Self-described as a "guy from the Midwest, with a French name, cooking Italian food," chef Jacques Larson took a job "in the sticks" in 2009, and it turned out to be an auspicious decision. The chef currently leads pasta pinnacle Wild Olive, but patrons will soon find him on the other side of the peninsula, as he also takes on the kitchen at forthcoming Obstinate Daughter. While Larson couldn't say much about the new project on Sullivan's Island (and not for a lack of prodding from Eater), he did talk about how he got to the Johns Island eatery and the work he and the staff put into restaurant that brought it to its current state—beloved by the food and beverage community and guests of all varieties. Also, he has some pretty hilarious opinions on the opening of Southern favorite Husk, establishments charging twenty-five dollars for a plate of noodles, and Thai place Basil's impact on the Lowcountry.
[Update: Note a statement from the chef at the end of this interview.]
Can you explain a bit how you got here?
I came aboard Wild Olive two months after the opening. I wasn't sure what I was going to be doing. I had just left Mercato, and Fred [Neuville] offered me a job. I needed to make money, and he said, "I'll pay you X amount an hour, and you come in and mentor these guys and help get this place up and going." I literally worked Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and after 15 plus years of working night shifts, it was a change. I would come home, and my wife and I would train for a RAGBRAI, which is a one week event where you and 10,000 people ride bikes across the state of the Iowa. It's so much fun—it really is. A week before this two-month Midwestern odyssey plan, Fred called and asked when I was going to consider taking this place over. I told everyone, I've never been so unexcited about a job in my life. It's one of life's ironies, I guess, that this is the happiest I've ever been professionally.
I came aboard, and I had never worked with a chef/owner before. And as much as I respect Fred—it's hard. You can do all the grunt work and whatever, but it would always be Fred's restaurant. Fred was great to me, from the get go. We did the new menu, and not to knock Fred, but it was an Italian restaurant that didn't have pork on the menu. I'm not talking just pork chop, I'm talking sausage, guanciale, pancetta, coppa—anything. Slowly, we started tweaking, and Fred was fine. Then a few months later, Fred and Doug [Godley] decided to dissolve the partnership, and that opened things up for me.
One thing I would like to stress, when talking about the five year anniversary, is when I was a young cook, I used to really think it was all about the food in the kitchen, and if you put out good food, people would come, but the longer I've done this, the more I realize that isn't as important as people think. I mean, it is, but Jason [Parish, the General Manager] and the staff he's put together, have been a consistent figure here. Service here has always been something to pride ourselves on. It's not a downtown restaurant, haute cuisine, or fine dining, but people come, and that's all part of the under-sell and over-deliver aspect. I don't think people are expecting the sort of package they get out here, out in the sticks. Really, it's fun. And it makes it much easier, instead of, like when Mercado opened, there was a lot of hype when it opened. And I think that's kind of what we're wanting to avoid with Obstinate Daughter.
Look at Sean [Brock] when they opened Husk, I think people expected Jesus to cook tableside for them. Luckily, Sean's amazing, and it lived up to it, but it's a lot of pressure. Here, it slowly morphed over time. First and foremost, our number one rule is: the only goal is to make the customer happy. If you do that, we firmly believe, here, that everything else will come. I would love to dictate a little bit more and set parameters with what we will or will not do, but if it's a reasonable request—we do a lot of things off menu or an old dish—we do everything in our power to accommodate. I think that's been the number one thing here, and has helped this place be the success it has become.
Our staff is taken care of and not overworked—even I went from an 80 hour week down to a 65 hour week. You show up to work, and you want to be here. Someone joked, "Man, do you guys really love your jobs?" It's not like we run around here holding hands and singing "Kumbaya," but when you're being taken care and not overworked, it shows.
Do you think that might be a part of the reason this place has the reputation of being where servers want to come on their night off from other restaurants?
