Interview with Chef Michelle Weaver of Charleston Grill and a Recipe for Cauliflower Soup with Truffled Brioche Croutons
Charleston, South Carolina is one of our favorite cities to visit. It is a charming Southern city filled with historical homes and beautiful architecture. Although we enjoy those things, the primary reason we travel to Charleston is for the food. We consider Charleston to be one of the finer culinary destinations in the country.
Charleston’s list of notable restaurants include Peninsula Grill, Magnolias, Cypress, S.N.O.B, McCrady’s, Husk, Fig and Charleston Grill. Some of our most memorable dining experiences on many visits to Charleston have been at Charleston Grill at the Charleston Place Hotel. The last time we stayed at the hotel and had dinner at the Charleston Grill, Bob Waggoner was the Executive Chef.
Waggoner left the hotel in January 2009 to pursue other interests, including his own television series. Chef Michelle Weaver was named the new Executive Chef within days following his departure. We were interested in speaking with her to see what it has been like to step into this role as Executive Chef replacing someone with such a big personality and presence. We also wanted her views on what it is like being one of the few female chefs in a male chef dominated city that is full of James Beard winners and nominees.
Chef Weaver has been at Charleston Place Hotel since 1997. She was formerly the Executive Sous Chef, working alongside her friend and mentor, Bob Waggoner. She started working with Waggoner in Nashville at The Wild Boar Restaurant. When the opportunity presented itself, Chef Waggoner brought Weaver with him to Charleston to pair up again at the Charleston Grill.
When Chef Waggoner left Charleston Grill in 2009, Weaver was the obvious choice to become Executive Chef and she has moved into this role with ease. During her tenure at Charleston Grill, the restaurant has won the AAA Four-Diamond Award and the Mobil Four Star Award. Charleston Grill has been included in the Nation’s Restaurant News “Fine Dining Hall of Fame” and is in the book, The Elite 1000. They have also won Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award” since 2003. Most recently, OpenTable Diner’s Choice Awards chose Charleston Grill as one of the 50 best restaurants for service in the U.S.
Over the past year, we have met with several chefs for this series of Chef Interviews. Some have been flamboyant and fun, some incredibly passionate about where our food comes from. Many worry about the business aspects of running a chef-owned restaurant. One chef we decided not to write about because it would not have been flattering. However, I don’t think we have met one as passionate about their cooking with as strong a desire to be in the kitchen as Chef Weaver.
Weaver doesn’t think of labeling herself as a “female” chef. The chefs in Charleston all know each other and are friends and she basically feels like one of the “guys”. She is focused more on her cooking and her staff in her role as Executive Chef.
Charleston Place Hotel is visited by guests from all around the world. Chef Weaver’s menu is divided into four styles of cuisine ranging from contemporary Southern inspired dishes to more exotic flavors that include an Indian Curry to satisfy the different tastes that guests may prefer.
Chef Weaver likens ingredients in a dish to “toys”. Of course, when you are a chef your toy stores are the local markets where unusual produce, specialty ingredients and various meats can be found. Many people refer to cookbooks or the internet to find recipes for unusual ingredients. Not Weaver. Weaver enjoys buying things she is unfamiliar with and then playing with them at home to see what works together.
The menu at Charleston Grill changes frequently. Chef Weaver searches for the best quality ingredients she can find and is not limited to using only local ingredients. The only item that is a constant is their signature Charleston Grill Crab Cake. I agree. This one needs to stay on the menu. It is fabulous.
Affectionately called “Mama” by her culinary team, Weaver grew up cooking next to her mother in their kitchen in Decatur, Alabama. She learned to cook fresh ingredients from their own farm. Southern cooking prepared in a cast iron skillet was how she described the cooking she learned from her mother.
Like many chefs we have interviewed, Weaver cooked at home at an early age and had jobs in various restaurants over the years, but she still chose to go to college to major in marketing. She said she wished that she had known sooner that she could actually make a living doing something that she loved (and that wasn’t marketing ;)). We heard this same thing from Chef Linton Hopkins.
