It’s a long way from Boston to Charleston, but for Chef Marcus Shell, each mile of the journey was well spent. As a child growing up along the Atlantic Seaboard, he haunted the family kitchen, where the women prepared dishes with fresh fish and other ingredients reflective of the vibrant Cape Verdean cuisine that routinely graced the table.
Young Marcus developed a love for food craft, and while he initially pursued a business degree following high school, the budding gourmand finally landed at Le Cordon Bleu of Boston. After earning a culinary arts degree, Chef Shell packed up and set out for South Carolina, where he embraced time-honored food traditions while serving as executive chef at Bistro 221 in St. George and, subsequently, sous chef at 82 Queen in Charleston.
Now heading the kitchen of Historic Charleston French brasserie, 39 Rue de Jean, Chef Shell’s reputation for culinary excellence has reached new heights as he joins the lineup of 2023 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. The program was established in 2015 to recognize chefs whose craft and aesthetic best represent the state’s culinary culture. During their tenure, these talented representatives showcase local ingredients and South Carolina’s food heritage through cooking demonstrations, guest appearances and educational programs.
Here, we dig a little deeper into the career inspirations and focus of Chef Shell’s culinary approach:
Q: What inspired you to take a path to a culinary career?
Chef Shell: I found myself drawn to the kitchen at a young age with the inspiration of my mother. The older I got, the more I enjoyed it and felt at home in the kitchen. Once I started working, I found myself extremely comfortable under pressure amid the organized chaos and with the friends who became family in the kitchen.
Q: What were the most significant challenges you faced along your career path?
Chef Shell: Chefs choose to do this because we welcome challenges. For me personally, it was myself. The stigma of the culinary industry is the fun that comes with it. For the longest time, I made the fun and environment the priority. It wasn't until I found a way to remove them that I unlocked levels of potential, creativity and discipline—things I wasn't sure I was capable of.
Q: As a chef, what kind of dining experience do you hope to create for your patrons?
Chef Shell: My goal is always to guide guests to a different perspective of food. My job is to provoke the imagination and hopefully spark an unorthodox approach to food. It's okay to deviate from the directions sometimes or change the pairings of ingredients.
Q: What are your favorite South Carolina products and why?
Chef Shell: Among my favorites are Red Clay hot sauces, though this comes from a deep-rooted relationship with the product. Created by a boss that has become a mentor and friend, I have a hands-on understanding of the thought, care and creativity that goes into all their products.
Another favorite is Bulls Bay Sea Salt. I got introduced to the product at the Gather Charleston event and haven't been able to stop using it. They found a way to enhance salt—the backbone of food—in a way that takes everything up a notch.
Q: Do you have a signature dish?
Chef Shell: This is the hardest question for me, primarily because the thing I love the most about what I do is making new dishes. I live for the creative process. When I make something new, I want to push it to be the best it can be. Then, I want to share it with guests and start the process over again.
Q: What do you look forward to sharing with the dining public during your tenure as a South Carolina Chef Ambassador?
Chef Shell: The thing I'm most looking forward to is the opportunity to share the fun, excitement and freedom of making food. I am my truest self when I'm walking through the process of a thought or theory, to a vision, all the way through the execution. The best part of what I do is getting to share it with people. Everyone should have something like that in their life.