After living on a New Jersey vegetable farm, executive chef Robin Hollis brings a Garden State of mind to Basic Kitchen
CM: You grew up in central New Jersey. What brought you to Charleston?
RH: I used to work with chef Nick Wilber in New York City. Nick moved to Charleston in 2018 to helm Basic Kitchen. When he was leaving to open a sister restaurant, The Fat Radish Savannah, he called me to take over as Basic’s executive chef. I’d been actively looking to move to a warmer city, so it was all really serendipitous.
CM: Before moving south, you lived on a New Jersey farm. What were you up to?
RH: When I left the city in 2012, I moved to Hunterdon County. I noticed a stark generational divide in town between the younger people who’d recently moved there and the old guard. I wanted to cultivate a sense of community, so I started a pop-up dinner series called “Poor Farm Food” (a nod to an old name for the property I lived on). Anywhere I could find space, we popped up: a loft, a field, a barn. This became a great way to bring people together who might not have connected otherwise, while also supporting local farmers in the community. The area is very rich in farmland. I worked with amazing young farmers; we coexisted in this happy place where they could grow the food they wanted to grow, and I cooked what they were growing.
CM: How did the pop-up influence what you do now?
RH: Like the farmers I worked with, I’m devoted to conscious consumption and cooking hyper-seasonally. For example, in the winter, by making vegetables like beet or kale taste delicious, I could convince people, ‘This is what we should be eating right now, because this is what’s available.’ That’s what we’re doing at Basic Kitchen, which makes it a really great fit for me.
CM: Are you changing anything up with your new role?
RH: Sharing food is one of my favorite ways to eat. You get to try a little bit of everything. I want to encourage people to try dishes they haven’t had before, so I’m adding more small plate options.
CM: How are you using the 16-square-foot patio garden at the restaurant?
RH: We’re constantly working with Rita from Rita’s Roots, who plants and maintains the garden, to let her know what’s most useful to us. It’s awesome to envision a special I can create from our garden, but it’s hard to put a dish on the menu, get one harvest, and then be out after one service. We have beautiful garnish herbs right now, tons of prolific peppers; we can harvest them and in three days we’ll have more.
CM: Sounds like you have to be strategic.
RH: That’s something I learned from my mom. When I was growing up, nearly everything we ate in the summer came from her huge garden. There were certain things she would plant, for example radishes. If you pull a radish out, it’s done; you have to plant another. She planted vegetables with a higher yield and planned how to can and preserve them for the winter. As I got older, this is something we enjoyed doing together.
CM: How are you finding the agricultural community here in Charleston?
RH: It’s inspiring to be surrounded by people who are so passionate about what they’re doing. I’m in direct contact with people who offer me the freshest possible ingredients. For example, Nathaniel Bradford from Bradford Watermelons texted me the other day to ask if I wanted some fresh-picked okra. I really like the straightforward simplicity of the food I get to cook here. You don’t have to do a million things to make something taste delicious.