From SC Chef Ambassador John Ondo and Lowcountry Oyster Co.
A Charleston native, Chef John Ondo grew up playing and swimming in the tidal creeks and marshes of the Lowcountry. After opening his restaurant, Lana, in 2005, he established himself as a culinary force, building a loyal following before moving on to other ventures. As the executive chef of The Atlantic Room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Ondo draws upon the food traditions of the Lowcountry and his close-knit relationships with farms and fishermen to craft memorable dining experiences.
“I worship the sea and the salt and the marshes—anything that comes out of there. It’s in the DNA in the food here. To be able to put that on a menu now, and to represent South Carolina—I think it’s a duty,” says Ondo. “I feed a lot of people that are vacationing here, and it makes me proud to tell them that these were grown here in South Carolina, that they’re 20 min away, or that you drove right by their farm on the way to get here. When you visit South Carolina, you’re not only visiting a beach resort or a golf resort, you’re visiting their farms and you’re visiting our farms.”
After traveling the world as a professional fisherman, Trey McMillian came home to South Carolina.
“The Lowcountry runs through my blood. I don’t know what it is, I just can’t live without it. To have the opportunity to come home and start a business still doing what I love, being on the water, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t let slip by,” McMillian explains.
Founded in 2017, Lowcountry Oyster Company (locally known as “Lowco”) uses sustainable cage farming techniques to grow and cultivate their oysters in South Carolina’s ACE Basin. Located between Hilton Head Island and Charleston, the ACE Basin is one of the largest wetland ecosystems on the Atlantic coast and an ecological gem in the Lowcountry. Named after the free-flowing Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers, the unspoiled estuary is home to myriad types of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, bobcats, river otters, gray fox and as many as 291 migrating bird species.
Using the latest in farming and techniques, Lowco can control the depth of the cup size to create perfect 3-inch cocktail oysters. They frequently sort and handle their oysters during their growth cycle, and during warmer months they regularly tumble them so that the brittle bits of shell on baby oysters fall off. But when it comes to flavor, McMillian credits the pristine waters the oysters are raised in.
“Growing oysters here in the Lowcountry is very unique, the water is super salty, we have very high salinity, but we also have marsh grass which a lot of states don’t have. The ecosystem here traps a lot of unbelievable nutrients and flavor and salt in this marsh grass, which we grow our oysters next to so inherently it tastes exactly like you would think—just pure salty goodness.”
“It’s just a really good product,” says McMillian. “It’s nothing that I’m doing or anybody else is doing—we’re just doing our jobs. The area in which we grow them is just pristine. It doesn’t get any better. Everything just comes together in a perfect way here.”
Lowco’s sustainable farming practices also enable them to offer fresh, briny oysters year-round, dispelling the myth that oysters can only be consumed during months with an ‘R’ in them.
Interested in learning more about what it takes to bring fresh oysters to your table? Experience the journey on one of Lowco’s farm tours, which give an inside look at the science and sustainability of an oyster’s life cycle. You’ll get to go out on the water to see where and how the oysters are harvested. They’ll also teach you how to shuck an oyster—and you’ll get to reap the benefits of your new skill with an oyster tasting.
“I’d love to invite you to dine to the Atlantic Room and discover South Carolina through a dish of raw oysters, sea beans and caviar.” – Chef John Ondo
12 Lowcountry Cup Oysters cleaned
½ cup Sea Beans sliced thin
½ cup cucumber small diced
1 shallot small diced
1/8 cup champagne vinegar
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1 jar American caviar Hackelback or American Osetra
2 cups rock salt or uncooked rice (to keep oysters from falling over)
Dice cucumber and sea beans (frawn part only, discard fibrous root end) and add to a bowl. Add shallots, black pepper and vinegar. Mix and let stand 30 minutes.
Scrub the dirt and mud off of the oysters. Shuck oysters and separate them from the bottom shell; running your oyster knife underneath the oyster should do the trick. Place the oysters on the rock salt or rice.
Spoon 1 tsp of the mignonette on each oyster and add a pinch of caviar on top that. Serve immediately.
“When you add vinegar or a mignonette to an oyster, it takes away some of the salinity through the acid,” explains Ondo. “So, we’re kind of taking it away and putting it back at the same time. These oysters have kind of a mellony, cucumber favor so that will pair well with the mignonette.”
Cooks Tip: Use a paring knife's tip as a spoon to get the caviar.
Cooks Tip: Use the remainder of the caviar unabashedly mixing it in to onion dip (store bought or homemade) and eating with potato chips and sipping champagne or your favorite beer.