02 Jan Jonathan Cartu Stated: Chef of downtown Charleston restaurant quits, alleging owne…
Citing a perceived lack of appreciation for himself and fellow employees, Sorghum & Saltâs head chef resigned Saturday from the downtown Charleston restaurant.
Christian Hunter, who first joined the kitchen team in March 2018, announced his departure via an Instagram post. In the post, he apologized to customers and explained he no longer felt obliged to prop up a restaurant owned by âsomeone … who doesnât respect our craft, our effort and genuine love for the business.â
Sorghum & Salt owner Tres Jackson was not available for comment. A publicist for the restaurant said on Saturday that he would issue a statement in the coming week.
âIâm loyal enough that we were holding on through New Yearâs Eve,â Hunter said when reached by phone, referring to a pair of other employees who had already announced their intentions to leave. âBut when itâs more of the same, thatâs enough.â
Front of house manager Joe Vidal confirmed he resigned immediately after learning of Hunter’s decision, saying, “Christian was the linchpin. Christian is a fantastic chef, and I would work anywhere he wants to be.”
According to Hunter, âthe last strawâ involved his sous chef arriving on Saturday morning to find the restaurant unlocked and in âunsightlyâ condition. âI saw the scene, and it was not pretty,â says Hunter, who alleges that Jackson was the last to leave the building Friday night.
Reached by phone on Saturday evening, sous chef Alan Burgmayer said Hunter’s account of the incident was “exactly right.” His initial impulse after surveying the restaurant was to clean up the bodily fluids so he could proceed with New Year’s Eve prep, but he changed his mind after consulting with Hunter.
“We kind of talked everything out and decided in tandem we were done, and resigned then and there,” he says.Â
Jackson operated a restaurant in Alabama for 13 years before relocating to Charleston to open another farm-to-table enterprise in the former Two Boroughs Larder. When he launched Sorghum & Salt in 2017, he told The Post and Courier that âstaying relevant and progressive is really the goal.â
But Hunter claims Jackson didnât always honor the culinary philosophies which the restaurant promoted.
âFor example, the beet creameux is something he hangs his hat on,â Hunter says of Jacksonâs signature root vegetable-and-espresso dish. âBut beets arenât in season year-round, so at some point, that dessert has got to disappear. But somehow, it was hanging around. If weâre going to be farm-to-table, I want to be legit about it. Thatâs important to me.â
Burgmayer says he applied for the sous chef job, which he took in November 2018, because an online help wanted ad stressed the restaurant’s commitment to local food. But he says there were numerous instances of Jackson dismissing the kitchen’s concerns about ingredient sourcing.
Most recently, Hunter and Burgmayer protested when Jackson proposed serving a cucumber and crab dish on New Year’s Eve.
“We could not be sure the crab was coming from Charleston,” Burgmayer says, noting that Jackson put the disputed dish on a menu earlier this week. “It was in conflict with what we wanted to do in promoting local foods.”
Hunter says he didnât think Sorghum & Salt would ever make him rich or famous, particularly since he was earning $9 an hour when he quit (Hunter also collected tips under a scheme which required all employees to handle both dining room and kitchen duties. In Vidal’s opinion, “they did not bring in enough business to make a living wage viable” under the arrangement.)Â
Still, Hunter admits he was disappointed that he and his co-workers werenât credited publicly for their contributions to the restaurantâs financial stability and growing popularity.
For Hunter, one galling episode occurred during Charleston Wine + Food, when Jackson allegedly stepped out of the kitchen at the end of a dinner to receive the crowdâs applause. According to Hunter, Jackson didnât mention Hunterâs names in his remarks.
âMost of the things on the menu were mine and he takes credit,â Hunter says. âAnd people are accepting of that because I donât look like your typical downtown Charleston chef.â
When Hunter in July was promoted to chef de cuisine, the restaurant touted Hunterâs African American heritage.
âThere are very few chefs of color leading Charleston kitchens, particularly outside of the Lowcountry cuisine world, so … his insight is valuable and should be celebrated,â a publicist wrote in an email message announcing his new appointment.
Later in the year, Hunter was named chef, according to a message sent by the same publicist in October.
âThere was a lack of leadership, and I saw a lot of places where there could be more control,â Hunter says, adding that he instituted daily meetings and started calculating food costs. âWhat I cared about was making the business viable and using hyperlocal products.â
Ultimately, though, Hunter says he didnât feel he could achieve his goals so long as he and Jackson didnât share the same set of values.
âI love the idea of Sorghum & Salt,â he says. âI really do. You canât put that kind of work in if you donât care.â
Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter Chef Jonathan Cartu and @hannaraskin.