Getting to Know Chef Jason Bruner of 1801 Grille
The New Kid in Town
Jason Bruner may be the (relatively) new kid on Columbia’s culinary block, but his approach is as old as the hills. And the fields, and yep, as old the bayou, too. He’s as rooted in local, fresh, authentic food as anyone.
Bruner, a Louisiana native who’s no stranger to the Midlands, is happy to be settling into Columbia as executive chef of 1801 Grille after stints in top kitchens around the globe, including China, Italy and New York.
He brings a New Orleans-bred life-long appreciation for food as the main ingredient of a rich, vibrant culture. From his grandparents and parents in Plaquemines Parish, he gained a deep understanding of the intrinsic power of a thoughtfully prepared meal to bring people together.
And while Columbia’s 1801 Grille is not exactly a N’Orleans’-style gumbo joint, the upscale restaurant is infused with Bruner’s commitment to harvesting the best of local flavor and delivering it with jazzy, masterful flare.
Edible Columbia talked with the celebrated chef, a veteran of the Food Network and host of a Farm to Table [Talk] radio program, about his new beginning at 1801 and his long-standing commitment to the local food movement; the difference between slow food and fast ice carving; and what he’s cooking up for Gamecocks fans and others
Tell us about your early formative experiences and education around food.
I was born and raised on the bayou in south Louisiana—in Belle Chasse, all the way at the end, with the river on one side and Gulf of Mexico on the other. The culture of food there is different than anyplace else in the country; there’s such a strong influence of Creole, French, Italian, Mexican, a true melting pot. And food and camaraderie always go together—people do a lot of gathering around food.
At a crawfish boil, you sit around the table until the steamy crawfish appear and stay until they’re gone. In the winter, we make gumbo, but you can’t make gumbo for one or two people, so you make a big ol’ pot, and invite people to share. My grandfather always cooked on Sunday—he made the best oyster stew around—so this sense of togetherness around food was central in my family, and despite our differences of opinion or whatever, food was a consensus that everyone could agree on.
I mean, a beignet at Café du Monde is a life-changing experience, right? That’s common ground.
And your first work experiences were food-related, right?
My first job, at age 12, was picking tomatoes. It was hard, hot and strenuous, but it laid the foundation of my work ethic.
The next summer I worked in an orange orchard, trimming trees, learning about grafting. I kept that job through the school year, and learned more about managing pH levels and soil and mud, so from a young age I was in training you could say—in and out of tomato fields and greenhouses and packing centers, riding my bike to and from my jobs. But I never imagined it would lead to a career.
My dad was a commercial fisherman, and for six months a year he ran a shrimp boat, so every other weekend (my parents were separated) I was on the shrimp boat with him, learning the difference between white shrimp season and brown, what 21/25 means, what by-catch is, why we wait for full moons or for the tide to drop.
I guess I’ve been “going to school” so to speak, from a very young age.
But you also have official schooling—a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Tell us how that came about and how your education has continued to evolve.
After high school I started working in restaurants, waiting tables, busing, washing dishes, prepping—it all kind of came together, and I became a really good line cook. I was working at Elmo’s Cajun Cuisine in New Orleans, bringing all my knowledge about agriculture and sustainable fishing to that job, but at that time, that’s all it was to me—a job. Then Katrina hit, and we moved to Connecticut where I started working in a restaurant, and at some point, my mom suggested I look into the Culinary Institute of America. It was a long shot, but I got accepted and made it happen. I was paying for it so I made sure I got everything out of it that I could. And the opportunities that have come from being at the CIA have been mind-blowing. Here I was, a good ol’ boy from Louisiana just trying to see what he could do, and I ended up being president of the CIA’s ice carving club. I’d never even seen snow before.
Wait a minute, ice carving?
I know, right? It gets better—I learned to carve in Hawaii, of all places. While at CIA, I did an externship in Maui. I applied there because I wanted to be near the beach; I missed working with fresh fish and the stuff I’d grown up around in Louisiana. There was an ice carving event, the Lahaina Cannery Mall International Ice Carving [Exhibition and] Competition, and so a friend and I asked if we could join. We were thinking it couldn’t be that hard. Ha! We were up against the best carvers in the world, and we were bottom of the barrel, but the organizers recognized our passion and how hard we were trying, so Daren Ho, a premier carver, took me under his wing and made me his apprentice. And when I got a back to CIA, I became president of the club. It’s something I still love to do.
So we should expect to see some icy Gamecocks perhaps? Do tell us more about how you landed in Columbia and specifically at 1801 Grille.
Columbia has always been a place I’ve visited—my best friend lives here, and so do my godchildren. And I’ve lived and worked here over the years as well. One of my first restaurant jobs was as a hibachi chef at Sumo Japanese Steakhouse.
After I got my degree at CIA, I had the opportunity to come back to Columbia as a sous chef, but then got an offer I couldn’t pass up to go to Italy. I’ve studied in Italy, China—whenever I had an interest in learning more about a culture and cuisine, I went to the source. Most recently I was an executive chef in Tallahassee, Florida, where I also did a TV show about eating local, but when the Harper Group asked if I’d be interested in a new partnership at 1801 Grille, I knew it’d be a great opportunity to get back to a city I love, and focus on bringing everything I’ve learned throughout my life about sourcing local and developing a relationship between food and farmers here to Columbia.
Why is that relationship so important to you?
There are so many reasons I try to use local ingredients as much as possible.
Economically, if I’m buying produce from local growers, then the food we’re selling and money we’re making at the restaurant stays in the community. Our neighbor farmers can take that income and expand their farm or help their kids pay for school—the food is not only more sustainable, it makes our community’s economy more sustainable. That’s not to say I have a problem getting avocados from Mexico, but if something is grown here, then I want to reduce the carbon footprint and extra handling of product that results from importing, but mostly I want to support my local growers so the money stays in town and helps our neighbors.
But the real bottom line is I’m getting a fresher product, and the economic part is all well and good, but I’m a chef at heart, and it all comes down to getting ingredients as fresh as possible for the best flavor possible. I guess I was spoiled as a kid eating tomatoes straight off the vine, with a little salt and pepper—mmm, nothing beats that.
So how will we see local food showcased at 1801 Grille?
Well, I’m still relatively new to the area and still doing my research, still getting to know all the local farmers, and will be taking my sous chefs out to see how things are being grown and how they’re handled.
The strawberries for our strawberry shortcake and cheesecake are coming from Cottle [Strawberry] Farm, right up the street. They’re beautiful, and I couldn’t feel better about the berries I’m putting on the plate.
We’re serving a wild boar and bison meatloaf, with meat sourced from sister state, North Carolina, farm-raised boar and bison from a rancher just north of here. Within a 100-mile radius that still counts as “local.”
We serve sustainably sourced fish, our salmon isn’t grain-fed or penned but live in their natural water. I believe we really have to do our job as chefs and owners to trace things back to where they are coming from and know how they are raised.
And our popular grit fries are made from grits milled right here in Columbia. We chill them first and use just enough cream and butter to elevate the grit, then frying caramelizes them and we serve them with a little local honey. They’re great to share, which we like.
We offer a lot of dishes that people can share because we want you to come here and try as much as possible.
Food brings people together—and that’s more important now than ever. We all have different views and opinions, but it doesn’t matter if you’re on the right or on the left—everybody has to eat.
When the food comes out, all that other stuff goes to the side and everyone digs in and goes from there.