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G r e a t

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The Brilliant Biscuit-Maker

By Jason Frye

Like any good

story should, it all started with making biscuits.

See little Marnie Williamson, 5 years old, perched on a stool in her grandmamma’s kitchen. She turns the crank handle of an old tin flour sifter like it’s some sort of culinary hurdy-gurdy. A cloud of flour falls from the sifter, forming a small white pyramid on the wax paper below. Grandmamma watches. When there’s flour enough, Grandmamma transfers it to a bowl and cuts in pats of butter, adds milk a splash at a time. She takes Marnie’s hands in hers, guiding them through the still-forming dough, teaching texture the only way it can be taught: through touch. She cautions her granddaughter, saying they must be mindful of the dough; to be heavy-handed will surely toughen the biscuits. Next a flour-strewn countertop and the dough rolled with what seems to Marnie an ancient rolling pin. “We punched out the biscuits with a juice glass, one with a perfectly biscuitsized rim,” Williamson, now chef at The Isles Restaurant in Ocean Isle Beach, says. “Every time I make biscuits I find myself reaching for a glass in lieu of a biscuit cutter. And when I put the pan in the oven, I’m faced with the same important decision I had as a kid: Will I eat my warm biscuit with honey or molasses?” Like so many chefs, Williamson’s first bright food memory is of family; making biscuits with her grandmamma, then graduating to experimenting — in that same kitchen — with recipes of her own design. “I got a little bored with the same recipes. I started to rebel against measuring spoons and standard procedures and wanted to do my own thing,” she says. When Grandmamma would leave on an errand, into the kitchen Marnie would run, and her grandfather, told to keep an eye on her and ensure she didn’t go “messing” in the kitchen, turned a blind eye. “Disobedience wasn’t tolerated, but somehow [Grandmamma] understood my inability to withstand the lures of the kitchen.” By the time Williamson was off to boarding school, she’d begun experi-


Salt • August 2015

ments with cooking methods, ingredients, flavors and dishes that weren’t so close to home. “My best friend was from Korea and I always looked forward to her bringing a jar of her mother’s kimchi back to school after Christmas break. Another friend from India would share papadam and pickles and chutney whenever her care packages would arrive from home,” says Williamson. “Those experiences not only shaped my palate but challenged me to create and to recreate that which inspired me.” Despite this passion for food, culinary school wasn’t in her future. She moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1990s, before it was the food Mecca of today, to attend College of Charleston and study psychology. Her choice of Charleston over other schools was “more for the food scene than anything else,” she admits, and while there, she had some transformative meals. Louis’s, Anson, Le Midi, Carolina’s and Magnolias were among her favorites, though it was one particular dish that made a mark on her and her career. “My first time eating Louis Osteen’s shrimp and grits, I vowed to myself that one day mine would be as delightful.” In 2014, Williamson’s shrimp and grits won a local food competition — Chilled and Grilled — for best entrée. “I owe that to Mr. Osteen for inspiring me over twenty years ago.” That inspiration is seen today in her menu at The Isles Restaurant. There, the food is decidedly coastal, drawing flavors and traditions from the low country and the American South, but also exploring other flavors. Some — Italian, French — are more familiar, while others, especially those drawing from a pan-Asian palate, are downright exotic in a corner of the world where fried fish is the norm. “We aspire for every guest to identify something on the menu that excites them, whether that be the adventurous guest who seeks a novel experience to the guest who is comforted by time-honored classics prepared properly,” Williamson says. “I believe we are closer than ever to accomplishing this goal but aim to progressively raise the bar.” Williamson doesn’t have to serve great food at The Isles Restaurant (the view The Art & Soul of Wilmington

Photograph by James Stefiuk

Under the talented guidance of Chef Marnie Williamson, the bar has been raised at Ocean Isle’s beloved restaurant

Profile for Salt

August Salt 2015  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

August Salt 2015  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington