Christmas Day at Irma Johnson’s home is not unlike the festivities celebrated by millions of families across the United States; there’s gifts, sweets, all those other holiday trimmings. December 24th, however, is another matter.
“My background is Mexican, so I grew up with different traditions than my husband,” Johnson says. “During the holidays at our home, it’s all about Mexico on Christmas Eve, and my kids can experience the culture and the foods that I ate growing up. The 25th, I give to him.”
Johnson brings this sense of versatility and cultural conscience to The Anchorage in the Village of West Greenville. Her husband’s job demanded the family relocate frequently, and she picked up many of her culinary cues during years spent overseas and abroad. She met Chef Greg McPhee after a move to Greenville nearly three years ago, back when McPhee was executive chef of Restaurant 17 at Hotel Domestique. When McPhee made the jump from Travelers Rest to West Greenville, Johnson followed suit. They paired his proclivity for favoring local, seasonal components over truck-delivered fare with her fearless alacrity to put them into dessert form, and so far, it’s been a good fit. Her one stipulation? Never to make the same thing twice. “I am always thinking of what’s coming up next, what new seasonal products I can use,” Johnson says. “It’s fun to be introduced to these new ingredients so I can work them into desserts that I haven’t tried in the past.”
Johnson doesn’t eat many desserts, preferring cheese and bread to the items she plates at the restaurant. She keeps a record of what she’s concocted in the kitchen, a visual guide that keeps her motivated and steers her away from getting too repetitive with her recipes. It’s a challenge, she says, to keep things fresh when so much has already been done before. But she has one audience who’s always willing to keep her straight.
“My family likes things very traditional and simple—oatmeal cookies, banana bread, things like that,” she says. “So when I make things at home to try, they’re not usually crazy about it. I can always rely on honesty from them!”
The Anchorage, 586 Perry Ave, Greenville, (864) 219-3082, theanchoragerestaurant.com
“So, I hate sweets.”
It’s an odd thing to hear from Meghan Neal; after all she is the pastry chef at Restaurant 17 in exclusive Hotel Domestique. But Neal quickly follows up with her reasoning. “But that’s just because I work with them all day. I still taste every single thing I make, every part that goes into my desserts, just to make sure things have that perfect balance of salty and sweet.”
Inspired by her upbringing in the Greenville-Spartanburg area, Neal’s ever-changing menu of dessert offerings are light on the chocolate and heavy on the staples her parents and grandparents used in the kitchen. She’s unabashed by butter, enamored with pecans, (pronounced “pea-cans”), and known to use Duke’s Mayonnaise once in awhile—a great way to keep things moist, she promises. So it wasn’t easy, the transition from cooking with little regard for health requirements to working on a property that hosts top cyclists—with top dietary restrictions—from around the world.
“I am always thinking of what’s coming up next, what new seasonal products I can use. It’s fun to be introduced to new ingredients (like pawpaws) so I can work them into desserts that I haven’t tried in the past.”—Irma Johnson
“It was rough at first,” Neal says of those initial months. She’d been invited to Restaurant 17 by former Halls Chophouse co-worker Executive Chef Nick Graves, but wasn’t sure if she had the skills to plate her own creations. “Then I started getting ideas. Taking these kind of classic Southern things and seeing how I could make them different. It made me a whole lot better at my job, because I had to figure things out on my own without being taught.”
“That’s the only time I truly get to see how someone reacts to my food,” she explains. “At work, people are sitting at their tables, and I miss it. When they’re right in front of me, I get to see how much they enjoy it. I’m just painting with sweets on plate, and I love it.”s a member of a self-proclaimed “big dessert family,” Neal says the holidays have always been a favorite time of year. Although she typically denies their requests for pudding-based dishes with crushed-up Oreos and whipped topping, Neal says her baking becomes even more intimate when it’s shared with loved ones.
