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chef brings fine cuisine from

new zealand to aiken


According to the United States government, Chef Regan Browell is a person of “exceptional skills.” Browell came to Aiken and The Restaurant at The Willcox as its executive chef in August 2009 on what the U.S. Immigration Service calls an “Exceptional Skills” Visa. She qualified for that status when 10 people – restaurant and hotel owners, fellow chefs and other businesspeople – wrote letters extolling her superior talents and high character. Browell, a New Zealand native, has worked in restaurants from San Francisco to London, three of which were highly rated Ritz Carlton resorts and hotels in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Double Bay, Australia and South Beach, Fla. Before coming to The Willcox, she was executive chef at the fashionable Electric Brasserie of the Soho House Company in London and then at two restaurants in Tauranga, New Zealand, Rain – a gastro-pub – and Nextdoor Restaurant. Geoff and Shannon Ellis owned Rain and Nextdoor and when they came to Aiken Browell came with them. After a month of preparation, they opened The Restaurant at The Willcox in September 2009. The Ellises bought the hotel outright on New Year’s Eve of that year, a feat for which Shannon gives Browell much credit.

CREATING IN THE KITCHEN Regan Browell prepares for a Willcox dinner.

“Regan is someone who goes above and beyond what most people are capable of,” says Shannon.

Operating a sustainable business means dedication and attention to detail.

There had been no restaurant at The Willcox for several years and business was off – way off – and the grand old hotel was slated to close on Jan. 1, 2010. During the four months that the Ellises had operated The Restaurant at The Willcox, they say sales at the hotel had begun to improve and the whole atmosphere in the building had turned around and led them to purchase the hotel on New Year’s Eve 2009.

“You have to hunt out suppliers who are willing to operate in a sustainable manner, farms who grow things organically, purveyors who are taking care of their products and the world at large,” says Browell. “I have to research them to validate their methods.”

“Regan is someone who goes above and beyond what most people are capable of.” — shannon ellis

“I remember when I first came here,” says Browell. “It was like an empty shell – barren. Now it’s quite lively. Of course, it’s not just due to the food, but the restaurant is where we began.” Shannon agrees, saying, “In a real sense, the restaurant brought life back into this hotel: The hotel has the grand history and aura, but it did nothing to welcome the local community. It was overwhelming to locals and they didn’t come in. The hotel needed something warm and comfortable to draw people in and Regan supplied that – incredible food at an approachable price and great service that isn’t stuffy. Her restaurant, and a more convivial atmosphere that we implemented throughout the hotel from the beginning, made the hotel accessible for the public and they have responded. A hallowed hall that was once accessible only to princes and presidents, now is frequented by the people of the area. Stuffy no more. You can come into the restaurant wearing your blue jeans and have a great hamburger. My husband, Geoff, and I do that all the time!” Of course, you can also get some pretty fancy – and tasty – stuff. Browell recently published a dessert recipe in the new Signature Tastes of South Carolina Cookbook, a peanut butter parfait terrine with butterscotch, chocolate ganache, a brownie and a peanut crisp.

Three Palmettos Browell’s and the Ellises’ commitment to sustainability in the restaurant and the hotel are deeply held and have been highly recognized.

For example, nearly all of the fish and seafood served in The Restaurant at The Willcox is line-caught from North Coast Seafood near Boston. The pork comes from Nieman Ranch in California. The beef is all pasture-raised Certified Angus Beef and Browell uses Coleman’s organic chicken. She takes pride in making almost everything from scratch and the result is a menu that is free of processed and chemically preserved foods and a kitchen that is virtually free of food delivered in plastic containers. Even the menus and takeaway containers are made of 100 percent recycled paper and the used cooking oil is converted into biodiesel fuel. The Restaurant at The Willcox is “Carolina Certified,” which means that at least one-third of the produce is grown in the Carolinas and as much of it locally as can be found. A restaurant policy written by Browell and Shannon concludes, “The Restaurant at The Willcox is committed to reducing our environmental impact and increasing our use of sustainable resources, while providing the finest and freshest foods for our guests.” This commitment recently won them Three Palmettos, the highest award given by the South Carolina Green Hospitality Alliance.

Brought Back to Life In the first half of the 20th Century, The Willcox was the center of high society in Aiken. Visitors came to play outdoor games on its manicured lawn and sprawling acreage. Astros, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers mixed with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Bing Crosby, along with high-ranking American politicians and European nobility – all in the name of fun. The Restaurant at The Willcox has re-earned its reputation as the finest dining experience in town, and now that comes with competitive pricing for those of us who are not millionaires or movie stars. In November 2011, The Willcox was named by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the Top 50 Small Hotels in the U.S., a huge achievement for which Browell and the restaurant played a big part.

Browell says she is dedicated to her work in operating the highest quality restaurant and in teaching her employees what she knows. She is also working with the Ellises on future projects, all confidential at the moment, and says she is happy where she is. “I enjoy being in America,” says Browell. “My work has taken me so many places that a little girl from New Zealand doesn’t normally get to see, and there is more I want to do. There are still so many places in this country that I haven’t seen. I haven’t tasted all of America yet!” by STEPHEN DELANEY HALE photo ALISON RYAN

from regan’s kitchen: DARK CHOCOLATE AND CARAMEL PUDDINGS Deliciously dark and perfect for gift-giving

INGREDIENTS: 380 gram tin store bought caramel filling (dolce de leche) ½ cup thick cream 200 grams dark chocolate (Ghirardelli) 2 oz. butter 3 eggs ½ cup brown sugar 1 tsp. vanilla extract ½ cup almond meal (ground almonds) or ¼ cup flour

DIRECTIONS: 1. 2. 3. 4.



7. 8. 9.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place caramel in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the cream and mix well to combine. Split the caramel mixture into four 1½-cup ovenproof dishes (Browell uses mason jars, which she says make great gifts). Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer and beat for 10 minutes or until the mixture doubles in size and is thick and creamy. Fold the chocolate and almond meal/flour into the egg mixture and divide between the dishes. Place on baking tray and bake 18-20 minutes. Let stand for five minutes, dust with cocoa powder and serve with whipped cream or ice cream. | community driven news | December 14, 2011 17

December Issue B 2011  

people | places | events | culture the NEW generation of print media serving Augusta & the CSRA

December Issue B 2011  

people | places | events | culture the NEW generation of print media serving Augusta & the CSRA