A passion for meat, fresh food runs deep in Cypress Chef Craig Deihl

By:Gwen Fowler


Craig D​eihl is the kind of chef who would serve hot dogs at one of Char​leston’s biggest food events.

In fact, he did that, at the Salute to Charleston’s Chefs: Opening Night Party of theCharleston Wine​ and Festival in March, only days after he had been named one of the nominees for the James Beard B​est Chef of Southeast award.

But these weren’t just any hot dogs. The executive chef of Cypr​ess made the wieners, he fermented the sauerkraut, and he made the mustard.

The hot dogs were a huge hit, and this at an event where other chefs were dishing up foie gras, rack of lamb or veal delicacies.

In March, Deihl was named one of six finalists for the James Be​ard Foundation Best Chef of the Southeast award. And while the final top honor went to Andrea Reusing of Lantern Re​staurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., just being at the awards gala made 2011 a stellar year for Deihl.

“It was that feeling of getting a backstage pass to a rock concert, getting to go back stage and meet the Beatles or shake Elvis’ hand,” he said.

In the presence of such great chefs as Jacque​s Pepin, Thoma​s Keller and Dan​iel Boulud, “your nerves are going crazy -- just to be there, to walk the green carpet, to be there and have my wife there, to feel like you are at the top of your game.”

“This year, I’ve had a lot of high points.”

One week before the awards gala, Deihl was the featured chef at a James Be​ard pop-up restaurant in Chelsea Market in New York.

He’s also in his second year of Artisan Meat Share, a CSA-type program where members get quarterly shares of his charcuterie. Since he began doing the butchering for Cypress in house, he’s become passionate about meat -- so passionate that when Bon Appetit magazine asked the finalists for the Beard award to send a ​self-portrait.

Deihl sent in a picture of himself with a pig head on his head.

The freezer in the upstairs kitchen at Cypress is stocked with salami, hams and sausages. His July 4 pack Artisan Meat Share pack included smoked chicken quarters, mortadella dogs and burgers.

Being recognized as one of the nation’s top chefs by age 33 might seem like a feat, but Deihl has been heading in that direction since he was a young child.

His grandfather grew cantaloupes, strawberries, beans, tomatoes and watermelon on his 95-acre Pennsylvania farm. Deihl and his brother, being the oldest grandchildren, often became the farm labor. They would pick strawberries, watermelons or cantaloupe and then set up the produce to sell on the honor system. If he wanted to take a break to watch TV, he had to be shelling peas or stringing green beans.

At the pop-up restaurant, he did the entire dinner family style, and he thinks that made the food much better. But maybe that is because of the way he was raised.

“My mother cooked every meal so we sat down every day for dinner.”

She also taught him the basics of cooking.

“I was cooking eggs by the age of 6.”

Growing up, he went hunting with his dad for deer, squirrel, rabbits and turkeys. His dad did lots of outdoor cooking, and had a cooker made out of a 55-gallon drum for things like smoking turkeys.

Deihl speculates that was the beginning of a lifetime of meat fantasies.

By the time Deihl was 12 or 13, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He went a high school that offered a culinary program.

“I didn’t want anything to do with school,” he said. “If I hadn’t been interested in cooking, I would have become an auto mechanic or welder, something to do with my hands.”
During the 11th and 12th grade of high school, he worked in a restaurant.

Even at that young age, his cooking was drawing attention. He won some state and national competitions and a recipe contest, and he was offered a scholarship to Johnson and ​Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts.

He and his parents visited the school’s headquarters in Providence, R.I. He thought the school was great, but he didn’t like the area.

Then they visited Charleston, where he was impressed by how nice the people were and how gorgeous the city was.

That’s what brought him to Charleston in 1995.

“Now I can’t really see going anywhere else,” he said.

He started working at Magn​olia’s, a sister restaurant to Cypress, while he was at Johnson and Wales. The Charleston restaurant scene was very different then.

“There was Louis’s (Chef Louis Osteen’s restaurant, which later moved to Pawleys Island), 82 Q​ueen. There was no Homin​y Grill, no Peninsul​a Grill, no FI​G. Bob Wa​gener wasn’t in town yet.” The city was rich in history and the arts but wasn’t known as a food destination.

Now, 16 years later, Charleston is “definitely a food town.” Part of that evolution came from the presence of Johnson and Wales in Charleston from 1982 to 2006.

Also, in the late 1990s, people became more interested in food because of the Food Network and other TV programs.

“It put a lot of pressure on chefs to get better,” he said. In a city with so many restaurants and so much competition, most buying the same foods from the same people, it boils down to who’s cooking it with more flavor, he said.

He graduated from Johnson and Wales in 1996, about one year after his high school graduation.
At Magnolia’s, he worked under chef Donald Barickman through the end of 2000. Then he was sent just down the street to H​MGI’s newest restaurant, Cypress. He spent his time in the second-floor kitchen, testing recipes.

Soon after Cypress opened, he was named executive chef.

His passion for meats grew out of a cost-saving measure during the economic downturn. He knew that he could save money by doing the butchering in house. He began with the whole pigs, and later started doing whole beef. It lets him use every piece of the animal.

That’s how he got into charcuterie.

“We knew we were getting good and onto something.”

He’s selling up to 300 percent more charcuterie plates than he was three years ago.

One thing Charleston is lacking, he thinks, is a good butcher shop. He envisions one where the butcher interacts with the customer, “the way it’s been done for years.”

“A butcher has to be a good cook so he can tell you how to fix what you buy.”

An ideal business would be to combine a butcher shop, a small steak restaurant and what he calls a redneck junk food joint. At the latter, he’d serve things like a fine bologna sandwich.
“You make the bologna and your own soft, white bread, and serve it with fresh tomato and butter lettuce and bacon fat mayonnaise.”

Some of his ideal “junk food” is reflected in the Cypress bar menu, which has been featured on the Cookin​g Channel’sUniq​ue Eats. There’s the patty melt, a burger made with his pimento cheese; the lamb BLT.

Standing at the front of an empty Cypress restaurant one morning, Deihl said he often sees outlines of people’s faces on the glass. They peer in to see what it’s like, and often they don’t come in.

“They think we are expensive, but we have an $8 burger and $6 hot dogs.”

Being a chef and a butcher is only a part of what Deihl is passionate about: He’s a husband and father. He and his wife have a young daughter.

He knows the stress of trying to do a good job in all parts of his life and sometimes feeling that he has neglected one part of his life.

“It’s exhausting to juggle and balance and still feel good at the end of the day,” he said. “At the same time, I’m very proud to have strong support from my family at work and my family at home.”

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