Back in the kitchen at Drunken Jack’s, chef Casey Blake works his magic in the cramped quarters, showering seasoning on a blackened mahi and dropping fresh lump crab meat into what will be the mahi’s bed of risotto.
He also has a steak sizzling on a grill as servers dart in to pick up baskets of the restaurant’s well-known hushpuppies and cooks hand over seafood dishes headed for hungry customers.
Pay attention, folks. This is the way the top chef in South Carolina does it.
Blake has been a staple in the Drunken Jack’s kitchen for 22 years, working his way up from an ambitious teenager working as a line cook to the creator of dishes such as the popular steak neptune and grouper royale as the executive chef. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
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“It’s the people. It’s the passion,” Blake said. “This is what I do.”
His drive and loyalty led the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association to name him Outstanding Chef of the Year, an honor he picked up last week in Columbia.
What ended up being a passion fueling two decades and counting in the industry started as a teenage Blake who wanted to earn some money to buy a car and nice clothes. He started as a dishwasher at Capt. Dave’s Dockside — also along the Murrells Inlet marshwalk near Drunken Jack’s — and ambitiously found a way to move into a role as a cook.
“I would say, ‘Move chef. I got this,’” Blake said.
He focused on work, bypassing the usual after-school activities (he graduated from Georgetown High School in 1992) and didn’t mind a bit.
“I went to school and told kids, ‘I’m a cook,’” Blake said. “I went from school to work everyday. Never thought it would go this far.”
He credits the chef at Capt. Dave’s for giving him a shot. It meant a lot to the young Blake that the chef trusted him.
Blake has embraced every chance to learn and move his way up to chef. He took culinary classes, but “everything else is hands on.”
“Playing with food. That’s what I did,” Blake said.
When it opened in the late 1970s, Drunken Jacks served seafood two ways: fried and broiled. Blake has made sure the options have grown as diners’ tastes have, said Drunken Jack’s owner Al Hitchcock.
“Now it’s blackened, it’s grilled,” Hitchcock said. “Our menu has evolved. He just prepares it in a different way, puts a little twist on it.”
When he’s not coming up with the next menu creation for Drunken Jack’s, Blake is mentoring the next generation of chefs by bringing interns into the kitchen and serving as a judge in cooking competitions through the ProStart program, which trains teen cooks. He’s aiming to be that mentor to others, like the chef at Capt. Dave’s that encouraged the young Blake.
“It made me feel good to say he trusted me,” Blake said.