Photo by Milton Morris
Downtown Florence cuisine
As executive chef at Victors, Cooper Thomas caters to downtown hotel guests, as well as locals stopping by for weekday lunch, elegant dinners or Sunday brunch.
Pick a culinary challenge, and Cooper Thomas has likely been there, done that.
Cooked at a four-star, Lowcountry restaurant? Check. Manned the grill at a Charleston deli? Yep. Supervised 45,000 meals a week as head of a university’s dining service? Did that, too.
“I have told myself I would always try new things if the opportunity was there,” says the 43-year-old Thomas, whose mix of cooking adventures has led him to Victors, a longtime Florence eatery (formerly Victor’s Bistro), which became a full-day restaurant and bar when it relocated to the lobby of the Hotel Florence downtown.
“He brought to the table everything you’d want in terms of experience, creativity, great people skills and great knowledge,” Victors owner Tim Norwood says of his general manager and executive chef, singling out Thomas’ boiled peanut hummus as a sample of his creative cookery with Southern flair.
Thomas has come a long way since that first deli job. “At that point, I was just like a sponge, trying to soak up as much as I could,” he says. “I didn’t really think I was going to be a chef. I was just cooking.”
And reveling in it. He loved learning about food—“the processes, the science behind it, the joy of people eating something I made.”
He enrolled at Charleston’s Johnson & Wales University to study culinary arts and, simultaneously, stumbled into a job at the elegant Charleston Grill at Charleston Place.
“My first real dinner kitchen job was at this four-star, four-diamond restaurant I probably didn’t have enough experience to be working at,” he says. But it laid a foundation in French-influenced Southern cooking with high-quality, fresh ingredients.
Every job thereafter fed a hunger to learn more—resort and country club dining, banquets, catering, institutional food service, an upscale steak-house. His experiences show up on Victors’ menu in dishes with a familiar Southern appeal and a nod to sophisticated tastes.
“We try to make it unique, but not so over the top that it’s going to scare people. We’re still in the South,” says the Columbia native, who, for the past year, has promoted S.C. agriculture as one of the state’s Chef Ambassadors.
High-end steaks are standards, and flavorful prime rib stuffs the restaurant’s top-selling French dip sandwich. Thomas’ Cajun macaroni and cheese topped with lobster is a signature dish. The seared tuna with wasabi vinaigrette is so popular, it’s offered as both an appetizer and a dinner entree.
When it comes to desserts, Thomas shares the limelight with Peggy Paul Yarborough, Victors’ resident piano player and cheesecake maker, whose banana praline cheesecake attracts customers all on its own. Thomas’ innovations alongside traditional favorites like “Miss Peggy’s” cheesecakes has proven to be the right mix for Victors in its new home.
“We are a special-occasion place,” Norwood says. “But we want to be an occasion place you want to come to several times a week.”
SERVES 4 AS ENTREE OR 8 AS APPETIZER
2 cups canola oil
24 shrimp, peeled, tail on
1 cup flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup pecan breading (recipe below)
Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet until it just starts to smoke. Dredge the shrimp, one at a time, in flour, then dip in buttermilk, then dredge in pecan breading. Once all shrimp are breaded, carefully add half of them to hot oil. Fry shrimp on both sides until breading is a deep golden brown. Remove shrimp to a towel-lined plate, then cook the second half. Serve with Cajun-seasoned honey mustard.
2 cups toasted pecans
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend well. If mixture is too moist, add more panko, a little at a time. Store in airtight container until ready to use.
126 W. Evans St., Florence | (843) 665-0846 | victorsflorence.com
Hours: Monday - Thursday, 6:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–10 p.m.