When Benjamin “BJ” Dennis IV started looking for his culinary roots, he didn’t have to go far. Although he grew up in West Ashley, his great-grandfather bought 22 acres on Daniel Island in its days of rice ponds and cattle and ran a ferry to get folks to the mainland. His grandfather, Reverend Benjamin Dennis II, still lives on the land with sugar cane abutting his vegetable garden, memories of growing coconuts and raising goats fresh in his mind.
Dennis began to see influences in Lowcountry cuisine that had originated with West African slaves and were perpetuated in the foodways of the Gullah Geechee, African Americans who settled in coastal counties from just above Wilmington, North Carolina, down to Jacksonville, Florida. Dennis also worked for four years in St. Thomas, finding in the West Indies a commonality of Gullah Geechee culture and cuisine, which he incorporates in the food he now cooks as a personal chef and caterer based in Charleston. It has brought him both local and national notice.
Dennis says that he aims to “infuse the techniques of my ancestors with my grandparents’ lessons about eating from the land to create contemporary dishes, focusing on seasonal, locally sourced vegetables and seafood.” Tasked with using corn in three representative recipes, he also incorporates okra, rice, fresh chili peppers, and crab, which Dennis says are some of the more popular ingredients in Gullah Geechee cuisine.
He puts forward a distinctively Lowcountry take on boiled ears of corn by lacing the cooking water with “classic seasonings typically used in a crab boil.” He then elevates the essence of crab flavor by coating the ears with butter packed with crab roe and piquant from garlic and lime.
In his sautéed corn and okra, Dennis leaves out the tomatoes that are typically paired with okra so the fruit’s acidity and strong flavor don’t overpower. That way, he says, “the corn can be sweet with little roasted notes.” Using the bare minimum of oil “caramelizes the okra,” so one gets the flavor of deep-fried okra—without all the grease. He adds aromatics (garlic, onion, and hot pepper) to harmoniously pull these flavors together in one dish.
The shrimp, corn, and rice croquettes are a BJ Dennis signature item, tweaked here to highlight the corn. “The croquettes have a crispy exterior with a creamy interior,” he says. “You get bites of sweet corn along with briny yet tender and sweet shrimp. There’s also a little spice and garlic, with occasional, subtle onion notes from the scallion.” The chef remarks that the croquettes pair well with an array of accompaniments, such as a rémoulade or tartar sauce, homemade ketchup or tomato jam, butter sauce, and dill sauce (or other sweet, sour, or spicy sauces).
Staying true to the tenets of his heritage, the chef gathers his ingredients fresh from the docks and island seafood stores; farmers markets; and local farms, like Joseph Fields’s on John’s Island and Josh Johnson’s Old Tyme Bean Company in Cameron (see the sidebar for more information). For authentic Gullah Geechee flavor, follow Dennis’s lead when cooking his recipes.
Dishing It Up With Chef BJ Dennis:
Restaurant: Personal chef and caterer
First F&B gig: “A dishwasher, busboy, and food runner at Hyman’s seafood”
Education: Culinary Institute of Charleston
Favorite local ingredient: Okra
Recipe he’ll never share: “I’ll share any recipe, but I can’t share the soul that goes into my food. That has to happen naturally.”