The Whispering Ghost of Hominy Grill

Finally, the Night King has come. Hominy Grill has served its  last plate of shrimp and grits. Chef Robert Stehling closed the institution on Sunday, following the lead of Chef Bill Smith, who just earlier last year stepped away from the Chapel Hill institution Crooks Corner.

Though separated by a fair distance, few would ever recognize that the two restaurants’ respective renditions of the Lowcountry classic shrimp and grits were almost identical. The reason is due to the influence of the greatest South Carolina chef you’ve most likely never heard of; Bill Neal.

(Watch this great Southern Foodways Alliance documentary about him)

Knowing the last service was on Sunday, we went anyway, knowing full well it’d be a mob scene. We girded ourselves for the wait with mimosas. But then as we waited, here came Chef Robert with a New York Times photographer in tow. When they’d finished, Chef was kind enough to have his picture snapped with me. I had just a moment to ask one thing…
“Chef, with Bill Smith stepping away from Crooks Corner and you closing here, what happens to the legacy of Bill Neal? Who do you see carrying the torch?” I asked.

“Well you know it’s funny,” he said. “We were just talking about that the other day. I’m really not sure. I mean between Bill and I it’s – it’s really the end of an era. I mean of Chefs who worked directly with Bill Neal. Hopefully I’ve managed to pass on something of his teachings, but you just never know. I’m sure someone will carry on.”

Our server, KJ seemed to sew everything up. ” We’ve seen births, we’ve seen deaths, we have seen weddings. We have seen everything you can imagine that a family sees since I’ve been working here at Hominy Grill. We will all be crying and celebrating all at the same time.”

And so it went as I finished my shrimp and grits. They were delicious, as they’d always been, but I just kept dreading that last bite. When we finally finished, paid and got up to leave, going home was like leaving a memorial service to go to the cemetery. I kept a stiff upper lip.

I went to the website today, and what just a few days earlier had been an active restaurant’s website with live menu had become a memorial webpage. But in the middle of those pictures of Hominy was a nice note from Chef Robert, reaching out one last time:

“When we first opened Hominy Grill in 1996, our goals were simple – we wanted to explore the traditions and history of the low country through our food. And we wanted to create a neighborhood restaurant with a sense of place. Nearly 24 years later, we are astonished by all that happened. We’ve achieved things we never imagined – winning the 2008 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast was a major honor. Getting to know so many of our customers over the many years has also been hugely rewarding.
We’re profoundly grateful for our very extended family of loyal and beloved customers and to our dedicated and caring staff. It was a hard decision but we recently decided that we were ready for the next chapter and have closed our doors. We are deeply grateful to our many supporters in the Charleston community and beyond. It has been a joy and a privilege to have met and fed so many of you along the way. “

Chef Robert Stehling

One of my goals in launching Undiscovered Charleston has always been to highlight many different perspectives of Charleston through the lens of food. While Bill Neal’s legacy will continue on in Chapel Hill, who will carry on that tradition here in Charleston?

Our Undiscovered Charleston experience begins with a 1-1/2 hour Charleston food history walking tour that concludes at the lovely Bistro a Vin with a 3 course cooking demonstration, luncheon and wine pairing. Don’t be surprised to find Hominy Grill’s shrimp & grits on the menu. I have little doubt that the memory of Hominy Grill and Chef Robert Stehling will not be forgotten, but it’d be a damn shame if we forgot about Chef Bill Neal- he was, after all, a South Carolinian.

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