I think so. Another thing Jason and I stress is being value-driven. It's one thing—and I've lived in Charleston since 1996, and I've seen the food scene really take off, and it's been a great thing to be a part of—but my thing, is before we even opened Mercato, at even at that point and time, in 2006, there were a lot of solid restaurants in town, but not a lot of restaurants you could eat affordably. I think that as a nation, we're getting smarter and smarter and getting wiser in our decisions on what we eat and how we eat and you shouldn't have to pay an arm and a leg to get a good a meal, and that was what my gripe was.
One of the firsts—that's what Basil did—was they came in and offered a solid quality food at a good price point, and they nailed that it was ethnic. It was like, "Thank God, give me something other than shrimp and grits, y'all." With Mercato, I really wanted everything to be under twenty dollars, but Hank ended up adding Murano glass and Venetian plaster to the restaurant. He didn't need all that, he could have kept the exposed brick and wooden tables and done it cheap and rustic and made it affordable—because nobody wants to buy twenty-five dollar fucking pastas. I'm sorry. And there's people in town—I love Ken [Vedrinski] to death, and he can get away with it because he has a different clientele. The pasta I love, and the Italian food I love, that's not the way it should be. And I think people appreciate that.
Besides the initial change, when you came aboard, have you changed the menu much over the five years?
It's funny, I saw Mike [Lata] do the same thing at FIG and let go of the reigns a little bit, and like with Jason [Stanhope] over there, Jason gets Mike, and Brad [Grozis] gets it over here. Having to step back with the new place, I can come in and get them dialed in and say more of this or less of that, and I still write perimeters. I already prepped them on the spring menu. I told them, you know it's on the horizon. We work with a formula with the menu. Working with Bob Carter, I'll never forget Sean coming back and kind of giving Bob shit, because we were doing the same menu ten years later. But Bob's feeling, as a business man, it makes sense because the clientele there [Peninsula Grill], they come flying in from wherever and spend their week in Charleston, and they want to get the same lobster corn chowder, steak au poivre and finish with a coconut cake. That's a memory they are reliving, and I can appreciate that.
Kind of like here, three years ago, I tried to take the calamari off, and don't get me wrong, I love fried food, and it's probably the best fried calamari, but I tried to do a sauteed version, and kept the breading station, but people were split 50/50 on the ordering, and I said, "Let's just keep it on the menu." Some things like that, that aren't seasonal, we've kept on. There's probably about another 50 percent of the menu that moves seasonally. Sure, when we change it, for the first week, there's a lot of clamoring, "I can't believe you took that off." One policy we have, is to call 24 hours in advance and ask. We always get asked to do veal Parmesan, and it requires a different breading station, and we do 250 covers a night, so I need someone to fill that station. But to answer your question—it's about 50%. Like the ravioli, we're pretty much stuck with the beet ravioli, because it's the one thing we can get local right now, but we change it. We've used goat cheese or shaved asparagus. Every time ramps come on, we do a bucatini with ramps. I love it, because every year it's something to look forward to. When that first delivery of ramps comes in, we get giddy back there. We get excited.
Why Italian food?
When I left Peninsula [Grill], I was Bob's sous [chef] there and I was trying to move to the West Coast because I wanted to get my MFA in painting, and even at the age of 30 wasn't planning on sticking around in this profession. It didn't work out. I ended up taking a job in North Carolina. It was with Jimmy Nobel, who I think Eater talked about bringing Rooster's here. I went up and I had never done Italian food and for all intents and purposes I was going to make it into a bistro. He had, years ago, two wood-fired ovens and a wood-fired rotisserie grill—he really fancied himself the Alice Waters of North Carolina. He was way ahead of the curb. If you think about it, this was way before Sean coming to town and starting a farm on Wadmalaw. He's been doing this for more than 20 years. I learned a lot from him and more important, I fell in love with Italian food.
I took a trip to New York and ate at Babbo, and that was the epiphany for me. My mom is from Jersey, and I think I know New York Italian pretty well. One of the first restaurant jobs I had was an Italian one, back in Illinois. But what really happened, was once I started getting into it, I fell in love, and I got away from the French frou-frou food, and it just fit my personality much more. The subsequent prolonged stages at Mario's [Batali] restaurants, and the trip to Italy had me firing on all pistons, and I just loved it. When you go to Italy, and people like Jason, who is so passionate about Italian wine, he's gonna shit his pants. And if I were ten years younger, I would have clawed, fought, and screamed—anything just to stay. It's weird, because eating there is an integral part of their culture, and here, when I came back and did Union Hall, which was Brett Mckee's more New York idea of Italian, it was different.
