While dining on upscale versions of Lowcountry classics, it's easy to forget that those dishes came from a much more humble background. Gullah-Geechie tradition dates back to colonial days and has had one of the largest and lasting influences on how Charlestonians eat today. (For those not familiar, here's an extensive article on the history of Gullah.) We asked local expert chef Benjamin Dennis who he thought served classic Gullah-Geechie cuisine, and he immediately named Nana's Seafood & Soul. Eater met with chef/co-owner Kenyatta McNeil to talk about the restaurant he and his mother, Carolyn McNeil, maintain on Line Street.
Did you grow up in Charleston?
Yeah. From the Gadsden Green Projects — born and raised. This area is my home. My mother has lived here since she was twelve. Pretty much everyone knows us. It's family.
Why did you and your mother decide to start a restaurant?
I was a merchant seaman for about ten years. My mother had her second bout with breast cancer, and I didn't want to leave at that time. I needed something to do and we saw the "For Lease" sign on this building. We came by and checked it out — over three years later, here we are.
Who is Nana?
Nana was my grandmother. My grandmother passed away on February 14, 2000. I opened this place in her honor. She taught me a lot. I've been in the kitchen since I was little. I was boiling eggs at seven.
I assume some of these are her recipes?
Pretty much. And a twist of my mother and I. My mother and I are both the head chefs.
It's a Charleston thing. You've gotta have crabs.
I spoke to chef BJ Dennis about the differences in soul food and Gullah cuisine, and y'all do a bit a both.
I don't think about the distinction of the cuisines. For me, it's about what's in your heart and how you cook. Each and every individual has a their own way of doing certain items, like okra soup, it's about your taste. Some like it spicy, and some like it mild. I like to stick to the basics. We make a lot of seafood based on the fact we're located on the water. It's a Charleston thing. You've gotta have crabs. Some folks eat crabs every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What's your most popular item at Nana's?
Garlic crabs. When crabs are in season, I do seven to ten bushels a day. Right now, it's hard to get crabs, so if I get a few bushels, they'll be gone within two to three hours. Another is the seafood lasagna, which is a specialty dish that I make of shrimp, crab, sometimes scallops, and ten different cheeses.
Do you get special requests?
A lot of people will ask for the crab salad. We have that on certain days, and we don't like to stick to a set menu, because I might think of something new one day. We do have some regular menu items because some customers are looking for that item, so you want to keep things like lima beans on the menu.
Turnips are in season now, so I see that on today's menu.
[Laughs] Yeah, you've got to work with what you have.
If you haven't been to Nana's it's the sort of place, where if they don't know you already, they'll learn your name and your order. They've recently increased their profile in the culinary community with their Facebook and Instagram posts. Also, they got a shout out by Charleston Food Bloggers this year.