If chef Digby Stridiron didn’t cook for a living, he says that he might have become a history teacher. This makes a lot of sense, because Stridiron is constantly researching the past to connect the food of his ancestors, and of their ancestors, to the present. Before he opens Upper King restaurant Parcel 32, Eater spoke with the chef to see what exactly to expect.
Why did you decide to come to Charleston?
For me, Charleston is a continuation of the work we were trying to do at Balter in St. Croix. We were trying to get people to understand, that as a U.S. Virgin Islander, I am an American, but when you look at my food, you still see that immigrant story.
Growing up, I never got to see my food on plates, but as I came to America, I started seeing it a bit more. When I think to think of kallaloo, or these local dishes like red rice, it started to make me think of my food. That’s when I started a journal, and I learned of jollof rice, and I started to understand more about the transatlantic trade, diaspora, and the spices that came through.
There was so much energy being transferred, and what I came to realize was that New Orleans was a great port, but Charleston is more pivotal to American cuisine now. When I look at the food that came here, a lot of it came from the Kalinago tribes, which became known as the Carib tribes, Taino tribes, and then you see the Seminole tribes, To me, American culture was built on what was around us and what was sustainable, and I feel this was done through Native Americans, but it is also from the Indians that came as indentured servants, and the people that came from Ghana and Sierra Leone, and they’re totally out of place, and the only thing they could take with them that meant something was seeds. That was their form of currency that they would hide, like in their hair, they found a way to get it here.
To be at the dock of it all in Charleston, and with the purveyors here, like Tayloe Pottery out of Hilton Head. We worked with him to make a plate that really tells the landscape of Charleston and worked six months to develop this one element. Or Tank Jackson with Holy City Hogs — it’s important to me that the proteins we source are sustainable.
It’s really exciting to tell the tales of underlying Charleston. When I think about chefs like BJ Dennis, he’s one of my best friends, and what he’s done for Gullah Geechee culture — to me, this isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a movement within itself. We’re taking helm and saying this is American cuisine, and we’re here to stay.
Can you give us an example of a menu item?
One thing that’s always been important to me is the time and place concept. So when you come into this restaurant, it’s at that time and place. The menu is constantly changing. One thing we’re looking at is kallaloo. Kallaloo is the story of okra and gumbo, as it left Ghana traveling through Trinidad and Guyana, it became cou-cou — that’s my national dish. When it comes here, it’s okra stew. Maybe you guys don’t use the fungi, because I had the corn, but you love grits. We see the relationship and the beauty of the cuisine.
Every chef in my restaurant came from the Virgin Islands, because of the storm that hit us. You’re going to really be able to taste the flavor of the Caribbean, but within your foods and within your ingredients. It’s really going to be that story of that movement that we’re trying to tell.
Is there a one word answer to what sort of restaurant Parcel 32 will be?
I don’t think we should have a title right now. I think we are American food. We have a story to tell and as that story develops, I think the name might come along.
I’ve heard: Is it Lowcountry? Well, not really. Is it global South? Not really. Is it Caribbean? Not at all, because I don’t really believe in Caribbean food — I believe in the West Indies. I always say, the Caribbean is a place people visit, and the West Indies is where I lived. I think it’s going to be an ever-growing journey through food. We’re going to discover heirloom ingredients. Heritage and culture will be a big part of who we are.
Look for Parcel 32 to open this spring at 442 King St.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.