Book a ticket and fly into Charleston this afternoon, and chances are, you’ll be able to get a reservation for dinner at S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad Restaurant). S.N.O.B. was once the trendiest joint in town and attracted press from national outlets immediately upon opening in 1993. Yet unlike modern tourism-burdened contemporaries like Poogan’s Porch or Hyman’s Seafood, which now provoke as many eye rolls from locals as they do enthusiastic recommendations, S.N.O.B. restaurant remains relevant.
That’s thanks to Frank Lee, the chef whose vision guided S.N.O.B. to respect and prominence as Charleston’s most forward-thinking restaurant nearly a quarter century ago. Before the words “farm-to-table” were ever printed, Lee thumbed his nose at distributor seafood and produce in favor of local offerings. Lee served the city’s first plate of pad thai. He pioneered the first charcuterie program in town. For a time, he strived to be known as the “Tamale King” of Charleston. That’s all in the confines of a restaurant generally pegged as “Southern cuisine,” where blue jeans share space with seersucker and it’s still possible to eat a meal for under $20.
“His ability to elevate a dish with restraint is fascinating,” said Kevin Johnson, the James Beard-nominated owner/chef of The Grocery and a former cook at S.N.O.B. “[Frank] improves dishes by removing elements instead of adding them.”
But why Frank Lee for Thrillist Charleston's Chef of the Year, right now?
Charleston’s restaurant scene continues to boom without restraint. Just when it seems our market can’t support another place to eat, three more open. Name-brand chefs have literally left New York City to move to Charleston. But amid the scene’s accolades and a fawning national press hot after the next big thing, S.N.O.B. holds steady. Frank Lee is Charleston’s rock.
Most importantly, he’s Charleston’s food and beverage mentor. The list of chefs who came of age under Lee’s tutelage is stunning -- Kevin Johnson (The Grocery), Josh Hopkins (Empire State South, Atlanta), Chris Newsome (Ollie Irene, Birmingham), Graham Dailey (Peninsula Grill, Charleston), and on and on. These once-aspiring cooks gained culinary skills, of course, but they also learned responsibility and how to run an efficient business. Lee calls his kitchen “a study, a workshop, and an altar.” It’s a place where young cooks learn how to respect ingredients, customers, and each other.
“He’s the best team leader I’ve ever been around,” said Robert Berry, another Lee protégé (from 1995-2001) about to open the long-awaited Pancito & Lefty in Charleston. “Frank taught us much more than just how to cook -- it’s his philosophy on life. You had to work your way into the family -- it was a meritocracy --but the harder you worked, the faster you could climb.”
Johnson adds that for Lee, “It’s just as much about developing people as it is dishes. It sounds simple, but so much can happen once you have a team that cares.”
Another of Lee’s colleagues at S.N.O.B., Russ Moore, is now at S.N.O.B.’s helm. Lee stepped away in June, focusing his attention on the cookbook he’d put off writing for years. Released December 7th, The S.N.O.B. Experience illustrates the stories behind dishes like barbecue tuna and palmetto pigeon that made him the talk of the town. It also serves as a reminder to Charleston diners that without Lee, none of the variety and eclecticism we now take for granted in our once strictly-old-school Southern city would be here -- at least not quite as quickly and to the level they are now.
Lee’s next step is a much-deserved sojourn to New Zealand and a retirement from the kitchen-based life he’s led for decades. When he returns in the spring, he intends to put his shoulder to the wheel fostering Charleston’s next generation of inspired cooks, just as he has for nearly 25 years.