David Porras was smiling a smile that would’ve been at home on a Bond villain. Not an overtly evil smile like the one found on Donald Pleasance’s Ernst Blofeld, more of a satisfied smile. The kind of smile on Christopher Lee’s “Scaramanga” when his giant Solex laser ignites Bond’s amphibian airplane into a raging bonfire on “Man with a Golden Gun.” It’s the smile of a job well done, of a mission accomplished, of a vexing project completed. It’s “look what I made and it took me forever and damn if it doesn’t work.” David introduced himself to me at the Upstate Slow Food’s Okra Cookoff at Birds Fly South brewery after I handed him my Nashville Hot Chicken stuffed Okra on a stick. He responded with a cup of Okra Slime Sorbet. “Okra Slime Sorbet? Are you kidding me?” David smiled that Scaramanga smile of his, grinning ear to ear.
Naturally I gladly accepted it and dove right in. And it was delicious. Okra slime infused with sugar, hibiscus, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. What’s not to like? Slime. That’s not to like. That’s a word better suited to sewers, slick roads, garbage trucks, and police line ups, not sorbets. So when David hands me this cup of “slime” sorbet the first thing that comes to my mind is “How brave is this guy?” I made okra on a stick. It took me a couple of hours. David probably spent months figuring out this sorbet thing. In fact when I visited him, his white board with the okra sorbet mission profile was still there. I’m a huge fan of okra and as a child of south Louisiana I’m not afraid of a little okra slime. As a young cook we used okra in gumbos, sauce piquant, etouffes and more and I’m well accustomed to its slightly gelatinous interior. And it’s there for a reason; to challenge cooks and diners alike. It may be at home in a chicken gumbo, that’s the obvious outlet for okra. A few slices tossed into a bubbling dark stew and no one will notice the slippery juice as it marries with chicken stock, onions, tomatoes, peppers and smoked sausage. But turn that into a sorbet? I’d have to go back to Devereaux’s, closed in 2013, to find this sort of culinary bravery and originality in Greenville.
David is the chef/owner of Oak Hill Café. A native of Costa Rica, he’s spent time in Spain and New York before settling here, in a diminutive restaurant on top of a hill next to Hakim’s Rug Gallery. I’d guess that in the two years David and partner Lori Nelsen announced their intentions with Oak Hill Café, they’ve received press from every media outlet and Instagram influencer in the Upstate so no need to rehash anything here. However, I believe it’s worthwhile for a guy like me to point out their audaciousness with a restaurant of this caliber. Look there’s thousands of easier ways to make a living than the restaurant business and if you want your best shot at financial success, do something that’s going to appeal to the masses. Burgers and beers, fried chicken, BBQ, and ice cream will always appeal to most of us. But okra slime sorbet? That’s a gutsy call and that’s the kind of restaurant David and Lori have created. And I wish them much success because our town needs this kind of envelope pushing in our food scene. Us chefs in this town need a guy like David asking these “what if” questions because that in turn may cause others to look at something as common place as a watermelon or a peach in a new light.
Creativity such as this is always an asset to a community. Stretching the limits of one’s creativity, whether through architecture, fashion, art, or food will guarantee you a challenging road. Should you be the person that enjoys having your perceptions challenged, Oak Hill Café is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
How to Get There
This is the first in a new series of essays from our friend John Malik.
Extremely accomplished, John is a James Beard Society nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, has published a novel Doughnuts for Amy and you can find his essays on Food, Travel, and the culinary scene of the Southeast in the Huffington Post. John is currently Chef of the Loft at Soby’s.
We are extremely excited to have John contribute monthly essays for iOnGreenville!