In this edition of our Charleston Culinary Legends series, we profile the area’s first James Beard Foundation Award winner: chef Louis Osteen. Those newer to the area might not recognize the name, which is a shame, and the reason for the profile. Chef Osteen was one of the area’s first “celebrity” chefs and did a lot to shape Charleston’s current culinary landscape.
After attending both the University of Carolina and Clemson University for a brief time, Osteen moved to Atlanta to help a friend open a chain of small theaters. That did not last long and in 1973, Osteen went to work at one of Atlanta’s best restaurants, Le Versailles, under chef Francois Declares.
He then spent over eight years on Pawleys Island, South Carolina before moving to Charleston. The chef and his wife found a house and Osteen was hired as the chef at the newly opened Omni Hotel (which is now the Belmond Charleston Place). The restaurant was Charleston Grill and he was there for over eight years.
Osteen left to open his own standalone restaurant in the city—Louis’. He decided to sell the business after a few years and moved back to Pawley’s Island where he met the buyer of Hammock Properties. Together, they opened Louis’s Fish Camp and while cooking there he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. This was followed by the opening of a restaurant in Las Vegas, but it became one of the many casualties of the Great Recession. Osteen went to work at a few hotels and then decided to get back to Pawleys; it was then he opened Louis’s of Sanford, where he was until last year.
We sat down with Osteen to learn more about his past, his present, and his future.
Tell us more about your upbringing and how you got into cooking.
Well, I am from Anderson, South Carolina, and grew up working at my father’s drive-in movie theater. I was ten years old and took pride in cooking and serving popcorn, hotdogs, and hamburgers. I wanted to make the best concession food I could. I also think working and living in a small town taught me how to work with a broad spectrum of personalities—everyone from the town mechanic, to the pastor, to the town mayor. Everyone knew each other and took care of each other.
What was it like to work in your first big restaurant?
It was great except it only lasted two or three weeks because Francois wanted a French-trained chef, so I left and went to open a restaurant with an old friend, now journalist, Warren Johnston. I then went on to open a catering business, Made to Order, with my wife Marlene. When that closed, I went back to work with Francois. Turns out I was a good fit for him in the long run.
Let’s talk about Marlene Osteen. She has been a rock for you and an extension of you, your brand and your success.
[Laughs] Yes, Marlene is my rock. We met when I was in Atlanta and she would come to the restaurant I was working at. She complained about how long it took to get the food and so I offered to buy her a glass a wine. The rest is history.
The beach has been a big part of your history. Talk about how you got to the East Coast.
In 1979, I came to the beach and spent a night at Pawleys Island [in South Carolina]. I ended up staying and helped someone open a restaurant in Ocean Isle, and then came back to Pawleys and bought the lease on the Pawleys Island Inn. It was then that we turned a casual sandwich shop into a high-end restaurant that people traveled to. Marlene would invite food writers and before you knew it, the place was a success.
What was some of the most memorable moments of that time?
The most significant thing was the Salute to Southern Chefs gala where we brought in some of the best chefs from all over the south to cook. I met and cooked with some amazing people. The greatest person I met was John Egerton, a southern writer and journalist and an original founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance who has since passed away. We also hosted a lot of chef and wine dinners and a large barbecue party on Labor Day. They were some of the city’s first events of its kind.
After you received the Beard Award, things exploded for you in a big way. You opened a second restaurant — this time in Vegas.
It was a gorgeous, amazing place designed by Reggie Gibson and David Thompson. Its challenge was it was off the beaten path and did not do the numbers it needed to in order to succeed. The recession of 2007 had hit right when we opened and despite being named Best New Restaurant by Las Vegas Journal, we could not weather the downturn in the economy. We had to close it and I decided to move to Florida.
So what are you doing now?
Oh, life is great. I started a line of products called Louis’s Lowcountry Larder. The idea is to create some popular staples of mine so people can enjoy them at home. I started with Louis’s Pimento Cheese in two flavors and Louis’s Lemonade, a popular drink I served at the Fish Camp. We also sell Louis’s Pimento Cheese Biscuits, sold only at local farmer’s markets along with Grand Strand and have some other items in mind.
Is there anything you miss about working in a restaurant?
I miss talking to people and being a host to guests every night.
What other big highlights have you had over the years?
Meeting CBS anchor Charles Kuralt. He came in Charleston a few times for work and always stayed in Charleston Place. I also was honored to be named to the Fellowship of Southern Artisan Farmers, Artisans, and Chefs by the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is an incredible group of individuals and we meet every year at Blackberry Farm to share ideas and fellowship.
Where do you like to eat now in Charleston?
Charleston has a lot to credit Osteen with, from the first Beard Award win to the event that inspired the creation of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Through good and bad times, he has persevered and continued to work hard all in the name of his love for southern food.