Chef Jason Tufts can thank his mama for his culinary career. As a high school student, he took a job washing dishes for a downtown Aiken restaurant, which gave him an inside look at the behind-the-scenes dynamics of a chef’s life. Sensing his budding interest in kitchen craft, his mama one day dropped the news that there was a culinary school in Charleston called Johnson & Wales. Once he had the high school diploma under his belt, off he went to the Holy City to pursue an education at the famed culinary university, where he graduated in 1999.
Chef Tufts honed his skills at the Doctors Hospital of Augusta, the Green Boundary Club and the Woodside Plantation Country Club, both in Aiken. In 2017, he was named executive chef of Malia’s, one of the town’s most popular restaurants, where he has earned a reputation for showing off local products to their freshest, finest advantage.
In this Q & A, Chef Tufts describes his journey from dishwasher to South Carolina chef.
What influences put you on the path to a culinary career?
“My grandmother lived to cook, and I idolized her. When I wasn’t in the kitchen under her feet, she had me in front of the TV, captivated by the likes of chefs like Justin Wilson, Jacques Pepin and my all-time favorite show, "Great Chefs of the World."’ I was always fascinated by the equipment, the deft movements of the magicians in pure white, and what seemed to be the most exotic ingredients. I’ve always loved watching the process of raw ingredients being turned into edible art.”
What makes being a chef in South Carolina such a special experience?
“I’ve only worked any length of time in two other states, but nowhere can compare to South Carolina in my mind. We have such a long and rich cultural history and with that comes so many cuisines. We are talking about a state that is perfectly balanced with varied geographical locales, each providing its own delicacies. Mountains, lowlands, midlands and the coast—there are not many places where you can get all of these components to create a delicious, healthy meal made from ingredients harvested within mere hours of preparation.”
What are your favorite South Carolina products?
“For us at Malia’s, it’s really a matter of the time of year. One thing owners Malia Koelker and Matthew Shackleton have pioneered is a constantly revolving menu. So, our lunch menu changes sometimes daily. With that being said, in winter you will find on the menu collards and kale from W.P. Rawls in Pelion. In the spring, we love Fallaw Family Farms asparagus harvested from fourth-generation fields in Batesburg. In the summer, we get beautiful petite squash and very tasty tomatoes from Robert and Hollie Gartman’s farm in Aiken.”
What dish best reflects your personal tastes and preferences?
“I think this is a hard question for a lot of chefs, as it really depends on when and where inspiration strikes. My family is New York Italian, but I also love French cuisine, so to distill it down to one dish is impossible. One particular dish I’ve always been proud of is a local honey-lacquered duck breast with port blackberry glaze over butternut squash, pistachio and pancetta hash. I was fortunate enough to be invited to prepare that one on a local cooking show.”
As a South Carolina Chef Ambassador, what philosophies and ideals do you hope to convey to the dining public?
“I want to be able to educate the general public on what we have to offer resource-wise and create awareness about the amazing dining scene that’s come about in the last couple of decades. I would love for South Carolinians to learn the best way to handle and pay homage to the ingredients they are procuring in their own towns. To cook is simply not enough—I want people to understand how to respect and value the ingredients they are using to nourish their bodies and feed to their loved ones.”