Chef Darren Smith, a Charleston, SC native, opened his first restaurant 28 years ago at the age of 24. He has developed a reputation as a man who lets food shine, while showing off its vast versatility.
About Darren Smith
Darren Smith – the owner and executive chef of Rivertown Bistro and Bonfire – has developed a reputation as a man who lets food shine while showing off its vast versatility.
Food is not allowed to settle in his presence. Arugula cannot be plain. It must cha-cha with fried goat cheese, kiss strawberries and peaches, party with pistachios, frolic with farro and red onions, and boogie with bacon jam before finally getting a fine rain of buttermilk feta dressing.
He demands fare showcases its sublime and naughty nature.
“Darren is committed to quality and creativity,’’ said Alys Lawson, day manager, and his sister-in-law. “His menus are inventive and always fresh. So, people keep coming back because the food is always delicious.”
At least you think nepotism is at play, think again.
“This place and the food are marvelous,’’ said Salamone James, a North Myrtle Beach resident, and first timer as he lunched on a quesadilla. “The service is also wonderful.”
Smith, 53, wasn’t around when James spoke highly of him, but he knew long before that point that he and the restaurant business were a match.
He initially entertained the idea of life as a chef when he was attending Winthrop University, where he went to study business communication and play soccer. Yet, he became disenchanted with his pursuits after conversations with his brother that was in culinary school.
His brother’s perspective intrigued him, and Smith was lured by the potential fun and fantasy a chef’s life could bring him.
“The 9 to 5 job didn’t appeal to me,’’ said Smith, a native of Charleston. “My brother was going to culinary school at the time. So, I just kept talking to him, asking him about where it was leading him, and if he liked it. He loved it, and he thought it would be worth me giving it a try cooking. I took to it.”
The thought of taking traditional routes that led to careers in banking and the like wasn’t going to work for him. However, cooking for a living was an idea he wanted as an actuality.
Smith was hooked without bait because his brother highlighted the prime perks of being a chef.
Instant gratification was a guarantee after serving customers and making them happy. Food would surround him. The nightlife made for an adrenaline high – the coolness of sipping cocktails after a long day’s work with pretty waitresses was ammunition enough for him to change his ambitions.
After two years at Winthrop University, he moved to Mount Pleasant, where his dad resided, and started working at restaurants in the Charleston area. Right away, he enjoyed every facet of carving a life out of his new profession. He liked the unglamorous work. He liked prepping food. He liked learning the basics. Frankly, he was moving through the stratosphere without yet being rocketed into a chef’s life.
“I didn’t mind the grunt work,’’ Smith said. “I just enjoyed being in the kitchen and watching the guys who knew what they were doing. I knew from day one that I would be stepping over there soon. I do my dues and washed dishes, but I knew I was bound to sauté, grill, and run the kitchen. I could just feel it in my blood.”
The former Locklear’s Lowcountry Grill, one of Mount Pleasant’s best eateries, was where he worked with fresh fish, uncovered the importance of seasonality, and how to make sauces like beurre blanc and béarnaise.
“I learned everything,’’ he said. “I ended up running the kitchen for about six months before I moved on.”
Next up was Shem Creek Bar and Grill, which was also in Mount Pleasant.
“The experience was incredible,’’ he said. “I was the executive chef over four restaurants, and I was only like 22 or 23. I stayed there for about 8 months, and I was dating my wife now, Cindy.”
She was then a recent graduate of the College of Charleston with a degree in finance. A native of Conway, she told him that the river city was ideal for them to open a restaurant.
“We were 24 and that is when I opened here,’’ said Smith while sitting in the cozy lounge area of Rivertown Bistro. It is lunchtime and the place is teaming with staff and customers. Food is sailing out of the open kitchen and incredible scents are wafting through the air. This place is a food paradise.
The first year of business was slow, but it picked up exponentially the second year after they started getting good press, particularly from Sandlapper, The Magazine of South Carolina. The former publication helped heighten interest in Rivertown Bistro, and the Smiths knew how to keep to momentum going.
“We knew our hard work and vision would come to fruition,’’ Smith said.
With his wife on top of the financials, while he focused on making Rivertown Bistro a favorite epicurean stop, his dream was now the real world.
“To be successful in this business, you have to always be honest with your food, your pricing, and how you treat your guests,’’ he said. “There also has to be nothing but the truth in the menu. Write what you are serving and stand behind it.”
Rivertown Bistro opened 28 years ago, and its history has hit mostly high notes and staccato rhythms of a restaurant beloved by many. Yet, there was at least one scary time when the restaurant burned down. Smith recalled they had just adopted their daughter Sophia when he got the news. He rushed to the scene, jumped over barricades, and saw the charred remnants of his restaurant.
“I cried like a baby,’’ he said.
Investigators believed faulty wiring or a defective dishwashing machine as the strongest culprits.
The business returned to its banging status after rebuilding. Later, Smith opened Bon Fire when he discovered the space was available. Bonfire is a traditional smokehouse with homerun sandwiches, sensational salads, Southern sides, succulent meats, and sizable platters starring catfish, shrimp, and other nourishment notables.
“If you are going to call yourself a chef, you have to know why and how to fix your food,’’ Smith said, “I get into it.”
By Johanna Wilson Jones, Local Food Writer and Judge on Chef Swap at The Beach
“To be successful in this business, you have to always be honest with your food, your pricing, and how you treat your guests.’’
Burger Chef Swap | Darren vs. Chad
Tidal Creek Brewhouse, a Myrtle Beach brewery known for its outstanding food and brews, swaps kitchens with Bonfire Taqueria, a barbecue fusion restaurant in historic downtown Conway, for a Burger Chef Swap Challenge you won't want to miss. Chef Amanda pits Chef Chad Wiers against Chef Darren Smith to see who has the best burger around.