Chef Sean Mendes has been a part of the Charleston culinary community for over a decade, most notably with one of his first ventures in 2012, the successful food truck turned restaurant Roadside Seafood. In 2018, Chef Mendes opened Gillie’s Seafood & Soul on James Island - named in tribute to his grandmother and influential person in his culinary journey, LaReese Gilliard. That family connection is seen the moment you walk in, with a wall of photos with Chef Mendes’ grandmother at the center - surrounded by portraits of matriarchs brought in by customers who have visited over the years. For this Black Food Friday, I talked with Chef Mendes more on how he was inspired to pursue a culinary career, the dishes to not miss on your visit and why supporting and sourcing locally is so important.
What originally inspired your interest in food and cooking?
It all began for me at a young age at around 8 or 9 years old. I used to help my grandmother in the kitchen who was just an amazing cook. When she would make a dish, I would always want to know how she made it and what she did to do so. Soon she started letting me learn the process, and then I would cook dinners for everyone. So it was just in my blood from the start.
My father is Portuguese and my mom African American, so I learned a lot from the Portuguese side of the family as well. Both of those communities often involve large family gatherings where a whole bunch of people get together and have great food. Later in life I felt I had this desire within me to create things with the knowledge that I learned from food and flavors growing up.
Can you talk about the concept behind Gillie’s?
The concept and inspiration behind Gillie’s was my grandmother. This was going to be my third restaurant- and who better to dedicate that to than her while she was still alive. So this was all to the woman that got me started, taught me all about life, how to treat people, raised me in the church and all the other things that are building blocks grandparents give you to be successful. She was the first picture on grandma wall at Gillie’s, and if I open another location, those pictures will be duplicated. She'll always be with us.
For someone visiting Gillie’s for the first time, what do you consider your signature dishes?
I would say you have to try the Fried Shrimp - we've been told they are the best in Charleston. The She-Crab Soup is wonderful. We also have a southern-inspired Catfish Charleston, which is a blackened catfish fillet over dirty rice, then topped with crawfish, crab and shrimp and a cajun cream sauce. But you know I'm partial - everything in this place is amazing.
A majority of the produce and seafood you serve at Gillie’s is sourced locally - why Is it so important for you to use local purveyors?
South Carolina as a whole is just this breadbasket of goodness- from the seafood on the coast to the produce from our farms. In 2017 I was named one of four Chef Ambassadors for the state of South Carolina. A main goal of ours in working with the Department of Agriculture was to bring recognition to Charleston farms, fishmongers and more. In South Carolina we usually don't have to go outside of the state since so many of our products are done so well here.
I use Joseph Fields Farms often for our green tomatoes, collards, okra and whatever else I can get from them. Most of our seafood is sourced from Crosby's in town, and they're really good at getting us what we need. In the end, it also helps the local community- when we source local, our local economy is better able to withstand hardships. There's no reason for me to buy shrimp from outside of the country when I can get it locally, right here in my home.
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Written by Jai Jones (Jai Eats)