It’s All in the Technique for Coast Bar & Grill Executive Chef David Pell

By:Page Ivey


David Pell is a soft-spoken chef in Charleston, South Carolina, who majored in media arts and French at the University of South Carolina before trotting off to Paris to learn to be a chef. His early restaurant experience taught him that he would rather be in the kitchen than in the front of the house.

He takes his cues from technique-driven chefs and considers himself a Francophile, perfect for a seafood chef in the heart of Charleston.

Q: What chefs inspire you?

A: I am doing seafood, so in my opinion, the best seafood chef in this country is Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin. He has a very delicate way with the fish, very simplistic but technique-oriented, technique-driven cuisine that I find very interesting. He’s a Bhuddist, a very peaceful kind of chef. A lot of chefs are angry and mean, and he’s not.

Q: What’s your dream meal for you to eat?

A: I’ve been asked this question before. I would have to say that it depends on where I am or the seasonality of things. I definitely would have oysters. I love oysters, raw oysters. I can’t tell you any more than that. That’s like asking your favorite movie; there’s so many of them. I’m the chef at a seafood restaurant, and I do love fresh fish, prepared simply, like ceviche and South Carolina shrimp. I just love seafood.

Q: What do you love about local oysters?

A: They are very salty, but that’s the way I like them. It’s one of the things we have that’s underrated. Around here, we have two different shapes: The rock oyster has a harder shell, and it’s more of a round shape; the blade oysters are longer and thinner, a little more delicate.

Q: What was your first job in the restaurant business?

A: I was a busboy/dishwasher at a restaurant in Spartanburg, SC, called Harry’s, owned by the Stathakis family. I didn’t like it. I was walking around with a grumpy face the whole time. I wasn’t nice enough to people. That’s when I was 15. My boss said, “You don’t smile enough, so you need to go to the back.” I liked it once I got in the kitchen. I didn’t like being in the front of the house, clearing tables, filling water. People ask you for stuff, and you have to talk to them. Except for a couple of years, I have worked in restaurants pretty consistently since then.

Q: Who or what influences your cooking?

A: I would say that it's a combination of the chefs I've had the good fortune to work for coming through. Gilles Marcoullier taught me a lot of technique-oriented cooking. He really beat that into my head at a young age. It was very, very important to follow the proper technique. There is a way of doing everything, and if you do that properly, you don’t have to do too much else to have a good product.

Another chef I worked for in Paris, Christian Constant, taught me how to be tough in the kitchen. You have to be ready to work long hours. It’s hot; it’s uncomfortable. He was a bit of an old-school kind of French chef, who would yell and scream and slap you in the back of the head. I think I realized at that point, if I am going to do this and get to this level, it’s going to be this kind of hours and this kind of lifestyle.

When I first started at Rue De Jean, Chef Fred Neuville used to tell me, “Look, Dave, 10 percent of your time is going to be cooking; 90 percent of your time is going to be managing everything. That’s your job if you’re the chef.” And it’s not easy because you have two of the most inconsistent things in the world – people and food – and you’ve got to try to make them into a consistent product. That’s the challenge.

Q: What’s your best tip for the home gourmet for cooking seafood?

A: When you think it might be done, it’s done. That’s the most common mistake, even when I have new cooks here, is overcooking the fish. Nothing is worse than overcooked fish because it dries out so quickly, there’s not a lot of fat in it, and it cooks a lot faster than people think.

Q: What are five things that are always in your home refrigerator?

A: Water, eggs. I always have some sort of bread. It’s not in the fridge, but I always have some sort of bread around, bread and cheese. Beer and hot sauce. A lot of times, chefs don’t eat as well as they are cooking because they spend all day making stuff. Sometimes just a sandwich is all you need, you know, something simple.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen?

A: One time, we caught the place on fire. It wasn’t entirely our fault, but the wood-burning grill’s chimney caught on fire. Everybody had to leave; we had to evacuate the whole building. The fire department came, and we were closed for a month.

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