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Event Highlights South Carolina Agriculture, Culinary Talent

FILE - Chef
Nick Youngson
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Some of the biggest names in South Carolina agriculture were on the guest list last Sunday evening in Saluda County, with Aiken-based Jason Tufts putting his culinary creativity into action as a participant in the South Carolina Chef Ambassadors program.

Tufts, largely known for his work at downtown Aiken restaurant Malia's, was in gear in the Ward-Nicholson-Asbill House's kitchen, surrounded by thousands of acres of Titan Farms peach territory, with the assistance of fellow chefs Josh Cureton and Brandon Velie.

The event, Dinner in the Orchard, featured creations from around South Carolina, starting with pecans and goat cheese and wrapping up, about an hour later, with local peaches (the last of the season), buttermilk ice cream and goat's milk caramel sauce.

Tufts said the outdoor gathering represented a welcome rarity, as a situation where "the entire event went off perfectly," from preparation through execution, with the help of a variety of friends who pooled their efforts. Nature cooperated as well, he noted, recalling a peach-colored sunset in the midst of the gathering.

"This is a beautiful, beautiful sight for a chef," he said, addressing the group. "As an artist, I find value in the uniqueness of each an every item of produce that we've got tonight," he said, citing the examples of shrimp and Clemson blue cheese. "I hope my feelings speak through the plates and you guys really get a chance to taste what our state has to offer."

Velie, known as the driving force behind Ridge Spring restaurant Juniper, added, "I thought it went amazing. What a great night. What a way to celebrate the Chef Ambassador program and Jason all in the same night. It was amazing."

Velie is highly familiar with the CAP, as he was one of its organizers. A recent Post and Courier account of the program noted, "Velie, a culinary gem in a town with a population under 1,000, hoped to reveal more small-town chefs in South Carolina and put them on the map. He also wanted to create a network between chefs, farmers and other suppliers who keep the state's culinary industry running."

Prominent guests at the gathering last Sunday included Hugh Weathers, South Carolina's commissioner of agriculture, who expressed his appreciation for the evening's relatively mild temperatures and the ambassador program. "It's really been a true pleasure to be involved with now 25 to 26 chefs who've made up our classes over those years," he said, crediting Velie and then-Gov. Nikki Haley with taking a great idea and bringing it to fruition.

Tufts noted, "It's been a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. I've met many beautiful farmers. I've made many great friends. I've been introduced to products I didn't even know were out there, so this has been just a beautiful experience."

Tufts is on the verge of a career change, as he is on track to begin work Monday at The Village Cafe, next to Woodside Plantation. His peers, as current ambassadors, are Jamie Daskalis, associated with Johnny D's Waffles and Bakery, in Myrtle Beach; Kevin Mitchell, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston; and Raffaele Dall'Erta, with Hamptons, in Sumter.