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The rise of the Lowcountry chefs

Five locals behind Hilton Head Island’s chef ambassador program dish on our culinary scene.

Story by David Gignilliat + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott

Like many great recipes, it started with an idea. Then a few ingredients. A little trial and error. A few tweaks here and there. And then the main course was ready for public consumption.

In the summer of 2018, the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce hatched the idea to bring some of the region’s best chefs together to start a unique ambassador program, with an aim at mentoring the area’s next generation of culinary talent, giving back to the community, and representing the Island’s burgeoning food scene.

Months later, the Island’s chef ambassador program has become a dish that represents as uniquely — and tastefully — as a steaming pot of Lowcountry Boil, a toothsome heirloom grain or a glistening plate of shrimp and grits.

Plucked from every corner of Hilton Head Island’s culinary map for their backgrounds and skill sets, a group of five chefs have formed a dynamic team to carry the mantle of the Hilton Head’s hospitality future while treasuring its heirloom and indigenous pasts.

Meet the chefs

The chefs behind Hilton Head Island’s Chef Ambassador Program are (from left) Chaun Bescos, Cesar Acevedo, Philippe Feret, Clayton Rollison and Brian Coseo.

Chef Brian Coseo represents the local private club market as executive chef at Sea Pines Country Club, a stalwart of the culinary scene since real estate developer Charles Fraser first imagined Sea Pines in the 1960s. Coseo has helmed all of the SPCC dining offerings since 2013, including the fine dining and event experience in the Rotunda, its private dining room. Originally from Philadelphia, Coseo has worked at clubs, hotels and award-winning restaurants over a distinguished food career. Trained in New York City, Coseo first landed on the Island in the 1980s, planting himself at Marriott’s Shipyard Plantation.

As the proprietor and owner of The Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar, Chef Clayton Rollison specializes in adventurous, fresh and modern takes on Lowcountry cuisine, “an American Bistro with Southern soul,” as the eatery’s website suggests. He has exported his coastal flair on multiple occasions to prestigious James Beard dinners, and is recognized by his peers nationally as among the profession’s elite. Born and raised on the Island, and CIA-trained in NYC and its Michelin-starred culinary outposts (Gramercy Tavern), his is a candid voice of the past, present and future of the Island’s burgeoning restaurant scene.

Chaun Bescos is the executive chef at Wise Guys, part of the SERG Restaurant group’s slate of award-winning, locally owned restaurants, where he took over in 2018. It followed a prolific six-year stint at Red Fish in Bluffton upon his arrival to the Island in 2012. Originally from Naleehu, Hawaii, he’s known as an expert forager, well known regionally (and on YouTube) for mushroom-finding and his forest-to-table approach. With experience in the Pacific Northwest and upstate New York, Bescos marries the region’s earthly bounties (notable local yields include golden chanterelles and unique lion’s mane fungi) with the evolving Lowcountry culinary tradition.

A longtime elite chef in New York City’s competitively world-class scene, Chef Philippe Feret is the newest of the group to the Island, having opened Hilton Head Social Bakery in 2017. Known for his previous tenures as executive chef of the legendary “Windows On The World” Restaurant, Tavern On The Green, and The Regency Hotel, Feret started his career’s second act on the Island in 2016. His Shelter Cove location quickly filled a much-needed gap in the Island’s culinary makeup, offering a full-service bakery specializing in artisanal breads, baguettes, croissants and pastries. His world-class cooking pedigree started when he was a young boy working in his family’s bakery in Normandy, France.

Rounding out the group is Cesar Acevedo, executive chef at the Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa, a beautiful oceanfront complex in Palmetto Dunes. The resort’s signature restaurant, Blue, boasts an impressively accessible menu of local seafood in a casually sophisticated setting.

It’s show time

The Lowcountry all-star team members showed off their collective chops at the Chamber Ball in early February at the Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa. With the help of students, colleagues and several esteemed culinary guests, the quintet orchestrated the culinary portion of the evening for the Chamber’s annual flagship event. To say it went well might be an understatement, as attendance nearly doubled from the previous year.

The night was also an emotional one, as former chefs from Windows on the World visited the Lowcountry for the festivities, a reunion pulled off by Feret, the restaurant’s one-time leader. The acclaimed restaurant, which once occupied the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, was destroyed when the North Tower collapsed during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 72 members of the restaurant’s staff died in the calamity. The gathering marked the first time since the terrorist attacks that the chefs had shared a kitchen together.

In early February, just a few days after the successful Chamber soiree, LOCAL Life caught up with four of the five ambassadors (Acevedo could not attend due to previous commitments) at the Sea Pines Country Club, one of the Island’s venerable hospitality haunts.

Sitting together in the conference room at the Sea Pines Country Club, in a rare moment away from their demanding work schedules, the talented chefs spoke about the area’s distinctive culinary heritage, the Island’s promising restaurant and hospitality future and their role as ambassadors within it.

