The founder of Kwei Fei—pop-up phenom-turned brick-and-mortar—dishes on developing Charleston’s Sichuan palate
David Schuttenberg opened Kwei Fei in James Island’s former Lot restaurant in November.
CM: How did you get interested in food?
DS: I developed an interest in cooking when I was just out of college and my roommate and I would host these super sophomoric formal dinners for our friends, or for a date. Regardless of the pretense of those parties, I found that I liked watching people enjoy a meal I had prepared as much as I enjoyed eating it.
CM: What made you decide to become a professional chef?
DS: I spent 10 years in corporate America doing I.T. work for IBM, and really not loving it, when my wife (and business partner), Tina, told me to get off my butt and find something I enjoyed doing. It was a scary thought, wondering if I’d still enjoy cooking once it was a career. But I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute and fell in love immediately.
CM: What were you doing before you came to Charleston?
DS: I started my career at Craft in New York City as a 34-year-old garde-manger cook and was the oldest person in the kitchen. I spent six years under Zak Pelaccio at Fatty Crab as and partnered with him on a West Village Mexican joint, Cabrito. Then I spent four and a half years doing charcuterie for Jake Dickson at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, the coolest butcher shop in the country.
CM: Why’d you move to Charleston?
DS: I moved here to do The Scarecrow project on Ann Street. Then I took the executive chef job at Fish under the auspice of being the guy to lead the transition into Parcel 32. When that didn’t work out, Tina and my sister Laurel pushed me to make something happen for myself. I feel very fortunate that our off-kilter, music’s-too-loud, fun-dining-not-fine-dining aesthetic and vibe seem to have resonated with the locals.
CM: Why did you decide to do a Sichuan?
DS: I really missed eating Sichuan food. It’s so much fun—vibrant, convivial, spicy, sweet, sour. I also constantly heard the lament that Charleston needed more ethnic food, Asian in particular.
CM: How’d you learn to cook Sichuan?
DS: Before Tina and I started Kwei Fei, I had never cooked it. I had several strange Sichuan cookbooks that I had found at thrift stores over the years and I just kind of dug in and started teaching myself.
CM: How’d the Kwei Fei pop-up get started at The Daily?
DS: I had developed a relationship with Michael Shemtov soon after moving here. When Fish didn’t work out, Michael said, “Whatever you want to do, do it at The Daily.” It was such an amazing offer, and it really worked well.
CM: Kwei Fei quickly became the place to be. When did you know you had a winning concept on your hands?
DS: We kept expecting things to taper off after the initial interest, but the cooking really matured, and more and more people kept coming. The challenge now is to never take that success for granted, to stay humble, keep my head down, and keep pushing.
CM: Now that you’ve moved into the former Lot space on James Island, do you plan to expand the menu?
DS: We are definitely going to expand the menu, but it will grow over time as we settle into the space. We’re going to develop a fun cocktail program and expand the wine list. Having a full size kitchen will give me the chance to dig deeper into this cuisine for sure. Plus, service six days a week will give me the freedom to work more with some of the amazing local seafood.
Photographs by (David) Lilia Montero, (Chubby Fish) Sarah Alsati, & (David and Jessie Ruth) Courtesy of David Schuttenberg