When I hear there is a new Chef in town, I get excited to learn about said Chef’s viewpoint on food. And when I hear the new Chef is a Southerner through and through, the anticipation grows.
I can say that in certain situations, the anticipation matches the outcome, and that’s what I found here at Rhett with their new executive chef and head culinary philosopher.
Rhett just invited Executive Chef Jason Starnes to join the team and revamp the menu, and although the full new menu has not been released, Chef Starnes hit the ground running faster than a moonshine mule. He has also taken care to learn about our local farms in order to start procuring sustainable ingredients.
Before joining Rhett, Chef Starnes headed many bustling kitchens in the South. He can manage a busy night yet still finds time to ensure each sous chef has the opportunity to learn new techniques and skills—he was very clear that his vision is rooted in teaching the hungry young chefs that work on his team to think about food independently and not rely on an executive chef to tell them what to do.
For Chef Starnes, stepping into this new kitchen gives him the opportunity to focus on local and sustainable ingredients. It is his way to give back to the community by ensuring that capital stays within the town.
“Southern eclectic” is how Chef Starnes describes the food that his team cooks day in and day out.
For example, Chef threw a classic Southern dish you can find at almost any Sunday supper or post church lunch—spoonbread. But strangely enough you cannot seem to find it anywhere in Savannah.
He puts his eclectic spin on the composed dish by topping it with hunks of pork belly cooked to resemble the burnt ends of barbeque meat. Until I devoured the dish, I didn’t think such a simple classic recipe could be so rustically revised.
When I sat down to meet and speak with Chef Starnes, he instantly offered me more food than I knew what to do with like any true Southern cook that loves to feed people.
When I asked Starnes to tell me about his background, he opened up by telling me, “I spent the last 14 years in Atlanta, at various high profile restaurants and openings and just trying to build my career the best way that I could build my career. For me local sustainable is really a way of life, not just a philosophy.”
Not only is Starnes committed to teaching his team the things he learned in his journey as a chef, he is a very goal-oriented culinary thinker.
Chef Starnes is not complacent in his menu. When I asked him about his new menu items (many of which have been rolled onto the menu in the last few weeks), he had a few stories for me.
“The spoonbread? Basically it was derived from pure Southern—I mean it is just pure Southern. I grew up in the South. I grew up in a really creative family. I was fortunate enough to be able to cook daily with my dad. Even though he was not a chef, he was a furniture designer, but he still had that mentality of pushing the creativity,” he said.
“I can remember being five, and they wouldn’t allow me to cook until I was five, and you can step on the stool and dad is like, ‘I got broccoli, chicken and lemons.’ Most of the stuff was stuff was stuff that he grew. He was like ‘How do you want to do this?’ Um we should microwave [it], and he is like ‘No’. For me food is really about the hospitality. It is not really the story behind this particular dish. It is really just taking me back to being a child and cooking with my dad or cooking with my grandmother. Just that sense of accomplishment.”
I asked him some more questions in our time together to dig into his psyche as the newest addition to the Savannah food scene.
What is your goal with Rhett?
We're doing some cool stuff. We're just trying to let people know that, hey, we are cooking great food. It's not pretentious, it's not over complicated or over manipulated. Sometimes simple is harder to do, but that is just what we are about right now. We are in the process of changing the menu. Come October we will be full force into a new menu.
How will the menu change?
We're going to go to a brunch menu from 7-3. We're going to say, you know what? This menu is going to focus on the hotel guests, it is going to focus on the tourists, and its comfort eclectic. It is things you might not have seen that way, but it's also things you're comfortable with. Look for instance at the loaded grit bowl. Grits are so common in the South for breakfast and all we did was put a little bacon on them, put a little cheese on them, and put this spectacular tomato relish on it that really brightens it up.
What local suppliers are you using?
We hooked up with Savannah River. We have hooked up with Hunter Cattle, a little. I am buying bread out of Bluffton from Tiller. There are a handful of northern Florida produce companies I am using, people that are within two hours of here. I would say 70% of what I buy right now is coming from the state of Georgia, probably 98% is the southeast region. The goal is to try to have 100% within 150 miles.