to large farmers, mostly small, even down to a grandmother that has a prolific kumquat tree in her backyard,” or regional sensations like, “cheeses made in Clemson, chestnuts from the upstate, frilly mustards, and citrus season when I get really excited about Meyer lemons and kumquats,” the ones from the backyard tree.
But back to that spaetzle: “We got tons of feedback on the spaetzle before so this winter season, we’re doing it with confit duck and a duck, apple, brandy sausage with chestnuts and cabbage.” He pauses here to add half in jest, “I’m a bit like John the Baptist trying to tell people about the wonders of cabbage, a voice crying in the wilderness, but it’s a beautiful, versatile vegetable.”
You can hear when he tells the tale of the greenery that grows in the Lowcountry why his love of the leafy greens looms so large. “They’re humble ingredients but it’s about how to get the best possible expression of a cabbage out of a cabbage.”
It’s Dye’s philosophy that food also does that for the guests to whom it’s served – gets the best expressions of the people out of the people – when they discover something new or rediscover a taste of home.
Whether that’s pork heads from Wisconsin, ‘shatteringly crisp’ pork belly from the Caymans, kumquats, and crabs from the southernmost of the Carolinas, or rhubarb from the south side of Chef’s childhood home, RJ says all you must do is “to love food and know its potential.”
It’s a potential that calls all walks of life to gather together around the fire and the food and make a balanced meal of home.