In June, local chef Adam Kirby took the top prize in the PNC Best of the Fest competition at the Atlanta Food & Wine festival for his rendition of the Lowcountry staple, shrimp and grits. Two weeks before that, that dish garnered first place at the second annual Shrimp and Grits Cook-Off at the Hammock Shops in Pawleys Island.
Kirby is co-owner of Bistro 217 and Rustic Table in Pawleys Island. He is also one of four chefs in the state to be named South Carolina Chef Ambassador for 2017 – a continuation of an initiative enacted by former Governor Nikki Haley in 2014. According to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism [SCRPT] website, the program “seeks chefs who embody the best of South Carolina’s food scene, both in the quality of their provisions, as well as their dedication to using healthy, locally-grown ingredients.”
Kirby said he grew up in a family of really good cooks: His mother and both of his grandmothers.
“Everything was always homemade, and everything was delicious. They taught me the difference between good food and bad food very young,” he said.
His culinary journey began early – flipping pizzas and cooking at steakhouses in Athens, Ga. and in Charleston – eventually going farther afield and working as a sous chef at a hotel in Hawaii.
“I went and traveled around the country and did all of my things,” he said.
When he decided it was time to go after his culinary degree, he signed up at what was then Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Or. – and while he was there, Le Cordon Bleu bought the school.
As for his culinary degrees, Kirby said that he has never had to show these to anybody when in search of work.
“In this business, you cook for a living – so as long as you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to find a job. But I always worked while I was going to school.”
Indeed, he worked at Widmer Brothers Gasthaus Pub [Widmer Brothers Brewing] in Portland. Later, he worked under celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower for a year at his celebrated restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco. Tower is credited [along with Alice Waters] with pioneering what is known as California Cuisine, which is a style that incorporates fusion with freshly-prepared local ingredients.
But he said that he learned the most about cooking from his time at Canoe Atlanta, where he worked under Chef Gary Mennie.
“The most talented guys I ever worked with were at Canoe Atlanta. All those guys that were there are big restaurant guys in Atlanta now, and they have their own restaurants everywhere around the country,” he said.
He also learned a great deal from now-retired Atlanta chef and restauranteur Paul Albrecht – aka Chef Paul. Kirby was Albrecht’s sous chef for a time, and considers him a great friend.
Kirby moved to Pawleys Island 14 years ago, but his family vacationed there when he was growing up. As part of a culinary school project, he created a restaurant called in Pawleys Island called The Bistro – a full ten years before he moved here for good.
In a strange twist of fate, Kirby said that restaurant stood 500 yards down the street from Bistro 217, which is, by his count, 77 steps away from Rustic Table – back door to back door. He makes that trip countless times each day.
Kirby has been with Bistro 217 since it opened 13 years ago, and became co-owner in 2008. Rustic Table is well into its second year.
With the restaurants so close to each other, The Sun News asked Kirby to differentiate between the two.
“Bistro 217 is kind of what I was schooled for and other chefs taught me,” he said. “You are not reinventing the wheel when you are a chef. You can look at what everybody else has done and all of the influences in your life – and mix them up and make them your own.”
And while some of the fare at Bistro 217 is totally original, Kirby said it’s not like inventing fire.
“We are just using good cooking methods, great products, and trying to cook them properly and put them together well.”
Rustic Table, on the other hand, is more about the foods Kirby grew up on.
“It’s got a real deep Southern influence – and I’m trying to use as many local products as I can. We do that at Bistro too, but Bistro is a more Asian, German and French influence in there,” he said.
You are only as good as the people who cook for you, according to Kirby – and he said he’s got some really good guys working for him.
He cited Bistro 217 and Rustic Table co-owner Anne Hardee a wonderful business partner and a longtime friend.
Indeed, Hardee is a hands-on business partner and head of operations for both restaurants. The two have known each other since 2004, and Hardee asked Kirby to join forces with her at Bistro 217 in 2008.
“Adam is a creative chef with the love for food, flavors and the gift of presenting beautiful food,” Hardee said. “I felt he had the desire, perseverance and dedication to the restaurant life, just as I do. In order to have a working business partner, they must aspire to achieve the same goals as you, work together as a team and respect each other, Adam brings all of that to the table – ingredients for a successful restaurant, I must say.”
This time of year, Kirby and company are operating at full tilt.
“It’s absolute insanity, but the great thing about this is that all of the great produce is showing up,” he said. I love using a bunch of local farmers, so they are just piling it on. I don’t even ask. It’s like – ‘Bring what you’ve got. Bring it all.’”
He said he uses Seven Seas Seafood for all his fish.
“We literally call them every morning: ‘Dude, what have you got…’”
Seven Seas Seafood proprietor and third-generation fisherman Chris Conklin said Kirby is all about supporting local fishermen.
“Paying a little more for a local higher quality product says a lot about his business,” Conklin said. “Quality pays big dividends with customers that come expecting the very best. Integrity in seafood is hard to come by. There are a lot of places that get cheap low-quality seafood from the same company they order their janitorial supplies, produce, and paper products from. That just makes zero sense to me.”
Conklin said Seven Seas manages and offloads around a dozen boats that primarily target snapper and grouper.
“We also have a few crabbers and dayboat shrimpers and many oysterman flounder giggers,” he said, adding that Kirby orders heavy and takes no bull.
“We’ve both gotten considerably busier over the years and have grown our families and businesses, but I try to stay in touch at least once a month. He has an amazing staff, as do I, and we communicate on a daily basis,” Conklin said.
Kirby’s latest event as a South Carolina Chef Ambassador was in July, and found him at the Southern Living test kitchen at the Time, Inc. studios in Birmingham, Al., where his culinary offering was Hill Creek Cider-Braised Short Ribs, Millgrove Farms Baby Sweet Tea Collards, Iron Skillet Corn, South Carolina Alduh Grits and Clemson Blue Cheese.
Kirby plans on staying put in Pawleys Island with wife Lindsey Kirby and son Abel, 3. The Kirbys are expecting a new baby – another son – on February 6.
“Pawleys Island is my home. No doubt about it,” he said.