Ask any notable South Carolina chef about jimihatt, and they’ll tell you he’s one cool dude. The Charleston based chef founded Guerrilla Cuisine, one of the South’s first underground supper clubs. He’s thrown 130 some odd dinners over the past seven years featuring more than one hundred chefs. Let’s just take in this list for a minute: Sean Brock, Craig Deihl, Jeremiah Bacon, Brett McKee, Anthony Gray, John Ondo, Nico Romo, Mark Collins, Sean Park… they’ve all been on his roster and he’s no where near finished yet.
Jimi invited me to join him for the most recent Guerrilla Cuisine dinner, and though one of the more tame dinners he’s thrown, it was an incredible experience with some amped up fare from a handful of Charleston’s top chefs.
Here’s how it started. Let’s start with the nickname. Jimi Cooper, aka jimihatt, says he was swinging a hammer right out of high school. He was hanging out with guys who spit, cussed and drank beer. When he turned twenty-one he decided if he could drink in the bar, he could work in the bar, but when he asked, there weren’t any bartending positions available. It took him six minutes of working in the kitchen to fall in love. “It was hard, dirty, and smelled like shit,” he says, but he found his passion. The guys in the kitchens where he worked kept messing up his name. Somehow they landed on jimihatt and it stuck.
The seed for Guerrilla Cuisine was planted back in the day when Jimi was living in a house with seven other people in Charleston. They started doing Sushi Sundays. The guys would take off-shore boating trips and then come back and “chef it up” for their girlfriends and friends. Fast forward. Jimi visits his friend Kenny Lowe in California and met a guy hosting an underground supper club called Ghetto Gourmet. He decided to tweak the concept a little and bring it to Charleston.
Here’s how it works. Word spreads via social media, the event is posted online and people rush to buy tickets (around $60 each plus tip). The location of the event is disclosed to guests via email the night before. You know who the chefs will be, but you never know what, during the course of the six t0 eight courses, will land in front of you until you’re staring at it with your mouth hanging open. No rules, not restrictions. Dishes span clean and lovely, highlighting a single ingredient to complicated, labor intensive cuisine meant to entertain your senses and challenge your palate.
The location is just part of the fun. Jimihatt’s pop-up dinners have taken over an old cigar factory in downtown Charleston, an airplane hanger on Johns Island, boat docks, a coffee warehouse, local breweries and even a grocery store. He draws from local artistic talent to entertain the crowd: musicians, a bladesmith, an iron worker, a glass blower, a live pottery demo, burlesque girls, and a flame juggling little person. It’s all a part of the Guerrilla Cuisine experience.
Dinners take months of planning, but for this stay-at-home dad who gave up the crazy restaurant life to focus on raising his twin daughters, now three and a half, he’s found balance. He is home for holidays, can enjoy an ice cream on a sunny afternoon or a day at the beach with his wife and kids. These are things he missed with his eighteen year old son. He is still in the thick of Charleston’s culinary scene, but on his own terms, and has developed a reputation as not only a respected chef, but the go-to guy for putting together a creative dining experience.
He’s also found a way to give back. Not only by giving rising star chefs a place on the stage with the south’s biggest talents, but a percentage of proceeds from each dinner goes to a local charity. He says he likes to keep the charities as hyper-local as possible. “Something that will leave a bigger financial footprint,” he says. The featured chef gets to choose the charity, so they’ve given to the March of Dimes, American Lung Association, Doctors Without Borders, etc, but also to folks like the local Boys and Girls Club and Goose Creek Fire Department, to which jimihatt himself has donated a ton of kitchen equipment.
July 13th I walked in the door of Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill at 14 North Market Street for my first Guerrilla Cuisine dinner. The featured chefs of the evening were Chef Jonathan I. M. Kaldas of The Meeting Room Restaurant and Tapas Bar (425 Meeting Street), Chef Jordan Moore who is the Executive Chef of Burwell’s, and Burwell’s Pastry Chef, Mark Heyward-Washington.
Starting around 5am, the chefs were out on the water catching shrimp, octypus and jellyfish for our dinner. They went foraging for sea beans. They walked the woods and picked veggies from the field. As they introduced themselves to the crowd of about 60 people, you could tell they truly had a blast creating our dinner.
We mingled at the bar for a while before dinner, then toted our (BYOB) wines up the stairs. First course was a magnificent board of charcuterie. I just have to say that I am in love with sliced, cured meat. Especially when it’s done well. And this was done VERY well.
Smoked bacon, coppa, lonzo, head cheese with coriander and apricots, a terrine made from roasted bones, a bowl of black and yellow mustard, house made Thai spiced pickles, and sage fennel Parmesan flatbread.