Restaurant 17 at Hotel Domestique, 10 Road of Vines, Travelers Rest, (864) 516-1254, restaurant17.com
Table 301 / Soby’s on the Side
Among the bricolage of cupcakes, bars, cake pops, and other homemade decadent desserts that take up residence in the clear pastry case at Soby’s on the Side, one item stands apart. It’s simple enough—a sugar cookie decorated to match the holiday du jour—but to its creator, the baked confection is a symbol of personal history.
“The holidays are about the comfort of traditions that you grew up with in your family,” says Soby’s on the Side pastry chef Stacie Amesbury. “My mom would always do decorated sugar cookies. I brought that recipe with me to work because I loved it so much.”
Amesbury’s devotion to baking began in an unexpected place—a high school job at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. It was one of the franchise’s few locations where the pastries were made in-house, and Amesbury often helped the bakers ice and decorate. Her picky palate made the decision to join the pastry ranks versus the culinary biz an even easier one; she simply refused to eat and cook things she didn’t like. But the biggest difference between the two facets of the industry, Amesbury says, is that baking is an exact science. And an unforgiving one at that.
“In cooking, you can do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and it still comes out okay,” she says. “With desserts, people are expecting it to look and taste a certain way. I can’t really get away with using too much baking powder or coffee extract instead of vanilla.”
S Rhode Island runaway—she couldn’t stand the cold and snow—Amesbury worked in Upstate New York, Florida, and New Jersey following her graduation from Johnson & Wales University. She and her husband moved to Greenville in July of 2012 to be closer to his parents and start a family of their own, and in August, she joined the Table 301 family. Her job doesn’t really feel like a “job.” At least not all the time.
“I don’t feel like I just go into work,” Amesbury says. “I feel privileged to go into a place and make something new every day, to see the happiness on people’s faces after they eat something I’ve created.”
Soby’s on the Side, 22 E Court St. (864) 271-8431, sobysontheside.com
Caviar & Bananas
She was wrapping up for the day.
Holly Whatley’s work finished, the young pastry chef had retreated behind the Caviar & Bananas’ bake shop counter, chatting away on the phone while doing some cleaning, too busy to notice the man who’d made his way past the gleaming display cases and into her workspace. “Are you the baker?” he asked, a thick New York accent tilting the “er” upward so it came out like “ah.”
Unsure of whether she should respond—did he eat something really terrible?—the Greenville native paused a moment before confirming that, yes, she was. “Phenomenal,” the stranger replied, gesturing towards the colorful collection of desserts ensconced in their glass chambers. “Just phenomenal.”
That man and his wife still come by monthly. And they purchase one of everything in the case.
It was a confirmation of sorts for Whatley, who says she felt unqualified and intimidated when C&B recruited her to helm the bakery as executive pastry chef. After all, she’d just spent two and a half years as an hourly “underling” at Charleston’s posh Peninsula Grill, crafting the restaurant’s famous coconut cakes even though, admittedly, she’s not a huge fan of the shredded fruit. Not to mention she’d already begun sending out résumés that advertised her business degree from Presbyterian College, not the culinary education she’d earned at the Art Institute of Charleston. Regardless, Whatley signed on to the C&B team, and a month or so later, the owners invited her to help open the Greenville store. For the girl who grew up the baker in her household, it was a “full circle ticket” to return to the city that birthed her passion at an early age.
“Baking has always been my love language, because I use it as a gift. It’s not something people just sit up on a shelf and look at. We can enjoy it together.” —Holly Whatley.
“Baking has always been my love language,” Whatley explains. “Because I can use it as a gift. It’s not something people just sit up on a shelf and look at. We can enjoy it together.” That gift has been shared with Whatley’s friends and family for some time now. And since she’s created this year’s C&B holiday dessert menu, you’ll soon get to see what all the fuss is about.
“I love the holidays because it’s like how we view the weekend when we’re dieting,” she laughs. “There’s no rules. It’s whatever you want, whatever makes you happy. And, for me, sweets are that comfort food.”
Caviar & Bananas, 1 N Laurens St. (864) 235-0404, caviarandbananas.com