Each year, the Chef Ambassador program, an initiative of Gov. Nikki Haley, names four chefs from across the state to promote South Carolina’s culinary heritage and local food culture. During their one-year tenure, these representatives appear at events to conduct cooking demonstrations, promote healthy childhood nutrition and spotlight the state’s rich agricultural bounty.
A graduate of Le Cordon Blue of the Western Culinary Institute, Kirby has honed his expert skills from San Francisco to Portland to his native Atlanta. With dishes inspired by both Southern and Pacific Rim cuisine, Kirby has a deep appreciation for local products, especially seafood sourced from South Carolina waters. Since 2004, he’s been delighting patrons with fresh ingredients and “no recipe” dishes that blend regional and exotic flavors.
Here, he discusses his culinary roots, which took him from the South to Hawaii and back again.
Q: When did the culinary muse first beckon you to pursue a chefs’ life?
A: I learned to love food as a child. My mother and grandmothers were all very good cooks. I grew up in a house with homemade everything, from jams to mayonnaise. It wasn't until I lived in Hawaii that I realized I wanted to cook for the rest of my life. I flipped pizzas and cooked in steak houses, but it wasn't until I lived in Hawaii that I met guys that were so competitive about food. They were like ninjas with knives. We would literally push a shopping cart down to the harbor and pick up our fresh fish. I love the Pacific Rim style of cooking. That's when I decided to leave Hawaii, get a degree and start cooking.
Q: As a chef, what is the main philosophy that defines and guides your kitchen?
A: I believe that "the love" is the main ingredient in the kitchen. Love what you do and love the product. I believe food is about feelings. People lose track of that. Salt is a feeling. Sweet is a feeling. Sour is a feeling – that's why it makes you pucker up. So everything you make should have as many feelings as you can put into the food. Hot, cold, crunchy, sour, sweet, salty, etc. – even if it's just a little bit of that feeling, it's much better than no feeling at all. We don't really use recipes, except for the breads we make. Everything else is just proper cooking method and using good ingredients.
Q: Which South Carolina products could you not live without?
A: My favorite ingredient from South Carolina has got to be the shrimp. I've had shrimp from all over the world, but nothing comes close to the white shrimp of South Carolina. I've lived on all the coasts of this country. South Carolina by far has the best fish. Everything comes through here at some point or another as far as progress goes: local wild golden chanterelles, peaches in season, tomatoes, collards, okra, melons – that list could go on forever.
Q: What is your signature dish?
A: Probably my favorite dish I have created would be pistachio encrusted hog fish, with dirty shrimp risotto, caper brown butter, honey roasted local baby carrots. I've worked for some really awesome chefs, and I have some really awesome chefs that work for me, so you never stop learning.
Q: As a Chef Ambassador for South Carolina, what ideals do you hope to share with the public and why?
A: Hopefully, the love – the importance of having a passion for what you do. Use local ingredients and buy from local businesses. I believe small businesses drive the Carolinas. It is such a beautiful place that we live in, so get out there and do something!