Sea Island takes a tradition steeped in history and gives it some delicious, modern twists.
By Gary Singh
Sweet tea is quite possibly one of the oldest culinary traditions in the South. With a handful of tea bags, boiling water and sugar, off it goes to the fridge. Astringency cross-pollinates with sweetness, and a tasty equilibrium emerges. The familiar preparation and flavors all exemplify a proprietary Southern charm, but that doesn’t mean the creativity ends with a glass of ice. John Helfrich, executive chef of The Lodge and Retreat at Sea Island, says it takes just a few savory ingredients—salt, bay leaves, garlic, thyme—to transform a simple sweet tea into the perfect brine for meat. “We started [with] chicken, and we put a pork chop on the menu that was sweet-tea brined,” Helfrich explains. “They ended up tasting really good.”
Even more elaborate schemes are emerging at Sea Island. Quite a few creative culinary dynamics are slowly coming into play. Chefs, servers, and food and beverage directors are manifesting a wealth of other tea-inspired scenarios. In general, a British-inspired high tea service draws numerous regular customers, including children. As a culinary reduction, tea also makes its way into cocktails. Loose-leaf blends from Mighty Leaf Tea Co. become recipe ingredients alongside everyday spices. The ideas just keep on steeping.
Cameron Hayes, manager at the Oak Room at Sea Island, says tea can be used with cocktails, adding an entirely new perspective to traditional libations like the John Daly, which is normally just lemonade, unsweetened tea and vodka.
“We use English Breakfast, which is one of our loose-leaf teas from Mighty Leaf, and we reduce that down to a simple syrup,” he explains. “That’s a really creative way to drive some unique flavors into a drink. Using that and some freshly-squeezed lemon juice creates a powerful taste. And we’ll top it off afterward with a splash of a craft beer—Sweetwater 420, a pale ale out of Atlanta. We call it a John Daly Revisited.”
Sam Gamble, who helps orchestrate the high tea service at The Lodge at Sea Island, serves a variety of loose-leaf blends for kids and adults. There are remedies for those who seek caffeine, interesting tastes or simply an herbal infusion.
“We have an organic mint melange, which is a cultivation of herbs from around the world,” Gamble describes. “And it is a little more on the bouquet of spearmint, lime and freshly cut grass. It’s an incredible tea. It’s even great for if you are feeling congested.”
Since sweet tea is more ubiquitous in the region than the traditional high tea service, Gamble says he was thrilled to help launch the British-inspired endeavor at The Lodge. Especially for families who don’t have a lot of experience with loose-leaf tea, the service delights, plain and simple.
“It’s fun to bring in loose [leaves] and to see guests watch us steep and infuse their tea,” Gamble says. “It’s really exciting to see the look on a kid’s face who hasn’t seen that before—like a science experiment happening right at your table.”
Residents of Sea Island, vacationers and aspiring chefs should be delighted to know that an entire culture of tea and its dynamics are out there, waiting to play a role in the future of food. “There are just so many different types of tea, and the flavors pair well with many foods,” Helfrich explains. “[Tea] really lends itself to chicken, seafood and pork … I can really enhance the ingredient that’s at the center of the plate with it.”
The chef recognizes that tea’s popularity has transcended brines and traditional services. “You see it more and more in pastries, soufflés, sorbet and ice cream,” he adds. “Our pastry chef has worked some of it in with truffles, too.”
Hayes agrees: “Normally at any restaurant in the South, sweet tea is what you get nine times out of 10. But there’s so much more that we do with tea. We’re trying to change some of the expectations from a tea standpoint, at a five-star location.”