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May River Shrimp and Grits

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Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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From SC Chef Ambassador Leslie Rohland and Marsh Hen Mill

In the heart of Bluffton, Chef Leslie Rohland stands as a culinary visionary, leading a collection of acclaimed establishments including The Juice Hive, May River Coffee Roasters, Bluffton Pasta Shoppe and The Cottage. With over 40 awards, including Good Food Awards, HH Reader's Choice Awards and Best of Bluffton Awards, and a dedication to local sourcing and community, Rohland has woven her love for diverse cuisines into the town’s identity.

Growing up in a military family, Rohland's early years were a global tour that exposed her to various cuisines and cultures.

"My parents were adamant about trying the local cuisine," Rohland says. "At a very early age, I developed a unique palate. By the time I was 12 or 13 years old, we had lived in four or five different countries."

Chef Leslie Rohland’s at The Cottage
Chef Leslie Rohland’s culinary journey is a testament to the power of local ingredients and community support.

Moving from New York City to work on Hilton Head Island, Rohland had only been in the area for six months when she found herself enchanted by Bluffton's unique culture and tight-knit community.

"I loved Bluffton from the minute I parked my car and walked into the house that I subsequently bought," she says. "I think the best part of Bluffton is the people. They say they have a ‘Bluffton state of mind,’ and it’s absolutely true. The people here are very generous and it’s a very tight community."

According to Rohland, one of the key elements of Bluffton's charm is its supportive atmosphere, especially among local business owners and artists. This support network has helped her ventures thrive and fostered a strong sense of loyalty and family among her staff. She notes that the town is "artistically ... right up there with some of the best cities in the world on a culinary level," but it's the generosity and spirit of the people who truly make it home.

The birth of The Cottage was a leap of faith during a period of uncertainty following the 2008 economic crash. Pregnant and out of work, Rohland's resolve to harness her creativity, hard work and the support of her community led to the realization of her dream. "I knew my ideas worked, and I knew I was a creative person," she reflects. "I knew I had a family and a community that loved me and was going to support me no matter what."

Rohland started the Bluffton Muffin Company and was one of the first vendors at the Bluffton Farmers Market.

"One day at the farmers market, someone said, gosh, you should really open a shop. I said I would love to, and they told me to go up Calhoun Street and talk to the guy who owns that building on the left. So, I went over here, and at the time, it was an art gallery from my favorite artist, Amos Hummel, a fabulous local Bluffton artist. It was also a business office for another gentleman. And I came in, and we started talking, and he said, oh, I'll think about that; I think it's a good idea."

Although not classically trained, Rohland has fearlessly incorporated her international experiences with South Carolina's indigenous ingredients and flavors, resulting in unique and beloved menu items.

"My first menu was quite unique and very popular," she reflected. "One of my favorite countries I lived in when I was little was Thailand. So, I put a chicken cashew lettuce wrap on the menu. I spent months working on the sauce that would marinate all the chicken and the vegetables together. It was a great menu item."

Despite having traveled the world, Rohland had never lived in the South before and knew little about Southern cuisine.

"I wasn't necessarily a fan of Southern food," she confessed. "It's often not done well. I knew I wanted a fresh approach, so I started looking at what other South Carolina cities were doing."

Shrimp and grits, a beloved South Carolina dish and one of the most iconic Southern foods, became Rohland's focal point.

"One of the reasons I was drawn to this recipe, and to create several variations, is that it has a great base. Grits have their own characteristics, flavor profile and texture. They're just highly unique," she explained. "And as far as shrimp and bacon and onion go, there is no greater combination on the planet. It all works together like fireworks in your mouth, and you can't help but smile."


Reviving Tradition and Cultivating Community

shrimping boat on the May River, Bluffton
Shrimping is still a family affair, and oysters are still shucked by hand at the Bluffton Ouster Company.

Rohland's love for food extends beyond cooking to exploring the history and origins of recipes. "One of my passions is collecting old cookbooks and doing recipe research. I started researching backyard cooking, which is based on utilizing what's available in your backyard, something indigenous cultures have been doing for centuries," Rohland shared.

This research led to the creation of "The May River Shrimp & Grits,” a dish that celebrates Bluffton's pristine May River, emphasizing locally sourced ingredients. "Most of the ingredients for this particular shrimp and grits come from within a mile radius. The shrimp, crab and oysters are from Bluffton Oyster Company. Larry Toomer and his family have been in the shrimping business for over 100 years. They are the lifeblood of Bluffton,” Rohland emphasized. “And the grits are from Marsh Hen Mill on Edisto Island. We are truly lucky to have such a perfect little corner of the world in this beautiful, precious town."

Marsh Hen Mill is not just any milling operation. Greg Johnsman, the mill’s visionary owner, is doing more than merely transforming grains into milled products. He’s reviving a tradition, educating a community, and nurturing sustainable relationships between the land, the people and their food.

"We work with different heirloom varieties, and we have to make sure that each one is instilled and kind of kept original to what it is,” Johnsman says. This attention to detail extends to the milling process itself. "We go above and beyond. We have cleaners, we have stunners, we have gravity tables. All these are different steps that we put in line to ensure that the corn is not only the best quality but also that we're bringing in an even product."

