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Chef Benjamin Dennis continues his journey in understanding, preserving, and uplifting Gullah culture through food

Chef Benjamin Dennis continues his journey in understanding, preserving, and uplifting Gullah culture through food
February 2022

What BJ has on his plate, including pop-up dinners at Joseph Fields Farm, as well as a cookbook and brick-and-mortar in the works

“Sometimes things just gravitate to you,” says Gullah chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis when asked what he’d wanted to be when he grew up. Though the only son out of three children, Dennis was the only one who’d ask their mother questions about cooking. It wasn’t enough to just enjoy the smothered chicken or fried shrimp; if he really liked it, he needed to know how it was made. At a job fair he’d attended as a high schooler, culinary arts piqued his interest more than any other industry. “This path was intended for me. It’s as if my ancestors said, ‘We gon’ put you in these spaces so you know what you need to be doing.’”

Dennis took the hint, spending much of his career studying, preserving, and promoting Gullah foodways. Still, it wasn’t until recently that he’s been widely recognized for his work, selling out his Charleston Wine + Food event next month in a matter of minutes, appearing in last year’s four-part Netflix series, High on the Hog, and inking a deal with Penguin Random House for a cookbook out next year.

While Dennis’s obsession with food started early, his interest in all things Gullah didn’t begin until he left home for the College of Charleston. Although he only spent a year there, the cultural education he received was priceless. Interacting with people from all over the country allowed him to see his upbringing in another light, he says.

Dennis was born and raised in West Ashley.Rarely did transplants or comeyas, as they’re called in the Gullah language, live in his West Oak Forest neighborhood. Nearly everyone spoke the same, ate the same meals, prayed to the same God, and traced their ancestors back to the same West African countries.

Being on campus was Dennis’s first time seeing the Gullah culture, particularly the language, through so many other lenses. “Many of my elders shared that they were ridiculed the first time someone outside of the Gullah-Geechee community heard them speak,” he explains. “That wasn’t my experience though. They loved my accent. I remember a friend asking me to leave a voice message so that her mother could hear the way we spoke.”

(Left) Chef Dennis’s family and friends at Joseph Fields;  (Right) Chef BJ Dennis seasons black drum before cooking them over coals at Joseph Fields Farm on John’s Island.

Dennis knew he was Gullah growing up, but realized then how different the Black experience could be. Black people from Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans—port cities that look and function similarly—sound completely different. Consider the entire diaspora, and you have too many flavors and sounds to count. “Everyone didn’t grow up on shrimp, oysters, and fush straight out of the water; red rice, chicken perloo, okra soup, and Hoppin’ John and collard greens for New Year’s,” he says. “That was Geechee.”

After leaving the college, Dennis transferred to Trident Technical College and got a job at Hyman’s Seafood as a dishwasher. “I remember bugging Nigel Drayton, now the owner of Nigel’s Good Food, who worked there as a cook, to teach me. Though only a year or two older than me, I count him as one of my first teachers.” Dennis includes “Ms. Barbara,” a Gullah woman from downtown Charleston, on the same list. “She ran the breakfast and brunch every weekend at Hyman’s. We just made sure she had everything she needed, and she came in and threw down. Shrimp and grits, salmon croquettes, fried green tomatoes, biscuits, pancakes—you name it.”

Between the energy of the kitchen and the thrill of knowing that people from all over the world enjoyed meals that he’d grown up on, Dennis decided to change his major to culinary arts the following semester. From one position to the next and one restaurant after the other, he worked as close as Charleston and Savannah and as far as the US Virgin Islands and West Africa.

While at Hyman’s, Dennis moved up from dishwasher to busboy, food runner, food expeditor, then fry cook. “I was a student at Trident the whole time, and one of my teachers, chef William Scott Stacks Sr., told me one day that I was more than a fry cook,” he explains. “He said that I was a chef. ‘You want to work all levels,’ he said. ‘Continue to push and to work higher in kitchens.’ At that time, I knew plenty of Black cooks but not many Black chefs,” he says.

After Hyman’s, Dennis worked as a cook for 82 Queen, then Anson’s, and Hank’s Seafood. “One Friday evening, chef Frank McMahon put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’ma make a chef out of you.’ Later that night, I saw him in the front of the kitchen with his then assistant chef, Big Tom. He pointed at me and said, ‘He gets it’”—an affirmation that let Dennis know that his passion was both evident and valued.

As much as McMahon wanted Dennis to stick around, the aspiring chef had his eyes set on new horizons. “My neighbor, Bill Colon, a native of St. Thomas, introduced me to foods like fungi (pronounced fun-gee and made with cornmeal, okra, and butter) and callaloo (a mixture of different greens such as spinach or cassava leaves and okra cooked with Scotch Bonnet peppers), and he’d tell me that I needed to visit the Virgin Islands.” One Thanksgiving, Mr. Colon’s sister-in-law, who was opening her second restaurant on St. Thomas, visited Charleston. “I cooked something for her and let her try it. ‘You should come down,’ she said.”

