Chef Robert Carter
Upon his 1987 arrival in Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales University, Tallahassee-native Robert Carter started to make epicurean wavelets that augured his future success in the South's most exciting destination. To fund his education, the enterprising Carter began cooking for one of Charleston's most aristocratic families. Their kitchen became the envy of their social set, which inveigled Carter for a shot at his services. Inspired by their admiration, Carter took on the role of hired gastronomic gun - he was the principal and sole employee of a popular catering operation called Rent-a-Chef.
After his 1989 graduation, Carter charted a culinary course that included an apprenticeship with certified master chef Victor Gielisse in Dallas and a stint at Tennessee's The Inn at Blackberry Farm before docking at Key West in 1991 as executive chef for Café Marquessa. Along the way he had begun to develop a reputation for his exquisitely robust cuisine, defined by a deceptively simple approach which bolsters the essence of each ingredient thereby creating extraordinarily distinct layers of flavor. Carter had also developed a hankering to return to Charleston, a desire that prompted him to invite hospitality industry entrepreneur Hank Holliday to lunch one day.
"I had known Hank in Charleston, and I would run into him occasionally in Key West, where he had a vacation home. I knew he had bought the Planters Inn, and I saw that purchase as my ticket back to Charleston," explains Carter. "So I called him up, invited him to lunch, told him the inn needed a fine dining restaurant... and I was the chef he needed to make it happen. Fortunately, he agreed!"
Holliday also agreed with Carter's notion of creating a stylish eatery that would address sophisticated gustatory sensibilities with a menu incorporating classic elements of American haute cuisine from the first half of the 20th century, as well as those of a more contemporary nature. Holliday and Carter were equally in sync about their fantasy restaurant's ambiance - cosmopolitan.
They had visions of a swank 1940's supper club, imbuing diners with a sense of occasion.
Theirs was an ambitious concept, one that took three years to plan, during which time Carter lent his talent to the Blue Ridge Grill in Atlanta and Asheville's Richmond Hill Inn.
The realization of their shared vision, the Peninsula Grill, opened at the Planters Inn in 1997 to rave reviews and capacity crowds. Indeed, Esquire named it one of the Best New Restaurants of the Year, noting that for a city "with every other aesthetic inducement, Charleston sure could use a few restaurants the equal of Peninsula Grill."
"Peninsula is about real food, real drinks and excellent service," asserts Carter. "It's the restaurant I always wanted, just the right size, at 100 seats, to allow me to continue refining my style." In addition to the bold flavors of his cuisine, Carter is a master of dramatic presentation, which he describes as "artistic by not fussy. I don't believe in food that looks like it has been handled."
At Peninsula, Carter embodies his style in signature dishes such as wild mushroom grits with Low Country oyster stew, benne crusted rack of lamb with wild mushroom potatoes and coconut pesto and Bourbon grilled jumbo shrimp with Lowcountry hoppin' John, creamed corn and lobster-basil hushpuppies.
However, Peninsula Grill is not Carter's only dream restaurant. He and Holliday shared another vision for Charleston dining, that of an upscale, old-fashioned fish house which, again, would be about real food, real drinks and excellent service. This, too, they made a reality with the February 1999 opening of Hank's Seafood Restaurant, just a block away from Peninsula Grill. For Hank's, Carter guides its culinary direction in concert with Executive Chef Frank McMahon. "I guess you could say I'm working in the kitchen at Peninsula, with one eye on what's happening at Hank's. Either way, it's a long way from my Rent-a-Chef days! Well, maybe not - I see a lot of the people, in whose homes I used to cook, in my dining rooms these days!"