Restaurant renaissance

Columbia’s incubator allows for some inspired kitchen creations

abuscemi@thestate.comJuly 5, 2014 

— For chefs hungry to cut their teeth in the food industry, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a government-required commercial-grade kitchen.

But David Roberts, a private consultant and taco cart owner from Columbia, gives people the opportunity to share their dishes on a wider scale for a fraction of the cost.

Started by Roberts in 2012, the DER Kitchen incubator extends a warm welcome to entrepreneurs of the edible by offering the amenities of a pro kitchen, such as massive industrial ovens and storage containers, at $15 per hour to $435 per hour.

“I feel very good that we’ve been able to provide our (S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control)-approved facility to food entrepreneurs of various types so they can get their product to customers,” Roberts said.

Roberts’ assistance extends beyond his facility, however. Having started four other companies in South Carolina, Roberts imparts his entrepreneurial know-how to his clients.

“It’s important to help these folks to plan their businesses to be successful,” he said. “My first suggestion is that they go to the Richland County Public Library and meet with the business reference librarians who give the best advice to how to write a business plan, and a business plan is key to creating a successful food business.”

Here are five foodies adding their flavor to the area with the help of Roberts and DER Kitchen:

Catering by command

If you’ve got a wild idea for a menu to entertain dinner guests, William Christopher’s catering is up for the challenge. With the motto “Your Dish is My Command,” Head Chef Chris Williams specializes in custom-made dishes limited only by a client’s imagination.

“I work with customers to do whatever they want,” Williams said. “I’m not a one-trick pony.”

His you-name-it-we-make-it philosophy has taken Williams in some interesting culinary directions. He’s cooked up traditional Greek dishes for one client looking for a taste of home and meticulously carved pieces of fruit into the shapes of stars for another.

“It’s helped broaden my horizons,” he said. “You’re only as good as your experiences as far as a chef goes.”

Products to ease the suffering

The inspiration for Renee L’Ecuyer’s chemical-free, unprocessed food and house care products came from years of suffering under bizarre and undiagnosed symptoms. “I can have a swelling attack anywhere in my body. I can look nine months pregnant when I’m not pregnant. My face can swell, my foot can swell, a leg.”

Doctors told L’Ecuyer that she was insane. “They thought I was just seeking attention. I’ve been told by doctors in the area that I was just crazy … that I was just fat.”

After 39 years, one doctor discovered that the problem wasn’t in L’Ecuyer’s head – it was on her plate. She was diagnosed with hereditary angioedema, a rare immune disorder exacerbated by products of the chemical-laden consumer world.

Since receiving a proper diagnosis and living off of her homemade goods, L’Ecuyer is driven by the desire to help others suffering through severe allergies and immune deficiencies. “I’m a nurse practitioner as well, so I have many patients that I have educated about healthy eating options despite having those allergies. They have started following a lot of the same practices and it has helped tremendously. It’s very rewarding.”

L’Ecuyer’s best-selling item is her all-organic, grain-free, wheat-free, soy-free, rice-free and refined sugar-free ginger snaps, which -- despite their health-conscious ingredients -- taste like typical ginger snaps, she said. Grab a bag of 30 for $5.50.

Fondue on the fly

Born from a Christmas Eve tradition of serving fondue to friends and family, the founders of Just Fondue It came up with a hot idea: to bring the fondue to you.

“We create a unique experience that can’t be duplicated – we don’t have competition,” said Kevin Griffin, a partner of Just Fondue It. “We can cater to groups of 60 to 70 with tables and everything. Our abilities are very unique, we can come to a house or a church or wherever. It’s the fondue experience that can be delivered to any location.”

The service provides both cheese and chocolate fondue options as well as chicken and steak that has been marinated more than 24 hours in a secret, special sauce.

Keeping it simple

In a modern world of processed sweets and treats, a bite of 20-year-old Luke Haven’s baked goods will transport the taste buds to the late 19th century -- a time where shortbread was made without shortcuts.

Haven’s handmade style creates pies with flakier crusts, carrot cakes that don’t mask the carrot flavor and baklava that doesn’t taste like store-bought candy, he said. “They’re a lot more time consuming, but there is a lot better results. Very few places take the time and effort into baking that’s required.”

While the processes behind Haven’s traditional delicacies are complex, the ingredients behind them aren’t. “I like to pair really simple flavors with one other flavor. A lot of people have the tendency to add more and more things – I refer to it as the Pinterest style of cooking – where you just add peanut butter and chocolate and bacon because those things taste good so that will make it good, but you gotta stop and think ‘how can I make this one flavor better?’ In the olden days, they were confined to what they had.”

Haven sells cookies for an average of about $14 a dozen, cupcakes and muffins for roughly $19 a dozen and a full sheet of baklava for $50.

Get ’em while they’re hot: This University of South Carolina junior plans on pursuing a career in biology post-graduation.

Sippin’ on Gin’s Juice

Some fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juice from Virginia (Gin) Arrington’s mobile cart may be just what you need to squeeze into those jeans from college. Arrington sets up her Gin’s Juice cart at Soda City farmer’s market on Main Street every Saturday morning.

“We juice super fresh, local produce as much as we can,” Arrington said. “It’s a good way to get your fruit and vegetables for the day, and it’s really good – it doesn’t taste like it has a lot of vegetables in it.”

To keep her nutritious nectars from tasting like a garden in a blender, Arrington says it’s all a balancing act. “We balance out the strong-tasting veggies with moderate-tasting veggies and some apple or citrus to break up the taste – the citrus makes it refreshing.”

Arrington partners with local growers, such as City Roots and Watsonia Farms, to produce her liquid produce, which contains at least five or six servings of vegetables in each drink. Drinks start at $5 for 12 ounces, with options for “add ons,” such as ginger or raw honey. “It’s the most bang for your buck in terms of health and nutrients,” she said.

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