With a mission to promote local agriculture and tourism, the South Carolina Chef Ambassador program is already making a major impact statewide.
Through the program, launched in 2014, chefs share their culinary skills while serving up a bevy of local products and supporting area farmers. It also benefits South Carolina diners, who have the opportunity to enjoy fresh food at some of the state’s top restaurants.
“We’re very pleased with the response we’ve gotten from our audience and the chefs,” says Ansley Rast Turnblad, marketing specialist for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Initiated by Gov. Nikki Haley and supported by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, the Chef Ambassador Program selects four chefs annually, each representing one of the state’s regions, for one year. During the 2014-15 term, Chef Heidi Trull of Grits & Groceries in Belton represents the Upstate; Chef Brandon Velie of Juniper in Ridge Spring represents the Midlands; Chef Cooper Thomas of Victor’s Bistro in Florence represents the Pee Dee; and Chef Brian Waters of Saltus River Grill in Beaufort represents the Lowcountry.
“I felt it was such an honor to be picked to represent my region of the state in the service of fresh and local food,” Trull says. “This is already our main goal at Grits & Groceries.”
Each chef also participates in Fresh on the Menu, launched in 2008 as the second phase of the Certified South Carolina program. Fresh on the Menu requires restaurants to offer menus including at least 25 percent Certified South Carolina Grown foods and products, when in season. Featuring all of the participating restaurants, the free Fresh on the Menu smartphone application also provides recipes, making it easy for diners to recreate their favorite menu items at home.
In addition to serving fresh, local products at their restaurants, Chef Ambassadors attend and participate in public events, perform cooking demonstrations, and contribute to discussions devoted to helping children establish healthy habits. In early 2015, each chef attended the SC AgriBiz and Farm Expo in Florence, participated in the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Travel in Myrtle Beach, and some performed cooking demonstrations at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with each of the Chef Ambassadors this year. They are superb chefs who share a passion for locally grown and produced food. The time they’ve volunteered, combined with their talent and enthusiasm for the industry has made the first year of the program very successful,” says Turnblad.
The chefs take their responsibilities seriously, taking advantage of the many opportunities to promote the local food movement in their regions. Velie has performed cooking demonstrations at the Aiken County Farmers Market, Soda City Market and South Carolina State Fair, and he gave a talk on food trends at the South Carolina Watermelon Association’s annual meeting. Trull has used her platform to work with Sysco Corp., a major food distributor, to make it easier for South Carolina customers to purchase local products.
“The ambassadorship has opened us [Grits & Groceries] up to the rest of the state, and I hope at the end of my term that I will have opened the state up to our view of spending your money local on fresh food,” Trull says.