A commitment to serving the finest in locally sourced cuisine has earned Amy Fortes the title South Carolina Chef Ambassador for 2017.
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.
Fortes is known for her kitchen wizardry at York County's Flipside Restaurant, Flipside Cafe and Flipside Catering, which she owns and operates with husband, chef Jon Fortes. In college, she pursued a career in medicine, but it wasn't long before Fortes realized she was on the wrong trajectory. Working part-time as a restaurant dishwasher and supermarket sandwich-maker revealed something surprising: She loved the "camaraderie and craziness" of the kitchen. A tour of Johnson and Wales helped seal the deal. While earning a B.A. in Food Service Management, Fortes worked in several kitchens under Harper's Restaurant Groups and, within five years, graduated from sous chef to chef and co-proprietor of Flipside Restaurant Group.
It's been a long road from her native New York to South Carolina, but Fortes says her roots helped lay the foundation for a farm-to-fork culinary approach.
Q: When did the culinary muse first beckon you to pursue a chefs' life?
A: As a child, my siblings and I had one of those Fisher-Price play kitchens that we named "Tony's Kitchen." It was one of my favorite toys, and I remember watching Graham Kerr, Julia Child and especially The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith, on TV all the time. My mom told me at around the age of 5 or 6, I used to stand at "Tony's Kitchen" and say I was sautéing bell peppers in red wine.
Q: As a chef, what is the main philosophy that defines and guides your kitchen?
A: You know, one of the biggest things that guides me in the kitchen and in our restaurants, in general, is the way I speak to and treat people. I have worked in some places that were all about screaming and hostility, and front-of-house against back-of-house. When we thought of opening our own place, it was a big discussion between my husband and myself. We would not be like that; we never wanted to cause or allow that type of atmosphere in our places of business. I care about my staff. I get called "Kitchen Mom" a lot because of that, but I am happy when my people are happy. Even more so, guests can tell when someone isn't happy at their job, no matter how hard people may try to hide it. People can SENSE it, so I have always tried to put positivity in the forefront of how we run our kitchens.
Q: Which South Carolina products could you not live without?
A: We have some great South Carolina resources when it comes to what we use in our restaurants. Tega Hills Farm is probably the first SC farm I started working with years ago, when they were just starting out. They grow the most beautiful lettuces. They grow microgreens, pea shoots, veggies and squash blossoms as well, but their lettuces are, hands-down, their pride and joy. Red and green oak, Lola Rosa, and Bibb are my favorite types and I have, on more than one occasion, made an intern or line cook stop what they're doing when a delivery comes in just to look at and appreciate how beautiful something as simple as a head of lettuce can be.
We've been using Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice and their farro, as well, a great deal in two of our restaurants. Even before opening our own restaurants, my husband and I have been avid fans and purchasers of Adluh Grits out of Columbia. Bush-N-Vine is a farm in York County where we get shell beans, strawberries, blackberries, peaches, corn and okra. They are incredible people who do whatever they can to get local products out to their community.
There's a young gentleman named Connor Hobbs who is in college and created his own barbecue sauce called Hobbnobbers that we love to use. For goat cheese and feta, we use the Thomas Family Farms in York County as well, it's a great family farm run by Linda. Lastly, one of my favorites is Anita and Paul Pennell of Pennell Barn - some of the best people we know. They grow some incredible tomatoes for us - I believe almost 50 varietals - and they turn out just beautiful every year. They also grow pattypan squash, zephyr squash, new dug potatoes and some great lavender. We just love to support their hard work and love of what they do.
Q: What is your signature dish?
A: I am especially known for "Amy's Pimento Cheese," made with sharp white cheddar instead of the traditional mild yellow. It has a lot less mayonnaise than most recipes, with a few other secrets of course! We serve that as a hot appetizer with crispy fried pretzels but also use it on our burgers, Sloppy Joe sandwiches and charcuterie boards. You can put that stuff on everything!
Q: As a Chef Ambassador for the great state of South Carolina, what ideals do you hope to share with the public and why?
A: I am so honored by the chance to be a Chef Ambassador for South Carolina. I really want to get the small towns we have our restaurants in more on the culinary map. There are so many great places doing terrific locally inspired food just outside of Charlotte and I really hope to open people's eyes to that. The biggest thing that I want to show is just the creativity and availability of South Carolina products, and the chefs working so hard to showcase them in a creative and delicious way. I love our community, and it reminds me in different ways of my little home town in New York. What I'm doing has become more than just cooking to me now. It's getting to know the people who appreciate and love our food and the passion we have for our craft.