The restaurant business is in Sarah McClure’s blood. It just took her a little while to figure that out. Her eventual epiphany was life-changing, launching her toward a culinary career that has earned her a place on the 2018 roster of South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. An initiative begun by former Gov. Nikki Haley, each year four chefs from across the state are selected to promote South Carolina’s culinary heritage and local food culture through cooking demonstrations, guest appearances and educational programs.
As executive chef and manager of Southside Smokehouse, McClure is living a life she did not foresee as a young Wofford College art history student. Not only is she following in the footsteps of her restaurateur parents, but she’s doing so in the hometown she swore she’d leave one day. Though harsh financial realities compelled her to leave school and seek out restaurant work, it soon became clear she was on her way to embracing her destiny.
Here, Chef McClure explains a bit about her journey and how it will inform her tenure as an SC Chef Ambassador:
Q: Where did you get your inspiration to pursue a career in the culinary arts?
A: “I always wanted to do something different because I saw firsthand how hard certain elements of this industry can be on your personal life. My parents opened Southside in 2004, and I waited tables there my senior year of high school and on weekends through college. I got my undergrad degree in art history and was working on a master's in art history when the 2009 recession hit. My parents had divorced and the restaurant was struggling. My Dad had been paying most my bills while I was in school but couldn't continue to do so. I had become pretty disillusioned with grad school, as well, so I dropped out and started working a variety of restaurant positions in a couple different restaurants and bars around Athens to make ends meet.
Long story short, I ended up in the kitchen at The National with chef Peter Dale and it really changed my perspective on cooking. It was one of the first places I was involved in that sourced local, had a really creative, constantly evolving menu and great bar program. It really inspired me to be interested in the restaurant world again. I learned primarily by being a huge suck-up and volunteering for pretty much every extra event, wine dinner and farm trip they would take me to. From Peter, I learned not to be afraid to mix flavors and cultures on one plate.”
Q: What's the most important rule in your kitchen?
A: “Try your best. It’s OK if you mess up sometimes, as long as I know you tried and you admit when you need help or messed something up. Don't try to hide it or send it out anyway.”
Q: What makes being a chef in South Carolina such a special experience?
A: “I feel like Southern food, in general, is really having a moment right now. Charleston has always been known as a great food city, but typically for traditional Southern or French cuisine. It is interesting seeing other cities in South Carolina come to be recognized as food destinations and how the types of food popular in these areas are really diversifying. I feel like we are really in the middle of a big shift in the way the nation views Southern people and food.”
Q: What South Carolina ingredients do you value the most and why?
A: “Our peaches are truly amazing. Georgia might be the Peach State, but ours are much better. I love all of our local produce, though.”
Q: What are your goals as a South Carolina Chef Ambassador?
A: “I'm excited to be a part of that change in Southern food that I mentioned before. I see the perception of the South and its food is changing for the better and finally getting the recognition it deserves. I hope to bring some of that to the barbecue world, especially as I see that it is one of the genres of food that is still very subject to these occasionally negative stereotypes about Southerners, that we are uneducated, backwards, etc. Because the name of our restaurant has ‘Smokehouse’ in it, people assume they are going to get a certain experience or they assume certain things about us. I love a good roadside joint, but there's no reason barbecue can't also exist in a more diverse restaurant atmosphere. I guess my goal is just to be a part of the conversation about the positive changes in the Southern food scene.”