In the Kitchen with Chef John Whisenant, The Islander, Daniel Island
South Carolina Parks, Recreation & Tourism – by Page Stokes, March 5, 2015
Chef John Whisenant has worked in restaurants since he was 15, starting as a dishwasher at a country club in his hometown of Hendersonville, NC.
He first came to Charleston to hone his skills at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, where he graduated with dual degrees in culinary arts and hospitality management in 2001. Since then, he has worked at 39 Rue de Jean, the Market Pavilion Hotel, Grill 225 and the Fat Hen. He served on the advisory committee for Trident Technical College, where he also taught cooking classes. He and his wife, Tristan, enjoy raising their young son and a fruit-and-vegetable garden.
Q: Which chefs do you admire and why?
A: I admire a few chefs. One of them would be (Masaharu) Morimoto. I have some sushi background and Morimoto and Chef Nobu (Nobuyuki Matsuhisa) from Nobu restaurants are some chefs that I pay attention to and observe a lot. As far as admiration, we’re all in the culinary arts and we all create our own art. I aspire to make my stuff as creative as possible and make my stuff different every day. For basic cooking techniques, you have to look at (Auguste) Escoffier and some of the classic French techniques. That is what I like to use to help mold and create my own art. Once you get the fundamentals down, the basic techniques and preparations — you know how to braise, you know how to sear, you know how to fry — then you can start to build on the fundamentals and create your flavors and presentations.
Q: Who or what inspires your cooking?
A: I think my inspiration really comes from within. My grandmother came over on the boat from Hungary. She did a lot of cooking and people would line up out the door at her house to buy her cabbage rolls and things like that. She kind of inspired me, just from seeing her create all of these dishes and have the whole neighborhood line up and come buy her stuff, being able to be in the kitchen with her and being able to taste those things. Another thing, when I was a child, I used to always watch Justin Wilson, that old Cajun chef, and I definitely got some inspiration from him, maybe not so much technique, but just watching him prepare the dishes and having fun with it. I would mimic him as a child and make some of those dishes, minus the wine, of course.
Q: What was your first job in the restaurant business?
A: My first job in the restaurant business was dishwashing when I was a kid, 15 years old, at the country club. I also worked as a cart boy there. And then I became a server for about six years at a few different restaurants, all in North Carolina where I grew up. When I moved to Charleston — I came here for culinary school — I still got a server job because that was easy for me to do while I was in school.
Q: What do you consider your style?
A: I really enjoy putting a lot of love into things that take days to prepare. I enjoy making meat and charcuterie and anything that involves the craft of the protein, slow-cooking, braising, brining to get that flavor in, just low-and-slow techniques that take a lot of love and care. You have to be patient and wait for the outcome and then three days later, you finally get to taste that pâté that you’ve made.
Q: What would your dream meal be?
A: That’s such a tough question. Being a chef, there are so many things that you taste every day. There are so many things that I like. It would have to be something that was crafted completely by hand that took some time to prepare. I like rich things. That’s a tough one.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to cook for yourself?
A: I like to slow smoke pork on the smoker, nice afternoon off, and just sit out by the fire and just smoke pork and hang out and talk. I use peach wood for smoking, then finish it with homemade barbecue sauce. In my opinion, peach is the best wood for smoking pork. It’s got a sweeter smokiness to it.
Q: What’s your best tip for the home gourmet?
A: Understand the techniques, braising, pan-searing. Once you master the basic cooking techniques, then you can start to develop your own flavors and play around with it a little bit. But the fundamentals are key. I taught continuing education classes out at Trident Tech for a while, I taught some sushi classes, I also was on the advisory committee for Trident and be a part of giving back to the school that helped me get where I am today. I love teaching. That’s kind of the way that I run my kitchens. I am a teacher more than anything. People who come to work for me, they are better when they leave than when they came.
Q: What would your restaurant look like?
A: It would be something very simple and small, possibly even a food truck and I would just keep very basic, like European-style pomme frites. If I had a real restaurant, it would be a small pizza place with artisan ingredients, like making my own pepperoni. It’s not necessarily a dream to own my own place, but it would be something I would like to do if the opportunity presented itself.
Q: What was the biggest mistake or the most embarrassing thing you have ever done in the kitchen?
A: One time, we had a new guy working in the sushi bar and I was training him on sushi. I told him to mix the wasabi in the mixer with hot water, with the paddle. So that created fumes of this gas and we pretty much had to evacuate the whole kitchen. I got in trouble over that. I thought it was going to gas him a little bit, but it ended up gassing the whole kitchen.
Q: What can diners expect new on the menu in coming months?
A: We’re trying to give things an opportunity to see what sells and we bring in the seasonal stuff as well. I’ve got a new salad that I am about to put on the menu that I am really proud of, a spicy steak salad. It’s a grilled hanger steak and it’s served over a Thai salad, so it’s going to be real light and refreshing with a little spice. It’s got a charred romaine salad with some fresh shaved daikon radish in there and some fresh mint and cilantro and a little bit of spicy lime dressing, and we’ve got some house-made sambal that we put on there made from pickled Fresno chiles that we pickle in-house. I like to focus on made from scratch. Everything we do, we make here in-house. I make my own andouille sausage for the seafood gumbo, make my own tasso ham for the shrimp and grits. I really like to take a real hands-on approach and truly be a made-from-scratch restaurant as much as possible.
Read the full interview here.