Food & Wine // 5 min Read

South by Southeast

Written by Lauren Ferguson

Jan 20, 2021

If there’s one thing that rings true about the Lowcountry, it’s the alluring draw—that familiar feeling of home, the saltiness of the air, the hospitality that has no limits—that brings people back time and time again. For some, it’s a return home after time spent away, and for others, it’s a place that left such an indelible mark, it couldn’t remain just a lasting memory.

For Chef Chris Hathcock of Husk in Savannah, GA, it’s a little bit of both.

A Georgia native, Hathcock was born in Atlanta but spent the majority of his school-aged years—elementary to high school—in Savannah. After departing the coastal town to pursue his Bachelor of Science in Forestry and Natural Resources at The University of Georgia, he found himself gravitating to the kitchens of Athens, GA for side jobs fueled by the notion that food brings people together in the most experiential way.

“My interest in cooking started when I was young, growing up in Southern kitchens while being raised by women—my single mom, two aunts, and my grandmother,” says Hathcock. “I was always hanging out in the kitchen and helping out where I could. That’s what piqued my interest at an early age.”

After his time in college and various positions at local Athens establishments, like East West Bistro and The National, he moved around the Southeast, taking up residence in culinary-infused cities like Atlanta, GA, Charleston, SC, Asheville, NC, and Greenville, SC.

“I was really humbled when I left my college town, where I was a big fish in a small pond,” he says, reflecting back on his first job in Atlanta with chef and mentor Ryan Smith at Empire State South. “He taught me more in the first two months of working with him, than I had learned over 10 years of cooking prior. It was one of those moments where I knew then that I had just scratched the surface of the culinary world, and I had so much more to learn.”

Hathcock first joined the newly opened Husk Greenville in 2017, and in 2018, he traded his views of the Upstate for the Lowcountry, joining the Husk Savannah team as Executive Chef.

“Many chefs are drawn to Savannah now. It feels a lot like Charleston did 15 years ago where the talent is there, and it’s just starting to gain traction,” reflects Hathcock, who doesn’t consider his return to the Lowcountry a true homecoming, since he no longer has family there. “I wanted to return to that slower lifestyle and a place that’s close to my heart.”

At Husk, Hathcock leads the menu creation and focuses on using only the highest quality, seasonal bounty from local farmers and purveyors to create dishes with a distinctly Southern, but more specifically, Coastal Georgia, identity. Hathcock is both passionate and expressive, conceptualizing dishes that showcase a depth of flavor, while also conveying a story and deep sense of place.

When considering how Husk Savannah differentiates itself from the other locations, Hathcock says, “I think more about Southern ingredients, rather than just Southern food. I take my experiences from the past and from my travels and incorporate those with ingredients that are close to our door.”

Two recent trips to Southeast Asia and Mexico City have had a profound impact on his menu development.

“After visiting Mexico, I played a lot with high-acid and bright seafood preparations, making aguachiles,” Hathcock says. “I also did riffs on classic Mexican dishes like pulpo con patatas using heirloom summer ingredients.”

Following a trip to Thailand, Hathcock experimented in the kitchen with a variety of high-heat dishes and Thai sausage. He notes that the dishes have been well-received by guests, and there’s a genuine appreciation for the restaurant’s ability to balance the menu with dishes that are approachable and comfortable alongside those that are a little more adventurous and daring.

“I grew up eating a lot of classic dishes like casseroles and creamed vegetables as a kid” explains Hathcock. “That’s probably why I cook lighter versions of Southern food now. I like to use the same great Southern ingredients, but less butter, less cream, less gluten, and more acid and texture to make the vegetables shine and speak for themselves.”

Hathcock’s menu development methodology includes taking notes on every way that an ingredient can be prepared, often manipulating it multiple times to explore the various ways it can be served, plated, and presented. In addition to traveling, he also draws inspiration from dining out locally to see what his peers are creating, staying connected through social media, as well as turning to literature, which ranges from newly released books to educational pieces on fermentation.

Hathcock’s passion for ingredients is not only evident through his cooking, but also through an intricate display of tattoos weaving up and down both his right and left arms.

“These have come up a lot over the course of my career, and people are always interested in them,” he says. “One is a half sleeve of Southeast Asian vegetables, which includes daikon, shiso, and maitake mushrooms. The other arm is a full sleeve of Southeast American vegetables, like heirloom squash, different varietals of tomatoes, carrots, and ramps. The reason behind the two designs is my heritage—I was raised in the South, but also a nod to my [family’s] Southeast Asian roots.”

And when he’s not cooking?

Having grown up in Savannah, Hathcock has always had a natural affinity towards water (something he credits to his Pisces astrological sign). He finds it calming to return to this city on the coast, where his “off days” include going out on the boat and casting fishing lines.

While the road for 2021 is still being paved, Hathcock has his sights set on new and inventive menu offerings at Husk Savannah and another culinary focused trip. Destinations on the docket? Cambodia and Vietnam.