That was in 2004. People joked that he’d be back from St. Thomas in two months; then two months turned into four years. After nearly two years of working at an Irish pub, he landed a job as an assistant chef at Off the Hook, a restaurant in Red Hook on the east side of the island that served fresh lobster, mahi-mahi, tuna, wahoo, kingfish, yellowtail snapper, and grouper every single day. “I grew up cleaning fish, but I’d never broken down a 50-pounder before,” he says. What he learned most about local food, however, didn’t come from the restaurant. It came from the kitchens of his neighbors and coworkers. “That’s where I had fungi served with green bananas and stewed fish. Then there was pot fish, one of my favorites, which we’d call ‘creek fish’ in the Gullah community,” he explains. “For us, it’s whiting or croaker. For them, it’s parrot fish, squirrel fish, or triggerfish. It’s the smaller and more bony fish, but you’d never catch pot fish on a restaurant menu.”

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wrote, “You travel to search, and you come back home to find yourself there.” That sums up Dennis’s return to Charleston in 2008. Having studied another place and its people for four years, he wanted to know more about his own city and culture. “I started realizing how much Black people in Charleston sounded like those in the West Indies, and I got curious,” he says.

After a stint at Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar, Dennis became the opening chef at the Cocktail Club in 2011. “I had a teeny oven, a few burners, and an outdoor smoker,” he recalls. “We threw a Grand Marnier party that year that attracted big names from the Charleston food world. People were really impressed with the food I was able to produce out of such a small space.”

Working with limited resources was a sankofa moment—an African term for a return to the past—for Dennis. His ancestors, too, had small cooking spaces and an armful of herbs and vegetables to bring life to the same dishes that we still nyam (eat) today. The experience inspired him to host Gullah-Geechee pop-ups, serving dishes like conch stew and eggplant casserole with shrimp using fresh local produce and seafood, and occasionally cooking over live fire. “I cook over coals occasionally to show the old ways of wood-fire cooking,” he says. “It’s different then cooking over gas, and it takes a lot more skill and finesse.”

From one event to the next, Dennis began attracting introductions and opportunities from cultural and culinary experts and experiences around the globe. The phone call from the High on the Hog producers is a prime example. “I already knew the host, Stephen Satterfield, and Jessica Harris, whose book inspired the series. So all eyes were already directed at me for this particular region.” Being called to roast a pig on wood saplings for a scene in the Amazon Prime Video series, The Underground Railroad, is another.

Gather Round: Dennis’s family and friends, including hosts Helen and Joseph Fields (in green), dig into the feast.

Though the world is now starting to know BJ Dennis’s name, he’s been outchea. When he was about 19, he’d make seafood or chicken dinners and sell them at beauty salons and barber shops in West Ashley, downtown, North Charleston, and even the Sea Islands. “I’ve been doing this work for a really long time. Keeping the ancestors’ stories alive through food is not only what I do, it’s who I am.”

Dennis honors his own biological ancestors, as well as the entire diaspora, especially those in the Gullah community. Take Joseph Fields of John’s Island, for instance. “I met him years ago, when I first got back to Charleston from the Virgin Islands. He was one of the farmers who’d bring produce to the restaurants. I was on a mission to find out who was doing what in the culture, so I introduced myself to him,” he says. Dennis went from being a customer to a partner, hosting many of his pop-ups and barbecue events on the Fields’ 50-acre, certified organic fruit and vegetable farm. “It’s an open space, so it’s perfect for outdoor cooking. And it’s just powerful to do something on a Gullah-owned, ancestral space like that. It’s like family,” he added.

Dennis doesn’t just cook, he studies. He wants to know the history of the ingredients and the techniques. He’s really the same kid who’s not satisfied with just enjoying the meal. Neither is he satisfied with just cooking it. “I have questions: Where does it come from? How was it traditionally prepared? Who witnessed its evolution?”

And like the proverb, the teacher appears when the student is ready, Dennis met University of South Carolina professor and culinary historian Dr. David Shields through social media around 2014. “He’d respond to my recipes and curiosities with research. What he studies, I practice,” he says. “This is a communal journey. It includes the ancestors, the elders in Charleston, and as far as West Africa, everyone I’ve ever been on the line with, those I’ve fed, those who’ve fed me, my wife, and my son. Most of what I do isn’t for me. It’s for my people.”

Most recently, that includes writing a cookbook. Slated for release next year by Penguin Random House, the book will be a collection of Dennis’s favorite recipes and memories co-written by his good friend and food writer, Nicole A. Taylor.

As if catering, writing a book, educating his followers on social media, and raising his first child isn’t enough to keep him busy, there’s also plans for a brick-and-mortar cafe. Dennis envisions making products like tomato jam, okra chips, and hot sauce with ingredients sourced from local Gullah farmers, as well as offering ready-to-go meals like baked chicken and red rice.“It won’t be a traditional restaurant, per se,” he says, “but a link between the old and the new.”

For Dennis, remembering and reminding is our collective responsibility. “Take the roots of the past and apply it to the future. Study your culture and heritage. Honor it. Spend time with the elders and take the information that’s been passed down to you and make it tangible, regardless of what industry you work in,” he says. “These are some of the lessons that have served me along the way and what I hope to leave with the world and with my son.”