Among the farmlands, churches and quiet neighborhoods of Ridge Spring, there's some serious foodie energy in the air. That's because it's home to Juniper, a charming Main Street restaurant run by Chef Brandon Velie.
Within the kitchen of the restored 1890s former hardware store, Velie takes the simple foods grown in Saluda County and surrounding areas and transforms them into dishes worthy of the finest tables in the state.
Velie finds his inspiration in the seasonal gifts so abundant in the Midlands and across South Carolina. A simple green tomato or bundle of freshly picked asparagus grown by a local farmer can spark his imagination and be the catalyst for the creation of remarkable dishes. Each week brings surprises to the menu; there's always something for everyone.
"I love to go to the local farmers markets to find fresh local produce, then feature it on the menu that day," he said. "We change our dinner menu every week, allowing for a lot of flexibility."
A Maryland native, Velie enjoyed dabbling in the kitchen as a teen and snagged his first food-service gig in a college cafeteria washing dishes.
"I quickly realized I had to learn to cook so I could get out of the dish pit," he said.
As an adult, he honed his skills with a cooking apprenticeship in the US Marine Corp. After he married his wife, Jeanne, he worked in various restaurants in Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, DC and developed an appreciation for locally sourced, garden-fresh ingredients. The couple settled in South Carolina when Velie accepted a job at an Aiken country club, where he tended his own garden for use in the kitchen. In 2005, he and Jeanne opened Juniper, which quickly became a destination for discriminating diners.
"We really wanted to be in an agricultural community," he said. "We found all that in Ridge Spring. It's a great small farm town with a big heart."
His farm-to-table aesthetic and rave reviews helped build his reputation in food circles. A crowning moment in his career was being named a South Carolina Chef Ambassador in 2015, which provided opportunities to share his passion for the state's farm-to-table movement.
"We support the local farms and they support us," Velie said. "It's really important to know where our food comes from, not just buying local, but buying from people you trust and you know, and you know their farming practices."