- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) - Cooper Thomas said he began cooking because he needed a job and money to pay rent.

“And I needed beer money,” he joked.

But it quickly became apparent that cooking was something he loved. Thomas began working in college as a short order cook at a Charleston deli and he fondly remembers the four ladies who worked there and taught him a lot of what he knows.

Now, over 20 years later, he’s the executive chef at Victor’s Bistro in Florence and a South Carolina chef ambassador representing the Pee Dee.

Thomas is one of the inaugural chef ambassadors for the program, which began in June 2014.

His term will end in December, although future ambassadors will serve for just one calendar year.

“The whole idea is just to champion local products as much as possible, so we’re taking local products and merchants and putting their goods out there,” Thomas said.

The chef ambassador program is tied with the state tourism department because it aims to encourage tourists to buy local products and put money back into the community. It is also tied with the state agriculture department, and nominees must be part of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Fresh on the Menu program.

“We wanted to focus on authentic cuisine, locally grown products and undiscovered destinations,” said Ansley Turnblad, marketing specialist at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture (SCDA). “I can’t brag enough on how impressed I’ve been all four of the chef ambassadors.”

Joining Thomas as South Carolina’s chef ambassadors are Heidi Trull from Grits and Groceries in Belton, Brandon Velie from Juniper in Ridge Spring and Brian Waters from Saltus River Grill in Beaufort.

Thomas said being an ambassador has been great because farming is part of his family’s story.

“I remember going to my uncle’s farm and picking peanuts,” he said. “Then they’d boil the peanuts right there and we’d eat them.”

He said it’s nice to see the process from start to finish; he may eventually want to get into the farming business either with his family or on a smaller scale for the restaurant.

Turnblad said multiple chefs are nominated by the SCDA and South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department and ultimately four are selected by the governor. The current chef ambassadors will have a nomination for next year’s group.

Each chef is required to participate in three events across the state during their year as ambassador.

Originally, Turnblad said she was worried that it may be asking too much of the chefs to leave their restaurants and travel for various events.

But she was impressed with everyone’s flexibility and said most appreciated the opportunity to see other regions of the state.

“Cooper has really taken it to the next level,” she said.

He went to a lot of events that weren’t required simply because he wanted to, she said, including a dinner party at Gov. Nikki Haley’s mansion.

The governor was trying to get business to come and invest their companies in South Carolina, to help build the economy and put people to work, Thomas said.

“All I did was cook, but if it helped in any way that would be great,” he said.

At Victor’s, Thomas said he has to work hard to balance affordable prices and high quality dishes. He said he wants his restaurant to be considered a “fine, comfortable dining place” and not just somewhere for special occasions only.

Thomas’s advice for aspiring chefs is simple: wash dishes at a restaurant for three months.

“And if you still like that business, start cooking,” he said. “Because when you’re the chef, you’re the head of the kitchen. It also means that you’re the head dishwasher. You’re the prep cook, the head line cook. You have to be able and willing to do anything that anyone else here does.”


Information from: Morning News, https://www.scnow.com

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