You never know who you might meet at a party. When Lori Nelsen—analytical chemist and manager of Furman University’s biogeochemistry lab in the earth and environmental sciences department—attended a party to welcome new faculty members in August 2016, little did she guess the gathering would bring her closer to fulfilling her dream of running a restaurant.
Nelsen had been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant for several years, and had gone so far as to buy a 1940s-era house on 2.4 acres off Poinsett Highway, about three miles south of Furman. The next thing on her list—a chef. As it happened, an introduction to David Porras was all she needed. The Costa Rican-born chef happened to be at the party with his wife, Karen Allen, one of the new professors in the department. “We sat and talked for an hour or so,” Lori recalls. “It was really wonderful to have a similar vision, along with the geekiness of our chemistry interests and interests in food and health.”
Although the two hit it off instantly, Porras had serious reservations about enlisting in another venture—he’d been scammed in a restaurant project in Costa Rica before he and Karen moved to Georgia in 2010. But the future restaurant site won him over, with its adjacent plot of land perfect for a small farm. “When I saw the property, my mind just exploded [with possibilities],” Porras exclaims. Shortly afterward, he came on board as chef and partner of Oak Hill Café.
The fact that both partners are self-proclaimed chemistry geeks means the café will include a small room devoted to research and development. From David’s description, it will resemble a chemistry lab, stocked with a freeze drier, centrifuge, and other equipment for culinary experiments.
Those experiments will draw on produce from the on-site garden. Finger limes, Buddha’s hand citrus, turmeric, ginger, ground cherries, and hibiscus number among the less-familiar plants that will be grown on Oak Hill farm, which is tended by Furman alum and avid organic gardener Aaron von Frank and Chris Miller of That Garden Guy. Logs from trees felled for the site’s development have been seeded with 12 different types of mushrooms.
Porras and Nelsen are further united by a love of cooking. “I was one of those kids who was always next to my mom asking, ‘What are you doing?’ and tasting whatever she was cooking,” David admits. He earned his master’s degree in technique, product, and creativity at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Spain, whose instructors included Michelin-starred chefs and alumni of El Bulli (a restaurant world-renowned for its experimental cuisine before closing in 2011). “David just blows me away with his creativity,” crows Lori, who will join Porras in the kitchen. “He really is a genius. He continually amazes me with the ideas he has. I’m very thankful for his energy and his passion.”
Even when Porras creates a sandwich, it’s not without a large measure of contemplation. Making their own bread is not enough. “We will work to make the best bread for each sandwich,” the chef explains. “With meat products, we’ll spend a lot of time understanding what the animals eat, and why. If they eat grass, what kind is it? That way, we can trace the flavor profiles.”
Scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2019, Oak Hill Café will serve breakfast and lunch on weekdays, brunch on Saturday, and dinner Thursday through Saturday. While Thursday and Friday evenings will feature an à la carte menu, Saturday-night dinners will allow Porras to channel his inner mad scientist to concoct a multicourse tasting. “There will be no menu on the table because I want people to be open-minded,” he declares.
She’s a self-taught cook; he’s a self-taught food chemist. Together, they have their café concept down to a science. “We want to continually innovate and learn and create, and challenge diners in Greenville to open their minds to new ways of looking at food,” Nelsen says. “We’re trying to break some barriers.”
Oak Hill Café & Farm, 2510 Poinsett Hwy, Greenville. oakhillcafe.com