There’s southern cooking, and there’s Lowcountry southern cooking. And then there’s Gullah Geechee cooking, which Chef B.J. Dennis is studying, reviving, and sharing in Charleston and beyond at events such as the BB&T Food + Wine Festival, and at his pop-up dinners at restaurants such as Charleston’s Butcher & Bee, and Sean Brock’s Husk.
The name Gullah Geechee refers to the culture of the descendants of West African slaves who settled on the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and on the Sea Islands. Gullah refers to those from South Carolina, and Geechee to those from Georgia. The Gullah Geechee were experts at cultivating rice, as well as peanuts, okra, and sweet potatoes, among other crops. And shrimp, crab, and sand sharks are among the seafood they caught and made a centerpiece of their meals.
Dennis grew up eating Lowcountry food like shark steak and deviled crab but didn’t begin serious study until he was working his way up the line at Charleston’s Hank’s Restaurant. Then a stint in St. Thomas turned him on to Caribbean culture and the desire to take the food of his ancestors more seriously. When he returned from St. Thomas he cooked with Chef Jeremiah Bacon at Oak Steakhouse, who, says Dennis, “gave me Thomas Keller fine-dining training and techniques that I carry to this day.”
Studying the cookbooks of the Gullah Geechee, and having the hometown Charleston advantage, Dennis carved a niche for himself on the local food scene with dishes like perloo, a slow-cooked meat and rice stew similar to jambalaya; shrimp and oyster rice; and suckling pig stuffed with Sea Island sweet onions. He’s cultivated relationships with local fishermen and women, too, right along with cultivating a new way of thinking about the ingredients that generations of Dennises before him were growing, catching, and cooking. “I’m a city boy,” he says. “But the older I got, the more I realized it was in me.”