At this very moment, a chef at a great restaurant in Barcelona is preparing a meal for Chris Hathcock. The tables are literally turned as this getaway is purely for pleasure.
“This is the first trip I’ve taken where I haven’t had a detailed itinerary planned,” he said, an hour before he and his life partner, Rachel Hinely, flew out for a ten-day stay in Spain.
“Everytime I go traveling for food, I have plans,” said the Wilmington Island native who ended his six-year run at Husk six months ago.
During his two decades in professional kitchens, any personal travel ultimately ended up being culinary in some way: a recent visit to Mexico City included meals at Michelin-starred Pujol and Quintonil; in Chicago, he went to Smyth.
This trip is different.
“I have zero plans,” Hathcock said, “just get there and make it up as I go along. Just enjoy being with my partner.”
Not to rush his time abroad, but when he returns to town he has plenty on his proverbial plate.
STRANGE BIRD, ODD GAI
Not one of us needs any additional incentive to dine at Strange Bird, but through Nov. 29, Hathcock and his crew of “gunslinging line cooks from different badass restaurants” will continue their takeover of the Streamliner kitchen for pop-up dinners on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Because the exceptionally special FARM Hospitality Group outpost is closed those days, Hathcock said, “It just made sense for me to come in and do my thing, and they’ve been super-gracious and hospitable.”
Himself the titular chef, these ODD GAI SAV events are a layered play on words: ‘Strange Bird’ the locale, Hathcock the ‘Odd Guy’.
“It’s kind of a double entendre because I’m kind of a weirdo myself, an outcast,” he said humbly. “I want the menu to reflect Thai and Southeast Asian street food or drinking food, and it’s a reflection of my time traveling in Southeast Asia.”
Even cleverer is that “gai” is Thai for “chicken.”
Some variation of hat yai, Thai fried chicken, stars on the ten-item carte, offered the first week as legs, thighs, and wings. Up next week will be wings that are smoked, dried in fish sauce, lime juice, and soy, and dredged in rice flour before the final fry up.
The rotating roster also features the “freshest southern oysters you can get,” spotlighting a different farm every week. Almost all of the dishes are gluten-free, and much of the menu is purposely pescatarian with some sort of ceviche, sashimi, or crudo among the offerings.
The few meat-focused items, equaled in number by veg-forward fare, are “approachable” and “bright,” not “stuffy” food that “sits heavy in your stomach,” per Hathcock.
The pop-ups are first come, first served à la carte affairs with seven savory items - smaller plates between $11 and $15 and entrées all under $20 - and three sides, each intended to be used as a “vessel” with the other dishes: sweet sticky rice ($4), jasmine rice ($3), and pork rinds seasoned with Thai chili ($3).
Pastry Chef Tanya Matta prepares the two desserts, which have already included a banana bread pudding and a dark chocolate namelaka, a mousse-esque cross between a ganache and a crème pât whose Japanese name means “extremely creamy.”
“She and I think very similarly about food,” Hathcock said of his pâtissière partner. “We’ll workshop ideas together, and she puts it into existence. It’s just outstanding.”
Hathcock made clear that ODD GAI SAV is a “finite” engagement that is “never going to be a brick-and-mortar.”
“We’re really doing it to have fun cooking with each other,” he added about the venture that has reteamed him with friends and colleagues Graham Counselman, James Ray Kavanaugh, and Brian Gomez Martinez.
Hathcock made clear, “I’m not trying to open a Thai restaurant in Savannah.”
HAVE KNIFE, WILL TRAVEL
After hanging up his apron at Husk earlier this year, the nationally heralded chef “didn’t do anything for three months as far as work goes.”
He took time to travel. He went out to the Grand Canyon. He caught some Phish, doing some “soul-seeking” and “hitting that reset button.”
“I told myself, ‘I’m never going to be the executive chef at someone else’s restaurant again.’”
Instead, he has dived into part-time food pursuits, primarily production and butchery at Brochu’s Family Tradition and working on an oyster farm, while here and there cooking at “private chef gigs” and “consulting across the southeast.”
Hathcock said the position at Brochu’s is a “mutually beneficial situation,” calling himself a “hired gun” and not a staff chef. He takes care of “anything that’s butchered, hot sauces” and “little things here and there,” fitting in where he is needed.
In between, he has volunteered at the Tybee Oyster Company on Bull River, returning to his roots. Founder-owners Laura and Perry Solomon live on Betz Creek, where Hathcock once called home.
“I wanted to get in with them because they’re growing oysters on the waterways that I grew up on,” he said. “It’s really neat to see these oysters come to harvest size from the waters I used to go shrimping and fishing in as a kid.”
Hathcock met the Solomons through Oyster South, a 501 that does everything to connect and support oyster farmers in the southern United States, and asked to check out their operations. He helped plant the seeds and has been out a dozen times now, all because of his interest. Though he is not an employee or an investor, that might be the next step.
“They’re just doing things right.”
Hathcock’s restaurant résumé is as exquisite as the food he prepared in several superb stops that included Two Boroughs Larder (Charleston, SC) and Gan Shan Station (Asheville, NC) and a three-year stay at Staplehouse (Atlanta, GA), Bon Appétit’s New Restaurant in America (2016).
In 2017, he began his tenure at Husk, starting as executive sous chef at the brand’s Greenville branch for a year before becoming executive chef in Savannah.
Nothing gold can stay.
“Burnout’s real,” Hathcock said candidly. “I’d been there for six years. I was looking forward to a new concept, and we just couldn’t align on certain things.”
“We parted amicably,” he continued. “I wanted to do things that align with my interests more, and right now, that’s not doing high-end high-volume fine dining.”
“I’ve been in the kitchen for twenty-plus years, and I don’t want to work five nights a week, sixty to seventy hours a week,” said Hathcock. “I want to have more balance in life, time with my partner, my friends, my dog.”
[See: going to Spain for ten days.]
When he is back on this side of the Atlantic, he and an Atlanta-based chef, a close friend who has also been in fine dining for more than twenty years, will move forward with a business plan to open a resto in Savannah, hopefully by the end of 2024 “if we’re aggressive with it,” but more likely in the spring of 2025.
“We’re trying to do something that’s unique to Savannah and unique to the culinary landscape,” Hathcock said.
“In the meantime, I’m going to be working with Brochu’s and doing pop-ups here and there.”
Not to mention spending quality time with Rachel and Miso.
Through November 29, Chris Hathcock will be hosting ODD GAI SAV pop-up dinners at Strange Bird (1220 Barnard Street) on Tuesday and Wednesday nights from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m..