Rohland’s first meeting with Johnsman at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival was pivotal. "Everything he said about preserving the integrity of the agricultural process and protecting the hereditary flavor of what we're using resonated with me. The line of products that he has, the Carolina Gold, and the revival of some varieties of grits are crucial to the history of this region," she stated. "The people that take the time, energy and strength to do something like that are amazing. And as restaurateurs, we absolutely benefit from their hard work."

At the core of Marsh Hen Mill’s ethos is the relationship between the chef, the farmer, and the miller. A collaboration, Johnsman stresses, that is essential, not just for creating delicious dishes but for telling the story of the food and the land it came from.

"I remember meeting Leslie and talking through a dish with her. She had a vision on how it looked on the plate," says Johnsman. "I think you eat with your eyes, and as the farmer, we don’t get to see how its plated. But when you eat at Leslie's restaurant, you have a chance to taste it, you're going to end up wanting to buy from us because you enjoyed it. We need their help to tell the story. Just like I'm trying to tell the story of the people that grew up before me and even the farmers now that I work with."

The significance of building relationships with local producers and the impact of those relationships on the community is not lost on Rohland. "Knowing where our food comes from and being able to share that knowledge is so important, not just for us but for our children. It's about passing on the generational knowledge of food sourcing and its benefits," Rohland emphasized. 

Rohland says that becoming a Chef Ambassador has made it even more apparent to her how important it is to be able to say something was grown just up the road.

"In this day and age, everything is done quickly, everything is done fast," she says. "And I understand because I grab the quick to-go meal, too. But it's important that we take this information and share it, that our kids learn it and pick up from where we left off. That they do better."

Johnsman’s ambitions for Marsh Hen Mill extend beyond milling. He envisions it as a part of a broader narrative of state pride, sustainability and community engagement. "The state has so much to offer," he shares. "Hopefully I’m part of a positive change in the state and that we can kind of show what is possible, what hard work can do."

Ultimately, Rohland says, sustainable farming practices are about protecting the earth.

"We're renting this space, if you will, and protecting our natural resources is of the utmost importance."

As for visitors to Edisto Island, Johnsman has an open invitation: "come by our little roadside market and check us out. We would love for you to come get a taste of South Carolina."

Rohland's deep commitment to locally sourcing ingredients and collaborating with nearby producers like Johnsman highlights the symbiotic relationship between chefs and farmers. Together, their stories weave a narrative that speaks to the heart of the South Carolina Chef Ambassador program—that food is not merely something to be consumed but celebrated for its journey from farm to table.


May River Shrimp & Grits

wine glass and dish of May River Shrimp and Grits
Rohland’s May River Shrimp & Grits celebrates Bluffton's pristine May River and emphasizes locally sourced ingredients.

“Shrimp and grits is one of the most iconic southern foods in the world. There's something about the saltiness, the sweet brine of the shrimp paired with the texture and sweetness of the grits that just work together. This is classic, old-fashioned American cuisine.” – Chef Leslie Rohland



Makes 2 Servings

For the Cheddar Grits
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup coarse, stone-ground yellow grits
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese

For the Shrimp Mix
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped mushrooms
8 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (adjust to taste)
1 tablespoon white wine
1 tablespoon your favorite hot sauce (adjust to taste)
¼ cup chopped scallions

For the Crab Cakes
1 pound fresh lump crabmeat
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped carrot
2 large eggs
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons your choice of hot sauce
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
Vegetable oil, for frying

For the Fried Oysters
1 cup fresh oysters, shucked and drained
2 large eggs
1 ½ cups finely ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
Vegetable oil, for frying



Cheddar Grits

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add salt, then slowly whisk in the grits.

Reduce heat to low and continue to whisk often for 15 to 20 minutes or until grits thicken.

Chef’s Note: As the grits thicken, they can scorch, so be sure to whisk often. If the grits absorb all of the water before they are done, add more hot water as needed.

Stir in unsalted butter and black pepper until well combined.k,m

Gently fold in the grated cheddar until smooth. Keep warm while preparing the Shrimp Mix.


Shrimp Mix

Melt butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant.

Add onions, cooking until translucent, then mushrooms. Cook for another minute.

Toss in shrimp, cooking until they turn pink.

Stir in lemon juice, white wine and hot sauce, cooking for an additional minute.

Serve over warm cheddar grits, sprinkled with chopped scallions.


Crab Cakes

Melt butter in a sauté pan over high heat. Add garlic and sauté until roasted. Add the onion and carrots and sauté until slightly softened. Set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, mix eggs, mayo, parsley, lemon juice, hot sauce, breadcrumbs and Old Bay seasoning. Add the crab meat and mix thoroughly.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large sauté pan. While it heats, add the sautéed vegetables to the mixing bowl and form into crab cakes.

Sear each cake until crispy and brown. Serve atop the shrimp mix and grits.


Fried Oysters

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Add the oysters to the eggs and let them sit for 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper and sugar.

Chef’s Note: When you lift each oyster out of the egg mixture, let any excess drip back into the bowl.

Roll each oyster in the cornmeal mixture until evenly coated and transfer to a baking sheet.

Heat 2-3 inches of vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.

Gently fry the oysters, roughly 3 – 5 minutes.

Top the completed shrimp and grits dish with fried oysters.

glass of wine and may river shrimp and grits
Bon appétit!
Discover Writer
Discover Writer
More from "Discover Writer"
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.