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Carolina cooking: local chefs ready for Shrimp & Grits Festival

            The Palmetto State is known for its sandy beaches, beautiful lakes, rich cultural history—and now, its homey, flavorful eats.  While Midlands cuisine may be known for its oyster roasts and pit barbecues, it’s hard to imagine any other area in the country does one certain dish as well as South Carolinians do: shrimp and grits.

            “There’s nowhere that you can go in South Carolina where can’t get a really good bowl of shrimp and grits,” said Brian Cole, creator of Columbia Food Tours, LLC.  “It’s a Southern thing for sure, but in South Carolina we have the absolute best shrimp and grits.”

            Cole, along with his wife Kristin, have operated Columbia Food Tours for three years in an effort to highlight he warmth and personality of Southern cuisine restaurants in Columbia.  They partnered with local restaurants to create tours of downtown Columbia that showcase the history of both the Capital City and its rich, hearty eats.  Their program has drawn in tourists from all over the world, including residents of Australia, South America, and Europe.  But, according to Cole, there is one particular dish that stands out to every Soda City visitor.69

            “I’ve introduced hundreds of people to shrimp and grits,” Cole explained.  “It’s fascinating to see their faces as they try it for the first time.  They always say afterward, ‘I had no idea it would be this good!’ Shrimp and grits is a very rewarding, satisfying dish.”

            Because the dish is so striking to newcomers and so beloved by locals, the couple organized the city’s first ever Shrimp and Grits Festival last year.  Now, they are preparing to host the second annual Shrimp and Grits Festival on Saturday, June 17.  The event will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. that night at the Columbia Conference Center on 169 Laurelhurst Avenue.

            “Almost every restaurant serves shrimp and grits,” said Cole.  “You can ask people whose shrimp and grits are the best, and you’ll always have a difference of opinion.  So this is a festival to celebrate Southern food, and also a competition to compete for the crown.”

            “The crown” Cole mentioned is the title of “Columbia’s Best Shrimp and Grits,” which will be picked by a panel of judges.  There will also be a People’s Choice Award and an award for the most creative take on the dish.

            Tickets for the festival are $40 for adults and $25 for children.  Admission includes unlimited shrimp and grits from all participating restaurants, who will be represented at the festival while preparing and serving food.  So far, several locally owned businesses have signed up to compete, including Main Street Public House, Publico, Roy’s Grille, Midlands, Chickadees, Rosso, and Capital City Catering.  The festival is still accepting participating restaurants and chefs.

            “Your ticket gets you as much as you can keep down,” said Cole with a laugh.  “It’s a lot of food, though, so come hungry.”

          The festival will also feature cooking demonstrations and a bar with beer and wine. As part of the effort to make this festival become ultimate South Carolina food experience,Mercer House Estate Winery, based in Lexington, will join the festival to serve wine and offer tastings.  Cole also recruited internationally renowned jazz musician Mark Rapp to curate the event’s live music and encourage traditional South Carolina dances such as shagging.

            Rapp  said he has comprised “an all-star band” of local Columbia musicians, including rising young vocalist Catie Galan.

             “I’m excited to present a band comprised of some of the most exciting talent in Columbia—and be a part of one of the most delicious festivals we have in Columbia,” said Rapp.  “We are playing a variety of jazz and popular tunes transformed into a platform for improvisation.”

            Several local chefs are already planning how they will win over the judges and festival-goers, including Chef Howard Stevens of Rosso Trattoria Italia on Forest Drive.  Stevens says the key to his restaurant’s Italian-accented shrimp and grits recipe is using all local products, including South Carolina shrimp and Congaree Milling Company grits. 

            After participating in the event last year, Stevens is eager to compete again.  “It was a great time last year,” he said.  “Plus, it’s a great way to support the community.  These are all independent restaurants under local ownership—not big chains.  This really promotes local business.”

            According to Stevens, South Carolinians love shrimp and grits so much because the dish has become a tradition in this state, where corn is readily available and shrimp is a primary catch of the Carolina coast.  “People in the South are used to their parents and grandparents making grits for breakfast.  There’s that old joke that people don’t know what grits are up north,” he said. “Every cuisine has its regional influence, and this is a classic, time-tasted food.”

           “Ultimately, Southern food is about feeling good and about tradition—it’s what we’ve grown up on,” Cole agreed.  “This is the food that reminds us of our childhood and what Grandma used to make.  Comfort food is food that makes you feel good when you eat it, and it makes us nostalgic.”

            For more information about the Shrimp & Grits Festival or to purchase tickets, visit www.columbiashrimpandgrits.com.

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