BJ Dennis, Chef
(Charleston, SC)

 photo: courtesy of bj dennis

photo: courtesy of bj dennis

Listen to the lilt of this Lowcountry accent. Chef BJ Dennis is Gullah Geechie, part of the descendants of Central and West Africans who came from different ethnic and social groups. Originally enslaved together on the isolated sea and barrier islands from Pender County, North Carolina to St. John’s County, Florida and for 30 miles inland, over time, these people developed the creole Gullah Geechee language as a means of communicating with each other. What you’re hearing is that history coming through in every syllable. If you’ve been to this part of the country, then perhaps you know about the musical traditions, the baskets, and maybe even the paint colors, but did you know about Gullah Geechie cuisine? BJ is on his personal journey to discover his roots through food, and he’s inviting us to join him with every plate. You might have seen him on Fine Cooking’s Moveable Feast, in the New York Times, or at many a special event or food festival, but here he sits down with me to ponder his past -- and consider his next steps.

Episode  119 >

Ep. 120: Allan Benton, Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Madisonville, TN (Live from Music to Your Mouth)

 photo: stephanie burt

photo: stephanie burt

For most of his career, master craftsman Allan Benton of Benton’s Country Hams and Bacon  worked in obscurity in an unassuming building in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He raised a family, he used his hands to spread salt, brown sugar, curing salt, and pepper on meat to cure it, and then watched and tasted as it transformed. And then he tried to make a living selling it. In my last episode with BJ Dennis, I flippantly mentioned that I had had enough country ham for the rest of my life, but I realized that I don’t put Benton’s work in the same category with the ham I was referencing, ham sold in packets or on fast food biscuits, over processed and meant to get to market fast. What he creates is like a beautiful Italian prosciutto or the cured meats from Spain -- altogether different and heavenly in texture and depth of flavor. It honors the meat and celebrates it, and just a little Benton’s Bacon or Smoky Mountain Country Ham can go a long way in elevating your dish. Just ask David Chang, Sean Brock, John Fleer, or countless other chefs who make sure his name appears on their menus. But Allan Benton, as a person, elevates those around him too: his kindness is literally infectious, his calm demeanor needed in this world, and through his gentle words, he asks us to look for something to commit to as well, to pour our passion into. Warning: My southern granddaughter side comes out in this episode. Double warning: prepare for bacon cravings.

Episode 120 ›

 

 

Kenny Gilbert, Gilbert's Underground Kitchen, Jacksonville, FL (Live from Music to Your Mouth)

 photo: kristen penoyer

photo: kristen penoyer

Listen to Chef Kenny Gilbert for any length of time, and you’ll realize that he sees cooking through the lens of relationships: from co-workers and employers, to diners and the family that often inspires his food. Speaking of lenses, Kenny Gilbert became more of a household name from his time spent in front of a camera lens for Top Chef Season Seven -- the one in DC -- and although he didn’t win the overall title, he did impress with his skills and flavor combinations. He’s cooked everywhere from Sea Island, Ga. to Telluride, Co., and these days, he’s making Jacksonville, Fla. home with a string of five restaurants, the flagship of which is Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen. It’s hard to put Kenny’s cooking in just one category, so that’s why the multiple restaurants just make sense, but just listen to what he thinks he’d like for his last meal, and you’ll get a good idea of the creative process of this man.

Episode 121 >