The folks from Sawdust Wood Company were in the house with their handmade hardwood cutting boards constructed from locally sourced wood. Seriously gorgeous and so tempting. (Pinterest wishlist board? Check.)
Our second course: a soup made with local baby veggies, leeks, Rainbow carrots, leek flower, avocado puree. Chefs and staff walked around the room with metal pitchers brimming with smoke from dry ice used to chill the tomato water they poured over the veggies in our bowls.
I had a blast with the folks at our table. I chose that table because they all had knitted koozies on their beer bottles. Love indie craft? These are my people. Turns out no one actually hand knitted the koozies, but cool peeps just the same. I discovered Jazon Mraz is a farmer and sells his avocados to Chipotle. For reals? Just one of the many topics of conversation at our table. Cheers to the two Stephanies, William and Alfredo!
The third course was a ceviche made from the freshly caught seafood: Shrimp, Whiting, Dollar fish, calamari, and tossed in fresh squeezed citrus juice with jalapeno and cilantro.
Fourth course: an octopus terrine, apricot puree with lemon, white wine, dill, wild sea beans, and jellyfish. It’s rare that I won’t eat a dish, but I just couldn’t make myself eat this one. I tasted each piece of the dish and took one bite of it all together and that was it. It was a beautifully presented and flavorfully layered dish, but just too much sea for me.
Fried Sweetbreads were the highlight of our fifth course, surrounded by an Egyptian style yogurt sauce, with pink peppercorn, anise, farro and a micro green salad. It needed a little salt, but damn it was so good.
Sixth Course was a beef tasting of brined, braised, and sliced beef heart, ribeye, and fried beef tendons. I felt you cringe. But honestly, this was my favorite dish. I had beef heart for the first time. It was meaty and irony and tender (think chicken liver meets tenderloin). The fried beef tendons were reminiscent of fried pork skins. The beef sat in a deep grassy green sauce of parsley root and parsley leaf, with corn and sliced fig. Damn, I love figs. The dish was served to us on a hot stone. This dish pushed me, it took me to another place. I can check so many new things off my list.
Before I wind up with dessert, I wanted introduce you to our chefs for the night. They popped in between courses to tell us about our next dish, but I didn’t get them all in a group for a picture.
Chef Jonathan I. M. Kaldas grew up in Summerville, SC and graduated from the Culinary Institute of Charleston where he spent the majority of his time gunning for greatness on the culinary competition team for the Greater Charleston Chapter of the American Culinary Federation. He interned at Biltmore Estates in Asheville, NC and then spent more than 3 years at the Woodland Inn, the Carolina’s only Five Star, Five Diamond Inn and Restaurant. He worked his way up to Chef of The Dining Room before landing at The Meeting Room Restaurant and Tapas bar where he is the Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Manager.
Chef Jordan Moore worked at Woodland Inn straight out of school as a line cook. He moved on to McCrady’s and Tristan before taking the position as Executive Chef at Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill in late 2013. He strives for uniqueness, using local ingredients and foraging his own when possible. He’s taken a steak and potatoes restaurant to the unexpected.
I think I’m most excited to introduce you to Burwell’s Pasty Chef, Mark Heyward-Washington, know by his friends as Swanky. I’ve heard about the renegade dessert guy who uses cereal in ways you couldn’t even imagine. A Charleston boy, he spent the whole of his education in schools for the arts. He only finished one semester at Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech when he landed a position at Oak Steakhouse. He was green compared to other cooks but quickly became zoned in on desserts. He went on to work at Tristan, Rococo German Bakery, Chai’s Tapas and Lounge, Social Restaurant and Wine Bar taking a spot at Burwell’s.
And with that, I give you dessert, a vanilla bean creme brulee. So unlike any creme brulee I’ve had before. This one was baked in egg shapes with almond shortbread crumbles, white chocolate powder and blackberry leather. It was served with a shot glass full of Molasses Rum with chocolate bitters and Cocoa Pebbles. Every shot should have cereal. Seriously. And next (yes there were three dessert courses), came a glass filled with cream and topped with a little cake made from Captain Crunch Cereal. Cracker Jacks waited on us at the bottom of the glass. We were in complete foodie bliss.
Jimihatt throws Guerrilla Cuisine dinners once or twice a month year round. The next dinners are scheduled for July 26, August 24, September 7. Go here for ticket information. It’s never the same dinner twice. I can’t wait for my next Guerrilla Cuisine experience. Thanks to jimihatt for making it happen!