By Becky Billingsley
Thursday, June 7, 2012, Myrtle Beach - At age 25, Chef Caitlin Brady at Vintage Twelve in Myrtle Beach has achieved a pinnacle of success she says is due in large part to mentoring.
"I am convinced I'd be nowhere without Frank Lee," she said on June 6 in the intimate and sleek dining room at Vintage Twelve, an organic gourmet haven with an elevated ocean view at Kingston Plantation.
The chef took a conventional route to learn culinary techniques and graduated from the two-year Culinary Arts program at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in 2008. She then worked beside Executive Chef Frank Lee and Chef de Cuisine Steven Musolf as a sous-chef.
Lee is a legend in Charleston restaurants such as Slightly North of Broad and at Maverick Southern Kitchens, which owned the now-closed High Hammock in Pawleys Island. Musolf, as a maverick in the kitchen, was a good match with the company and Lee's philosophy of putting ingredients and their unique flavors ahead of all else.
"They got me into the whole farm-to-table concept," she said. "Frank Lee always said to know and respect your ingredients...the biggest struggle for a chef is to make foods taste like what they are, and don't hide them with butter and garlic. He had a sign on the wall that said, 'If a chicken dies for you and it was cooked improperly, it died in vain.'"
After High Hammock closed, Brady stayed with Maverick and worked again as a sous-chef with Lee at the company's Mt. Pleasant restaurant called the Old Village Post House. Always looking to advance, she had stints at a couple other restaurants before being recruited to the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach to work with Executive Chef James Clark and Pastry Chef Tina Spaltro. It was another fruitful mentoring period, she says, that shaped her omnivore-leaning-heavy-toward-vegetables southern cuisine, with no hormones, fillers or other artificial food manipulation.
Chef Brady's dishes definitely have southern roots from the southern chefs who taught her, but they also have tweaks and twists indicating what the chef considers premium flavor pairings that won't mask the foods' own deliciousness. Her micro greens are from Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, while fish entrees change daily depending on what she procures from Murrells Inlet docks.
"And I buy local produce whenever possible," she said. "We're making our own butter, pasta, ice cream. And we support other local food businesses. We get our breads from Benjamin's Bakery, cakes from Coccadotts."
The space Vintage Twelve occupies was formerly Omaha Steak House, and there are three Niman Ranch (grass-fed, all natural) steaks on the menu: 18-ounce Bone-in Ribeye with potato puree, spinach and crispy onions; 12-ounce New York Strip with mushrooms, roasted onions and blue cheese butter; and an 8-ounce Filet served with corn pudding, roasted asparagus and beer jus.
The entire menu is below this article, but it's hard to not repeat and savor the listings, like Watermelon Gazpacho with Pickled Jalapenos; Pork Belly with Kimchi and butter lettuce; Blue Cheese Flat Bread with tasso and leeks; and Rack of Lamb with Strawberry, Spinach and Goat Cheese Grits.
Proteins, plus many other foods on the menu like flat bread and vegetables, are cooked in a Bistro Line Stone Hearth Wood Stone ceramic oven that gives a wood-fired flavor using a gas flame. The fire - maintained at 550F, but it can go higher - is at the rear of a large round cooking area, and within it Brady uses cast iron skillets.
Skillets are placed at the mouth of the oven, then long utensils with four-foot handles are slid under the skillets to move them to the appropriate parts of the oven to achieve proper cooking for different foods. The chef has a "cheat sheet" taped over the prep table showing which foods are placed where, such as flat breads in the back, chicken in the middle, vegetables at the front.
Dishes are plated with extreme care to achieve precise standards, proscribed by the chef.
"We plate everything with tweezers," she said. "Mise en place is an obsession. My hope is that diners see that time and care we give it. This company is not just going with a fad - they really believe in creating the best meals. Last night our ice cream was peach ice cream, and someone said, 'This tastes just like my Grandma's.' I love it when diners get emotional. That kind of response means we did a really good job and creates new good memories."
But while Chef Brady likes to see emotional responses from her customers, a lack of emotion in herself is part of the reason she thinks she is an executive chef in a world where there are many more middle-age male faces than female ones of any age.
The stress that goes along with being an executive chef, she thinks, drives many women to choose catering or pastry chef positions. Brady acknowledges she owns a "boisterous" personality, and she thrives on pressure. She also revels in being able to take advantage of growing up in the technology age; the young chef marvels at being able to learn from famous chefs through their Tweets and other social media. Her Twitter handle is @ChefCaitieB.
After work Chef Brady goes home to Murrells Inlet and her three-year-old, five-pound Chiweenie (Chihuahua/Dachshund) named Rizzo. There she often spends time devouring cookbooks where the chef-authors dip into their personal notes to share what they've learned by doing.
With Brady achieving so much so fast, it's natural to wonder about her eventual goals. She says while this position at Vintage Twelve will suit her for a good long while, someday she'd like to own a restaurant.
"It would be a restaurant, bakery and food truck, all interconnected. I'm not a baker, but the thought of having a bakery seems like so much fun."
The food truck, she thinks, could run on biodiesel fuel made from the restaurant's waste oil.
And she likes molecular gastronomy, and studies it.
"I want to understand why a food behaves in a certain way. Why does spinach taste this way when I do this? They don't cover that much in culinary school. It's a science, and I want to learn it."
Vintage Twelve at 9800 Queensway Blvd. in Myrtle Beach is open daily from 5-10 p.m. Call (843) 449-5000 for reservations.