Charles Zeran, Executive Chef of Four Moons Restaurant in Orangeburg, SC, is the winner of 9 DiRoNA (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) Awards and 9 Wine Spectator Awards in his previous kitchens (Stone Manor, Middletown, Maryland; Stars Waterfront Cafe, Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina; and The Lodge at Glendorn, a AAA Four Diamond and Relais & Chateaux property in Bradford, Pennsylvania.)
Not bad for a former attorney and self-taught chef who started his professional cooking career at the age of 32. His delicious and visually arresting dishes are the result of his interest in molecular gastronomy coupled with his own broad experience and unique vision.
He talked with us about the winding road that brought him to where he is today, his favorite restaurants, his Western Tennessee childhood food memories of peach ice cream on Independence Day and traditional New Year’s meals, as well as his guilty food pleasures…
When did first you start getting interested in food and cooking? Please share some early cooking memories…
I have cooked all my life for fun. Even as a child. Some early food memories: making caramel fudge and taffy with my grandmother in western Tennessee where I grew up. My father making Steak Diane in the seventies when I was about 10 and waiting for it to catch fire when the brandy was added. Traveling with my dad as a child to New Orleans and having beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde, and to Grand Bahama Island and having cracked conch right off the boat and Johnny cakes prepared by the native Bahamians.
It must have been difficult for you to make the leap from your original career to food and beverage. What happened that gave you the impetus to make that leap?
I became a lawyer I think more because it was expected and for the money more than because it was something I really wanted to do. Not because there had ever been a lawyer in my family, but because I had excelled in school and was expected to do something like a doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief.
After 7 years of divorce law in Northern Florida and Western North Carolina, I decided that life was too short to do something that I really didn’t love and began to think what would be better. I always loved to cook. The first food I ever sold was homemade lasagna to Italian restaurants while I was still an attorney in North Carolina. Made the pasta and dried it on a clothes rack.
One day I decided that I had had enough and spent the next six months winding up my practice, took a 3 month adventure around the Western United States looking for somewhere I wanted to be more than the Appalachian region of North Carolina. I ended up in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state and took a job in a roadside diner cooking breakfast. After about 4 months of this, I met the owner of a bistro in one of the tourist towns in the Cascades who offered me a line cook job, which I declined. But we hit it off being the same age and both growing up outside Memphis, so we had a lot of common history.
A few days later the manager of her kitchen was fired and she called me and asked me if I wanted to run their kitchen my first chef position with 4 months of restaurant experience and not a clue. Trial by fire.
What kind of cooking do you most admire?
Avant garde. When I want to feed I like it simple, but when I want to dine, I want to be entertained and I want something to think about, not just chew on.
What ingredients do you especially like to work with?
Seafood is probably my favorite medium. Especially tuna, scallops, and any really fresh fish that I can either use raw or cook. I also really like raw or practically raw meats lamb, venison, and good beef made into wonderful tatakis, carpaccios, and tartares. I love Asian ingredients and flavors, especially Japanese the flavors are so complex, but seem so pure.
Who are your food inspirations and why…Also, who are your favorite chefs and cookbook/food authors?
Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, etc for their creativity in molecular gastronomy. Thomas Keller for the purity and intensity of taste of his food, and the subtle layers of flavor. Michel Richard of Citronelle for his playfulness, and the mixing of pastry techniques into savory dishes. Rick Tramonto for the same reasons as both Keller and Richard. Masaharu Morimoto for his use of western techniques with Asian ingredients and vice versa without ending up with fusion for fusion sake, which I hate.
What part does travel play in your food inspirations?
Only incidentally. Haven’t done much traveling for food’s sake.
Where do you like to go and what cuisines inspire you?
Any favorite meals you’d like to share?
The Inn at Little Washington for the best service I have ever experienced. Michelle Richard’s Citronelle for the whimsical food, like the silver penguin statuette carrying an egg filled with scrambled eggs topped with caviar.
What do you like to do to blow off the stresses of the kitchen?
When the day is done I am relaxed. I found that the difference between being a lawyer and being a chef is the type of stress being an attorney involves chronic stress the same client with the same issues continues for months. Being a chef involves acute stress when the day is done, the day is done. Chronic stress is draining. Acute stress is a rush.
What tips would you offer to someone considering a career as a chef?
Don’t — unless you really have the passion. If it’s not something you have to do because there is something inside you that makes you, it will be a miserable career and you won’t do it well. But if that thing is inside you, it’s like Confucius said “If you find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
What advantages do you bring to the table as a self educated chef?
Not knowing what the rules are, I don’t know better than to break them.
Would you like to publish a cookbook someday? If so, what would its focus be?
Maybe the crossover between sweet and savory.
Favorite comfort foods?
Biscuits and gravy. Steak. Mashed potatoes with white truffle oil. Bacon. Bacon. Bacon.
Favorite barbecue memory?
We always barbecued a baby goat on the Fourth of July when I was growing up. It cooked most of the day. While it was cooking, we made a stew in a big cauldron in the back yard using all the game we had in the freezer from the previous hunting season we stirred it with a boat paddle. And we finished the meal with peach ice cream we churned with a hand cranked ice cream freezer.
Favorite Southern meal?
When I was a child in West Tennessee on New Year’s Day, it was a tradition to have pork roast, turnip greens, black eyed peas cooked with fat back, and corn bread. You always poured the “pot liquor” from the peas over the corn bread. And you always had to leave one pea on the plate for good luck in the coming year.
Favorite guilty food pleasures (sweet or salty)?
Foie Gras pan seared with sauted blackberries on brioche. White truffles shaved onto almost anything.
Favorite wines to relax with?
Syrahs from the Northern Rhone. New Zealand Pinots and Chards. Steely dry Rieslings from Alsace. Douros from Portugal. Good reds from Chile. Chateau Margaux Pavilon Blanc. Oh, and Krug if you’re buying.
As a working chef, your time is at a premium. What restaurants would you like to find time to visit someday? (ie. El Bulli, The French Laundry, etc.)
What’s your favorite dish to make at home?
Plumbers don’t find the time to fix their own pipes, mechanics don’t find the time to fix their own cars. Me too. If I have to, something on the grill.
Can you share a recipe for the readers of HuggingtheCoast.Com?
Here one from the Raw Bites menu at Four Moons: Day Boat Scallops with Sweet
Spicy Chili Vinaigrette, Hot and Sour Pickled Mango, and Tobikko Ice.
1 lb (approx) fresh scallops (You will want extremely fresh dry [not processed] scallops,
the larger the better, preferably day boat harvested. If you have U-10 size (under 10
per lb) scallops, allow two scallops per person for an appetizer portion. If using 10-20
size allow three or four.)
For the Hot and Sour Pickled Mango:
1 c. water
1/2 c. rice wine vinegar
1/2 c. sugar
2 T salt
1/2 t. whole cloves
1 t. mustard seeds
1 t. peppercorns
1 T. chopped fresh ginger
1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes
1 large mango, peeled and cut into thin slices
Bring first 9 ingredients (thru red pepper flakes) to a boil in a medium, non-reactive
saucepan and allow to cool to lukewarm. Strain well, pour over thinly sliced mango, and
marinate for several hours.
For the Tobikko Ice:
2 1/2 c. cucumber juice (using a vegetable juicer), strained
1/2 c. simple syrup (see Cook’s Note)
3 oz wasabi tobikko caviar (available at some Asian markets or try your local sushi
Salt to taste
Sriracha pepper sauce to taste
Mix well and freeze according to your ice cream maker’s directions.
For the Vinaigrette:
Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce (available at Asian markets and many supermarkets)
Rice Wine Vinegar
(Proportions of the above are to taste, but you are looking for a sweet and sour spicy citrus flavor.)
Slowly drizzle in oil while whisking to reach vinaigrette consistency.
Slice each scallop very thinly into 6 - 8 coin shaped slices and arrange on serving plates.
Drizzle the chili vinaigrette over the scallops and let marinate for a couple of minutes.
Arrange drained mango slices on scallops. Garnish the plates with a scoop of the
tobikko ice and whole cilantro leaves.
Serves 4 as an appetizer.
COOK’S NOTE: To make Simple Syrup, use equal measures (by volume) of water and
sugar. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan, add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.
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