On the Lowcountry’s distinctive culinary heritage

“Our cuisine in the Sea Islands is very different from the rest of the country. We have a really strong influence coming out of West Africa into the Caribbean. Our food and the perception of southern food are very different. In the Sea Islands, you’ll see a lot of rice curry and seafood, and a lot of the farms that are on the Sea Islands are farming heirloom vegetables and heirloom grains just for the sheer fact that that’s how they were farmed for the last 200 years. Some of it has been cut due to the industrialization of farming, but when people travel from Ohio or New York, their perception is that Southern food is just soul food. But it’s so much more than just pan-fried pork chops and collard greens. Yeah, that’s part of it, but that is the smallest part of our cuisine in our area and has the largest national recognition because it’s what people understand.” — Clayton Rollison

On the mission of the Ambassador program

“Our mission, as a group of local chefs, is to bring the awareness to the Island and surrounding areas to the culinary scene, and to bring to light the use of our local artisans, our local fishermen, farmers and foragers in the area, and how we strive to source locally and produce our own ingredients from start to finish.”— Chaun Bescos

“The whole goal of our group is to enhance the idea of a culinary experience to be had on this Island. We are all individuals, but we created this group to be strong together.” — Philippe Feret

“We truly care about our craft and being mentors. With that nice rounded experience from everybody, I think we bring a lot to the table. I think that helps us with the mentoring factor with the younger chefs.” — Brian Coseo

On the Island’s bright culinary future

“I saw Philadelphia have its food scene explode. When I first moved down here, I wondered ‘what kind of culinary scene is it going to be?’ And I see this Island headed in that same direction. There’s a huge amount of talent here that I think people don’t quite recognize yet. And I think the more we get that out there, I think the better it’s going to be for the island and the area, and for us as chefs.” — Brian Coseo

“Hilton Head has been known very well as both a golf and tennis destination with really nice beaches, and we would like everyone coming here to know that the culinary scene is very driven and has been building over the last decade. It’s really turned into something exceptional, with the talent that we have. I feel blessed to be working with the group of five that we have. We get to work with the next generation and help them become vested in their career like we have.” — Chaun Bescos

Setting An Example

“This is the first full year that we’ve been able to accomplish our program, so it’s just like any start-up. It’s been a lot of work just to get the ball rolling, but this year we saw great interest from other chefs who reached out and saw the benefit of the work that we’ve been doing. It’s been really positive inside the community right now.” — Clayton Rollison

“If you look at each of our restaurants and clubs individually, you can see that we lead the way by staying relevant with national trends and setting quite a few as well.” — Brian Coseo

“People are starting to notice what we’re doing and want to be a part of it.  We want to build community. That’s our Number 1: Build it and make it a stronger culinary scene.” — Chaun Bescos

“What we have created is now showing the energy of the culinary scene, and it’s pretty amazing, I have to say. In New York City, I’ve been part of culinary organizations, but I never experienced as strong a friendship and talent as here. It’s a community as well, and we are more friends than ever, and it’s because of the art that we do on a daily basis. The fact that we are sharing with each other is extremely fulfilling.” — Philippe Feret

On the creative exchange

“Everybody’s tasting everybody else’s food. How’d you do this? How’d you do that? Ideas were exchanged, and we were very open how we did things. That’s what we’re developing here. It’s not just ‘well, i am going to just do this, and not share how I did it.’ We share how we do things as chefs. We learn every day.”— Chaun Bescos

“It was really a demonstration of the friendship, knowledge and dedication of our culinary community. It was almost like an orchestra. Everyone was in place.”— Philippe Feret

On Charles Fraser’s unique culinary vision

“To have this economic engine for Sea Pines, Charles Fraser wanted this whole lifestyle. It had to be not just the beaches that he promoted, it had to be golf, tennis, food and shopping. Hilton Head has kind of blurred some of that message, and one of the goals of this group is, with culinary, to stay on trend, and actually fulfill what Charles Fraser really wanted, which is to have a world-class destination. The competition has encouraged really good quality, and it’s the type of competitiveness that fosters growth, which is what Charles’ vision was. Through all of our efforts, and the efforts of others, we’ve diversified the quality here on the Island.”— Clayton Rollison

On passing the torch

“On an Island this small, we really all do work well together to foster good habits, good techniques, and a healthy lifestyle for our cooks. The young people we are training will one day grow to be the next wave of managers and leaders in our industry, and that’s something that all of us take very seriously. I only know what I know because someone took the time to show me. As much as it might be an art form for some people, it really is a craft and a trade that’s taught with your hands that has to be passed down from one person to the next  It really takes skin-on-skin contact to be able to teach the person standing next to you how cook.” — Clayton Rollison