Steaming pots dot the stove as the scent of simmering tomatoes, onions, green peppers and celery loft into the air. A sheepshead fish scored with salt and chili paste rests nearby, ready to be added to the savory creole mix at just the right time. Joining the ensemble will be braised kale greens and a blend of Carolina Gold rice, chicken sausage and sweet peas.
“We got our greens rolling,” said Gullah Chef BJ Dennis, the man at the helm, as he stirred the pot and took a taste.
A well-known star on the culinary scene in the Southeast and beyond, Dennis is in this kitchen on Hilton Head Island taking part in a taping of “Soul Food & Friends with Sallie Ann Robinson” on GullahCelebration.com. As the cameras roll, he admits to being a bit starstruck himself. Dennis is preparing food for Robinson, whom he calls one of his mentors and a true “Gullah Diva.” The cookbook author, celebrity chef and cultural historian is happy to be on the receiving end of Dennis’s skills.
“Sounds good, smells good and I know it’s gonna taste good,” noted Robinson, who has invited Dennis to share his talents with her audience. “... You got that Gullah magic!”
Indeed he does. By the time the meal is served, Robinson is clearly impressed.
“I can’t tell you how great this is!” she proclaimed.
The appearance on Robinson’s show is one of many guest stints for Dennis over the years, as he finds himself, and his culinary creations, in increasingly greater demand. But the man who grew up in West Ashley and spent weekends and summers visiting his grandparents on Thomas Island on the Cainhoy peninsula didn’t always love being in the kitchen.
“It was nothing that I ever thought I was gonna do,” he said. “But my mother always told me that I was the only one out of the kids that would ask questions.”
Dennis remembers when, as a young boy, he “spiced up” a family meal of franks and beans while gathering at his grandparents’ home near the intersection of Daniel Island Drive and Clements Ferry Road.
“I wanted to get fancy and I sprinkled lemon juice on it,” he continued. “And all my cousins were like ‘Oh, Chef Boyardee!’”
Some of his earliest memories involve helping his parents and grandparents with planting. His great-great-grandfather, James Dennis, who is buried along with other family ancestors on Daniel Island, originally bought 22 acres of land on Thomas Island in the early 1900s.
“They were sharecroppers,” Dennis added. “They actually owned the land and hired other people in the community. There was a rice pond and my grandfather said that his grandfather had all types of fruit trees and they farmed all that land.”
Dennis recalls his own parents growing multiple vegetables and fruits at their home in West Ashley. A neighbor grew sugar cane. All made an impression on the young Dennis – but it would take years for him to realize it.
“As a teenager I strayed a bit from a lot of things, but it came back to me in my twenties,” he said. “You get embedded in things as a youngster and you may stray from it, but it’s always in you and when you mature and understand what’s really important in life, it comes back out.”
Dennis started in the food industry as a dishwasher at Hyman’s Seafood in downtown Charleston. He later would work as a busboy, food expediter, and line cook before moving up the ranks at some of the Holy City’s most acclaimed restaurants. Dennis studied old Lowcountry cookbooks, like "Charleston Receipts," and noticed many of the chapters would start out with information about Gullah cuisine. It piqued his interest and led to a deeper understanding of his heritage. To learn more, he moved to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2004.
“That’s where it really struck,” he said. “That unapologetic level for your roots and how you speak ... I was surprised how many people knew about Gullah culture there. They knew about Charleston. It was kind of mind-blowing.”
After four years, Dennis returned to his hometown ready to take his skills to the next level. Acclaimed chef Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse became a friend and mentor. Dennis took on a management position at Fleet Landing, then went to a few other eateries, including Carolina’s, The Glass Onion, and
Virginia’s On King, before assisting Bacon in opening up The Cocktail Club. Later, he started doing pop-ups at Butcher & Bee before branching out on his own in 2014.
For his next chapter, Dennis is moving down the coast to Bluffton, where he will serve as culinary director for a market and café called Lowcountry Fresh.
“One of our main partners is the Gullah Farmers Cooperative,” Dennis noted. “... The goal is to hopefully have 70 to 80 percent of everything in that store from the region.”
Dennis hopes to one day have a series of his own brick and mortar establishments, maybe even one in the Clements Ferry Road area, that represent Gullah-Geechee cuisine.
With each dish he prepares, he reflects on his own past and the way his ancestors lived off the land and sea. As Dennis cooked with Robinson a few weeks ago, he watched the steam rising with anticipation, asking his pots to “start talking” — knowing full well the stories they would tell.
“I call it culture through food,” Dennis added. “The food is just the catalyst for everything else – the history, the knowledge, and the people behind it ... It’s taken me places to connect with my people and to let us know the bigger picture is we are all one.”