When Weaver was in her mid-20’s she made a decision that changed the direction of her life. She packed up her red Cavalier along with money saved from a Summer job and went to the New England Culinary Institute to fulfill her dream of becoming a chef. Following her graduation, she traveled to New Orleans to work with French Chef Daniel Bonnot. From there, she went to The Wild Boar in Nashville where she met Chef Waggoner and began the journey that led her to her current position as Executive Chef.
How many people wake up every day and go to a job that they love and are passionate about? Chef Weaver does. There is nothing that she would rather do than be in the kitchen. Weaver’s father inspired her to find something that she loved and was passionate about and ultimately she did.
Executive Chefs have long hours, especially in a hotel where the kitchen is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It is incredibly demanding and stressful and can wreak havoc on your personal life. So, what does someone with that kind of schedule do on her days off? Why, of course…cook!
Once she is home, she is back in the kitchen. In fact, if it’s a Tuesday, friends just start showing up at her home because they know she will be cooking up something wonderful in her own kitchen. I think our next trip to Charleston should be on a Tuesday! Weaver also enjoys time away from the restaurant and relaxes on the beach or goes out with friends on the boat. She loves watching the sunset over Bowens Island, seeing the dolphins and having a chance to catch her breath.
We were interested to find out what Chef Weaver looks for when she is hiring someone to complete her culinary team. She said “You can tell how passionate and sincere someone is by looking them in the eye.” Weaver says that she can teach someone to cook. She is looking for that desire and sincerity to be a chef. “You need to bring passion to the table.”
Chef Weaver certainly brings her own passion to the kitchen and ultimately to the table at the Charleston Grill. We once again had an incredible meal and dining experience. It is evident that her culinary team and the rest of the staff at Charleston Grill are committed to providing a memorable dining experience.
Thank you so much to Chef Weaver for taking the time to meet with us. Thank you also to the culinary team and restaurant staff at the Charleston Grill for your hospitality.
Like Chef Weaver, we hope that you will also be inspired to take some new or unusual types of produce or meat home and play in the kitchen. Don’t look up a recipe on the internet or pick up a cookbook. Just experiment. You never know what fabulous dish you can create or what famous kitchen you might end up being a chef in someday!
Chef Weaver has shared her recipe for Cauliflower Soup with Toasted Truffle Butter Brioche Croutons. We had the soup at the restaurant and it was excellent. Their version was a bit thicker than the one I prepared at home, so I asked what they do different. They use a commercial grade blender which gives the soup a creamier and frothier texture. I would suggest reducing the stock a bit before adding the cream (or adding a bit less stock). That should make a difference in the texture. I did make homemade vegetable stock for the soup. The end result of your soup will obviously vary depending on whether you use water, canned stock or homemade stock.
The flavors were excellent in the soup. It is a lovely starter soup to have for a special dinner. Of course, the Truffle Butter Brioche Croutons put it over the top! I could not stop eating them. I did splurge and purchased Truffle Butter, but you could add a little Truffle Oil to regular butter and prepare the croutons that way. You will still get the truffle flavor and that is what makes the soup so good. The croutons will soften quickly in the soup as they are small and not very dense, so you will want to serve your soup immediately after adding them.
Disclosure – The Charleston Place Hotel provided one dinner and a reduced room rate during our stay.
Cauliflower Soup with Toasted Truffled Brioche Croutons
Yield: 6-8 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
1 head cauliflower
1/2 stick of butter (unsalted)
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
2 quarts water or vegetable stock (I made homemade stock)
1/8 cup butter (unsalted)
1/8 cup truffle butter
1/4 loaf brioche
Cut cauliflower into florets and remove the stems and leaves. Dice the onion into small pieces. Heat the butter in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, cook until soft (do not brown). Add cauliflower, stock or water and heavy cream. Simmer until the cauliflower is very soft, then puree in small batches in a blender and return to pot. Season with salt and pepper (I used white pepper).
Cut brioche into 1/4 inch cubes. Melt butters together and toss with brioche. Bake brioche on baking sheet for 7-10 minutes at 350 degrees until brown. Remove and garnish soup with croutons.
Recipe courtesy of Executive Chef Michelle Weaver
Charleston Place Hotel