“Can we eat sweet potatoes raw?”
That was one of the questions asked at a recent 10-course pop-up dinner introducing chef David Porras to the Greenville community and the type of cuisine he’ll be serving up at his forthcoming restaurant, Oak Hill Café. (By the way the answer is, yes, unlike regular potatoes, you can eat sweet potatoes raw.)
During the dinner, the Costa Rica native Porras served a dish of diced orange sweet potatoes, sous-vided for eight hours at 125 degrees, with dehydrated sheets of purple sweet potatoes and grapefruit. The potatoes developed the texture of a beef tartare, but maintained the flavor of the sweet vegetable and a hint of butter and salt.
photos by Heath Clark
It’s this type of experimental gastronomy Porras and his business partner, Lori Nelsen, a lab manager at Furman University in the earth and environmental sciences/sustainability sciences department, will showcase at Oak Hill Café, a new breakfast, lunch, and dinner restaurant slated to open this spring in the Cherrydale area.
Located at 2510 Poinsett Highway near Hakim Rugs, Oak Hill Café will occupy two floors – 2,356 square feet downstairs and 788 square feet upstairs. The top floor will likely be used for private dining space and additional seating.
The acre behind the restaurant will be turned into a garden from which Porras will source much of his ingredients. The garden will be designed and maintained by Chris Miller (That Garden Guy) and Aaron von Frank (Tyrant Farms).
Nelsen says the garden will showcase Miller’s and Von Frank’s creativity in terms of what can be grown in South Carolina using permaculture techniques. For instance, Von Frank successfully grew a dwarf variety of bananas at Tyrant Farms, a feat that required a significant amount of effort.
She also says they’ve already registered as a farm and are currently applying for farm programs and grants.
Porras, who trained in Spain under Michelin-starred chefs, moved to the United States seven years ago. He arrived in Greenville this summer because his wife recently took a position at Furman University. It was at one such school event that he and Nelsen first crossed paths.
After discovering their mutual love for “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” – a must-read guide for those who want to understand the science behind what they eat – Nelsen and Porras began working toward the goal of opening a hyperlocal, farm-to-table restaurant.
“We’re both chemistry geeks about food,” Nelsen says. She says the priority is to treat the food with respect and understand where the food comes from and how it’s grown.
“There are other farm-to-table restaurants in Greenville, but we want to be hyperlocal, and grow food right on property and make it so fresh,” Nelsen says.
Porras owns more than 500 cookbooks and is a perpetual student. He’s constantly experimenting and pushing the boundaries. Yet, when it comes to cooking, Porras admits it doesn’t have to be complicated. “Simplicity is the key in the kitchen,” he says.
The end result: dishes that look like works of art. “Plating is how you express yourself,” Porras says.
He plans to work with the farmers to gain inspiration for his menus. “I want people who work with us to learn more than I know, and I don’t know anything,” he says.
Nelsen says the goal is to make the restaurant an experimental kitchen for dinner, especially on Saturday nights when the menu will have only a chef’s tasting option.
As for breakfast and lunch, the menu will be more traditional – eggs, fresh fruit, granola, pancakes, soups, salads, and sandwiches – but will feature Porras’ Costa Rican influences.
Of course, everything will be seasonal and locally sourced.
“There will be no tomatoes on sandwiches in the winter if we don’t have them,” Nelsen says.