Chef Adam Kirby, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, became the executive chef and owner of Bistro 217 nearly 20 years ago and is still praised for capturing delicious flavors in every dish.
About Adam Kirby
Adam Kirby is holding a large pan of chanterelles with the pride of a mom cradling her newborn. His eyes are wide with wonder as he looks down at the yellowish-gold, wild mushrooms. They are among the edibles he incorporates into dishes featured at Bistro 217 and Rustic Table. He co-owns both with Anne Hardee.
He has such esteem for his mushrooms, and he can’t help but show them off a little. After explaining that they possess a brighter color in the woods and lose a bit of hue once picked, he pulls out his iPhone and shows the chanterelles as they were before being harvested.
He then explained how the chanterelles make love to brown butter and seasonings, with accompaniments from a veggie medley and mahi-mahi in a dish he prepares.
“I make a hot butter, and instead of using regular butter, I burn the butter because butter is made up of like 10 percent milk proteins,’’ Kirby said. “Once you cook the water out of butter, those heavy milk proteins sink to the bottom. Proteins are made up of sugar. It’s a brown butter. So, it caramelizes and flavors the butter. So, I use the flavored butter as the fat, add vinegar to it, and a little bit of sugar to balance the vinegar, sweet and sour. Those feelings balance each other. Then that goes on top of the mahi-mahi with the sauteed vegetables.”
Kirby, 46, is known for the care and thoughtfulness he puts into his pots and onto his plates. He is a husband, a dad of two boys, an avid fisherman, and the audacious executive chef of Bistro 217 and Rustic Table. He is a likable character with an unpretentious whit.
“He is a talented chef and a nice guy to work for,’’ said William Horner, a chef at Rustic Table. “He is a hands-on person. He is always here to help us and teach us different things. His leadership skills are definitely on par.”
Nearly 20 years ago, he became the co-owner with Anne Hardee of Bistro 217. Then, he joined Hardee at the Rustic Table. They have a catch-all store too called Driftwood Mercantile that is a few steps from the latter eatery, which is across from Bistro 217. He even has a farm with Peter Gerace in Johnsonville where the chanterelles and other ingredients are grown.
He is a proud pop of his places and business ventures.
At the Rustic Table, he is elated while pointing out tables made from wood fetched from the Waccamaw and Black rivers.
Kirby is the product of Southern heritage. A native of Atlanta, he was reared by women who were all talented, seasoned cooks. His mother and grandmothers took great dignity in producing food made from scratch. The Mississippi blood that flowed through their veins wouldn’t allow them to do otherwise.
“I grew up in a house where everything was homemade,’’ Kirby said. “I’m talking homemade jelly, mayonnaise, everything.”
If he saw a plate of sliced tomatoes on the table, he knew homemade mayonnaise was there too.
Visits to his grandmother’s house in Shady Grove, Miss., afforded him big breakfasts with big, from-scratch biscuits, homemade sausage, buttermilk muffins, and fresh eggs. While he ate that goodness, he could look at another table where his grandmother was shelling butter beans with some friends in preparation for lunch, which looked like supper.
“They spent the whole day cooking,’’ Kirby said. “I grew up with food being a major part of my life. You can tell by my stomach.”
With that statement, he looked down at his compact pouch and smirked.
When he attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., he went to play football. However, he realized he didn’t like attending classes after a year at school. So, he quit and headed to Athens, Ga., to look for work. He got a job flipping pizzas at Mellow Mushroom and working at a steakhouse at night. He soon became the sous chef at the steakhouse after being promoted from the grill. Then, one day, a friend of his asked if he wanted to move to Hawaii. Kirby said yes, sold everything he had, and bought a one-way ticket to the tropical state. He was 18.
“I talked my way into a job as a sous chef at the Hilo Bay Hotel in Hilo, Hawaii, the Big Island,” Kirby said.
He was cocky, and he had bragged that he was the best sous chef ever. When he walked into the kitchen for the first time to cook, Kirby encountered Japanese and Polynesian chefs in their 40s that had been at the hotel for 20 years.
“These guys were like ninjas with knives,’’ he said. “So, I knew I was way over my head, but I worked hard and kept my job. I stayed out there for a year or a year and a half.”
They used numerous local ingredients to produce the Pacific Rim menu items that were a fusion of Japanese, Polynesian, and California cooking cultures.
Ono, mahi-mahi, tuna, and opah were among the fish they regularly prepared.
Hawaii was left behind when he decided to get a degree from the now-closed Western Culinary Institute in Portland. It partnered with Le Cordon Bleu, hospitality and culinary schools located around the globe.
“I learned classic French cooking, ice sculpturing, pastries, bread and cool stuff like that,’’ said Kirby, who earned a degree from Western Culinary Institute and Le Cordon Bleu.
Fast forward past an internship at the defunct Stars in San Francisco, the dot.com boom, to his working at Canoe and a celebrated bistro before running the Georgia Terrace Hotel in Atlanta and pause where Kirby lost himself.
“Honestly, I was drinking too much, going out and partying too much,’’ he said. “I had to clean up my life. So, I did. Then, I came down here to the beach because my old man had retired down here, and I had too many bad habits in Atlanta.”
Before he came to Pawleys Island, he went to rehab to beat the demons and took on a renewed mindset.
He is thankful he is alive and steadily traveling down the road of success, one day at a time. He shines at eateries cherished and cheered for capturing flavor savored.
By: Johanna Wilson Jones, Local Food Writer and Judge on Chef Swap at The Beach
“I grew up with food being a major part of my life. You can tell by my stomach.”
Entrée Chef Swap | Steve vs. Adam
Chef Steve Perrone of Perrone’s and Chef Adam Kirby of Bistro 217 take on an Entrée & Cocktail Chef Swap Challenge. When our host Amanda Freitag presents an added curveball, will it be a turning point for these two or will they rise to the challenge?