The City Magazine Since 1975

15 Minutes with Damon Wise

September 2016
15 Minutes with Damon Wise
PHOTOGRAPHER: 
Meet one of Charleston's newest acclaimed chefs, Damon Wise

An old train depot on Ann Street might not look like much from the outside, but the block-spanning structure is home to three inventive restaurants: Wise-Buck Smoked Meats, Feathertop, and the forthcoming Scarecrow, all helmed by chef and partner Damon Wise

CM: After a long career in New York and opening some five Craft locations across the country, what made you finally settle on Charleston in 2014 for your own biz?
DW: It was mostly about the produce. I’d been to Charleston for various food events, so I knew about the city’s access to great ingredients. I’m also 10 minutes from the beach. It came down to either Los Angeles or Charleston, but I couldn’t see myself driving everywhere. I like the walking-city vibe.

CM: Can you walk to work?
DW: My girlfriend and I live next to the Andrew Pinckney Inn, so I walk or skateboard almost every day. I used to skateboard more—I even had a ramp as a kid in Baltimore. In New York, I’d go up and down the West Side Highway on a long board; it was amazing exercise. My crew loves making fun of me: a 45-year-old man on a skateboard.

CM: What’s been the best part about opening these restaurants?
DW: They’re my 15th, 16th, and 17th ventures, and it’s been lower pressure since I’m working for myself, instead of a high-profile owner. I’ve had a lot of time to work through any kinks and make sure it’s all coming together. And that’s fun for me—you could say I’m a workaholic. It’s also been fun to hire folks who are kind of green, showing them my way of working and watching them progress.

CM: Between Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar and working so closely with Tom Colicchio, you must have prepared food for some pretty big-name stars.
DW: There’s been a whole slew of people. Keith Richards was pretty monumental. He was a regular at Monkey Bar. He never ate much—he’d order, like, steamed salmon and sautéed spinach.

CM: Any funny stories?
DW: David Bowie came to Craft once with Iman and someone else. I was pretty petrified cooking for him. When all the food came out and was set on the table—it’s served family style—he said, “Stop, stop! Don’t start yet.” He then clapped his hands over the table and said, “Action,” which was a cue for everyone to dig in. Lots of musicians ate at Craft—Tom [Colicchio] is a big music buff. The band Rush came into Craftsteak in New York and drank white-chocolate martinis all night.

CM: It’s hard not to notice the artwork here, including the large painting of food that hangs toward the back of Scarecrow.
DW: It was bought by Al Capone and was gifted to a restaurant owner in Chicago. The restaurant closed, and the painting went to an art museum in Chicago. My business partner, Jonathan Buckley, bought it at an auction. We’ve been planning these three restaurants for a while, and over the last 15-or-so years have handpicked all the artwork that’s hanging on the walls.

CM: Tell us about the different concepts.
DW: Wise-Buck Smoked Meats is fast-casual. You come in, order from the counter, and work your way around the line. Feathertop is an all-day café, with a big coffee program. It’s got lighter proteins, lots of fish, vegetables, and pasta. Scarecrow is dinner only, with heavier meats and vegetables that center around a wood fired oven.

CM: Your website states a commitment to using responsibly sourced ingredients. Who are your local suppliers?
DW: Ambrose Family Farm is awesome. We source a lot from GrowFood Carolina, so we get great vegetables and dairy products from a range of local purveyors. I’m also getting golden oyster mushrooms from Mepkin Abbey. But there are non-local products that I love, too, so I’m mixing it up. For instance, all our spices come from Sanctuary, a company in Los Angeles.

CM: What are your goals?
DW: I’m still figuring out what’s working here, and I’m excited about it. People in Charleston are sophisticated eaters, and they like eating out. I want to be a neighborhood place where people can come multiple times per week.

Resources: