Bowens Island gave me one of the most profound culinary experiences of my life, through a simple oyster.
It was 1998. I had just moved to Charleston, a young cook obsessed with seafood and very excited to be cooking in a coastal city. It wasn’t long before I found my way to Bowens Island.
Bowens Island was — and still is — one of the only waterfront restaurants in the entire city of Charleston. Its claim to fame is steamed clusters of local oysters. Here in the pluff mud-filled Lowcountry estuaries, oysters don’t have anything firm to hold onto, so they grow stuck together in jumbled clusters. For me, an impressionable and enthusiastic 25-year-old chef, it was so exciting to find something unique like this, something that was a direct product of the local environment — harvested from the waters right in front of the restaurant.
Back then, you’d walk into the cinderblock structure of a kitchen and find an old fellow tending a fire. He’d shovel a bunch of oysters on top of an iron griddle set over the fire, then cover them with a wet burlap sack, steaming the oysters. Then he’d shovel the warm steamed clusters directly onto your table. Dimly lit and beautiful, you couldn’t draw up a better seafood shack.
But the real revelation came next. The oysters were steamed until they were partially open. Inside, they were swollen with ocean water. I dislodged one from its shell, put it in my mouth, and the belly burst with a gush of liquid. I looked at my dining companion in awe and said, this is one of the most important seafood experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
This wasn’t an interpretation of the South. This wasn’t a three-star dining experience. This oyster was raised in that water. The guy that cooked and shoveled them on the table had been here, doing this, for years. I was overwhelmed by a sense of place.
Bowens Island has been woven into the culinary fabric of Charleston for 75 years, into its unique fisheries and its signature foodways. Any restaurant that stands that test of time has a special formula. To be able to serve the oysters harvested just outside the restaurant’s back door — it is the purest expression of this time, this place. Those are the restaurants that inspire me.
That was the defining moment for me — the affirmation that I have come to the right place to imbue a sense of place in my cooking and my restaurants. That’s when I realized that Charleston is home.
Mike Lata is a James Beard award-winning chef and owner at Fig in Charleston.