Chef Kevin Johnson and his wife Susan opened The Grocery in 2011. When Eater interviewed Johnson on the first anniversary of his opening, he was amazed at how quickly it all went. When asked about the end of year four, he says, "It feels like yesterday we just opened, and it feels like forever ago. We've continued to evolve, obviously, and gotten more comfortable with what we believe in and what we want to do. I don't think our love of vegetables is any secret. We dedicated a lot of true menu space to highlight those. We were certainly focused on that in the beginning, but it wasn't until the second year that we dedicated a full produce section to the menu."
Obviously, what I get the most jazzed about are the vegetables ...
In the beginning, Johnson wanted to avoid the normal menu format, so they had a section for Bites, Snacks, Tastes, Plates, and Table. But as he recalls, they discovered people liked the normal format. The Grocery didn't stray away from its original idea completely, but when Johnson redesigned the menu, he wanted to be able to highlight the regional products without relegating them to a side item. "Sometimes we would get something in that didn't really lend itself to being an app or an side, so this new format allowed us to put the product on the menu as it is. This allows us to have a little fun, because we get a lot of cool stuff in. Obviously, what I get the most jazzed about are the vegetables, so having a produce section has been really helpful," says Johnson. The current menu is now sectioned into Produce, Seafood, and Meat.
The Grocery is often one of the first restaurants in the Lowcountry to highlight seasonal produce. If you're on a ramp or pea watch every spring, check The Grocery's menu first. Johnson has fostered relationships with many of the area's farmers, which is why you'll often see those short-run products show up in his kitchen before anywhere else. "In March, you're thinking about things that may pop up in April. You know it's already in the ground. We try to keep that dialogue going with local farmers to find out when the products are coming, so we can be ahead of the curve and so they know we have the interest. This gives us time to come up with a few ideas to do with the product once it gets there," says Johnson.
When asked the thought behind each of the produce dishes, Johnson explains that, though not a Southern restaurant, The Grocery's menu is dictated by ingredients from the region. He looks for the correlation between produce typically thought of as Southern, like okra, and looks at how they are used in other cultures like the Mediterranean Rim. "Whether it's North Africa, the Middle East, or the South of France, we're honing in on those regions and bringing those flavors to the menu. Those are the things that interest me," he says.
I love when my parents come in. I still think that's cool.
Hosting the Frank Lee tribute dinner for Charleston Wine + Food remains one of the highlights of the past four years for Johnson. "Literally, I walked into his kitchen with no experience and spent a couple of years there. It was very gratifying that several years later, a lot of what he instilled in me is still there and we've become great friends at this point. I had a lot pride that I'd sort of made it enough to host this dinner in his honor."
Another thing Johnson is proud of? "I love when my parents come in. I still think that's cool. Inevitably, my mom gets up and starts striking up conversation with the customers, and it always somehow leads to the fact that she's my mom. And really, the fact that my wife and I were able to create this restaurant is always the best."