I'm trying to backpedal a little with Obstinate Daughter. I explain, Italian food is two or three ingredients, and they sing in harmony. That's the way I like to eat, and the older I get, the more I realize, don't glom it up. When you're younger and being introduced to all these techniques, you want to put them all into one plate and it doesn't come off, because there's no cohesion.
Have you seen the clientele change/was it hard to convince people to come out here?
Luckily, we have fans at my favorite restaurants—McCrady's, Husk, FIG—and my relationships with those guys are strong. I remember the first day Mike moved to town to take over Anson and him popping in the window at Peninsula Grill. Being a small food and beverage community and me not be married at the time and going out on more, we just all had a camaraderie. And they'll still send people here. Kiawah visitors are our bread and butter. More and more, I'd say, we're getting more regulars. We don't want this to be a special occasion place. Jason and I are adamant that you can still come in and get a baked penne for fifteen bucks. Not only will that feed you, that night, but you can probably have a good lunch the next day.
Do you have any notable regulars?
Definitely John Pernell. He owns, actually Carrie and I got married at his place, Fenwick Plantation. He's restored that and lives there. I think he went 72 days in a row where he ate here, so obviously if he wants me to go out back and cook a possum for him, I'd do it.
A lot of the farming community, which I love. Being out here in the farming community is great, because it's close knit. It's what I love about being out here. Those guys would be happy loading as much stuff here without getting off the island, or on runs from downtown, we kind of get first dibs. After all those years of working downtown, it was a huge adjustment coming here. It's funny, someone made a joke, "Are you trying to be the king of the islands?", and maybe, but for now I'm focusing on making sure Sullivan's Island is a success.
What is the future of Wild Olive and Jacques Larson?
One sort of motto here, is if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. If you're not constantly looking how to do things more efficiently or tasting things and figuring out how you can tweak them, you become complacent. Just like trying to prove things is infectious, being stagnant is to. You know as well as anybody, it's such a competitive market. We're not looking to outperform everyone, but how can we get our act together better?
One thing that we're proud of is our Green Certification. We realized we were doing so much already, we decided to go for the certification. You get audited for three months, it's rigorous, but it was important to us. It's just habits. Breaking bad habits. At first it was overwhelming. At four different parts of the restaurant we have three different cans, and for the first month, you would see people holding garbage and looking blankly down. Once it becomes commonplace, it's fine.
I'd love to say that was my idea, but our assistant GM Cheyenne [Chapman], is the one that spearheaded that. It takes, like so much here, to be a success, for everyone to be on the same page. Whether it's me or the dishwasher, assistant GM, chef de cuisine, the servers—they show up, and they care, and they're excited to be here, and it makes for a good formula for success.
Statement from chef Jacques Larson:
I would publicly like to apologize to Chef Ken Vedrinski for the quotes taken from my Eater interview posted on February 5, 2014.
It was not my intention to say that nobody wants to eat his pasta at either Trattoria Lucca or Coda del Pesce. I am a huge fan of both establishments and a friend to Ken.
In making the comment that 'nobody wants to pay $25 for a bowl of pasta,' I was referencing some of the hard lessons we learned during the opportunity that Hank Holiday afforded me at Mercato in 2006, during the recession. After stating that, I realized that some readers might think that I was taking a shot at my colleague. Being that Ken's price point at Coda del Pesce is higher than ours at Wild Olive (due to his seafood-centric menu), I wanted to state that the man who brought Relais Gourmand to SC is really in a different category than Wild Olive. To say that our clientele is different was misleading. I had wished to point out that our styles and restaurant concepts are vastly different.
As Wild Olive focuses on the workingman's version of Italian cuisine, Ken is and always will be a master of a more refined Italian cuisine style.
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[Photo of Jacques Larson: Provided]