A chance meeting would lead to one of the most exciting and historical moments of chef Kevin Mitchell's career; re-creating an 1865 feast by Nat Fuller (1812 – 1866). Fuller, a slave who received his freedom in the 1850s, hosted a historical feast in March of 1865 to celebrate the end of the American Civil War that brought together Blacks and Whites at the dinner together for the first time in Charleston, SC. This feast will be re-created on Sunday, April 19 with Mitchell hosting in the spirit of Fuller known as “the renowned presiding genius” of Charleston cuisine, owner of the restaurant The Bachelor’s Retreat, which is now an art museum, and the city’s first mixologist on record.
“Nat Fuller was the most prominent, probably the most well-known African-American chef in the Charleston community in the late 1800s. Not only was he a chef, he was a caterer, he was a butcher of sorts because he actually sold meat and fowl on the first floor of the restaurant,” says Mitchell.
The Meaning of a Historic Feast
The hosting role of Fuller could not have been chosen any better by Dr. David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina who is spearheading this invitation-only event. Shields first approached Mitchell over a year ago about the concept and Mitchell quickly learned he was serious. The professor is widely known for his work around Lowcountry cuisine and his research around the life and career of Fuller is part of his book, “The Culinarians,” that will feature the biographies of the 200 most important chefs, caterers and restaurateurs in the American Revolution to Prohibition and will be released next year. In this article, published in 2013, “Charleston’s First Top Chefs,” he documents and shares the history of black slave cooks-turned-caterers and restaurateurs and Fuller’s training under chef Eliza Seymour Lee who became the foremost private chef in the antebellum city.
The re-enactment of Fuller’s feast on the 19th will come together thanks to a lot of hard work and dedication from the planning committee. Mitchell is responsible for the overall menu which will include: Mock Turtle Soup, Oyster Soup with Celery, Collard Kraut, Poisson, Shimp Pie, Poached Bass and Aged Duck with Seville Oranges. For the feast, there will be more than 15 courses served.
“We have some research of menus and things that he served for several of his catering events, things that he served at his restaurant, The Bachelor’s Retreat in Charleston and some other menus from his protégés who followed behind him and served some of the same things he served. So I just took all those menus and found the common things that were on each of those particular menus. I tried to make it a diverse menu of things that he would have served throughout his career.”
An Unforgettable Celebration
The event will begin with a cocktail reception that will be hosted in the museum and led by chef B.J. Dennis who specializes in Gullah-Geechee food. During the reception, guests will sip and savor three of Fuller’s favorite cocktails: the Brandy Smash, the Gin and Bitters and the Bourbon Julep.
The main dinner will be held at the restaurant McGrady’s owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock who will oversee the fish menu selections and Mitchell will oversee the preparation and execution of everything else.
The event will welcome 80 guests who were selected by a committee overseen by Dr. Bernard Powers of the College of Charleston and represent all walks of life from government, academia, the arts, community, religion and media. In addition, six essay winners will be present as well as a descendant of chef Elizabeth Seymour Lee mentioned above who trained Fuller.
Lastly, with no known documentation of what Fuller looked like, artist Jonathan Green was commissioned for a painting of the chef based on what he is believed to have looked like.
This sesquicentennial commemoration of the end of the Civil War in Charleston is not a fundraiser but instead a marker of Fuller’s legacy as well as the South’s legacy in food. “I have always been raised on the belief of my grandmother and mother that food is something that brings people together. Everyone has to eat. And it doesn’t matter what you are eating, it is just a way for you to sit around with friends and family to break bread and talk about things that are going on in the community and I think he [Nat Fuller] wanted to really show his true spirit of hospitality and used food as a tool to bring people together.”
You can also learn more about chef Kevin Mitchell in Cuisine Noir who is the first African-American instructor at the Culinary Institute at Trident Technical College.