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Sarah Staats and fiance John Kimbrell stand aside while Chef Patty Griffey checks on their pear-poaching technique and fellow student Lara Chamberlain looks on. Filled with mascarpone cheese and served with raspberry sauce, the pears are an elegant finish to the cooking-class meal.
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John Kimbrell, Paul Chamberlain and Matt Suggs take their turns charring the peppers. Everyone joins in when it is time to peel off the blackened skin.
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Patty Griffey, along with her husband, Mike, purchased Abingdon Manor in 1995. Original plans didn't include serving dinner, but there were no fine dining options nearby.
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Sous chef Jeff Grubb instructs Lee Anna Suggs about quantity and placement of filling for each ravioli pocket.
With a rolling up of the sleeves, seven apron-clad guests of Abingdon Manor begin their day. The kitchen is warm with the smell of brewed coffee, the camaraderie of friends and the promise of an elegant meal at day’s end—prepared by this mix of home cooks and somewhat nervous newbies.
Chef Patty Griffey sizes up her students with a smile that lets us know the only island in the room is the sizable one on which we’ll chop, whisk and stir. Cooking class is a team affair at Abingdon, and while the reputation of its AAA four-diamond dining room seems to be in the hands of novices today, it’s all good. The chef is an experienced pro, an expert at dishing out instruction with a heavy dollop of patience and praise and a pinch (or two or three) of laughter for good measure.
“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be fixed,” she reassures the not-so-sure. “It’s just food. You can’t break it.”
It was a message I needed to hear. Having twice dined at the gracious country inn, located 25 miles down the road from Florence in the quaint town of Latta, I was well aware of the high expectations of guests and equally aware of how impeccably Abingdon delivers on those expectations. A place at the table here feels like a splurge, the stuff of dreamy dining experiences and ultimate foodie fulfillment. But relax those pinkies—this is fine dining without the high-brow stuffiness, thanks to the warm demeanor of Griffey, her husband, Mike, and a friendly, attentive staff.
“While the focus is on fine dining, we hope to make it feel like entertaining at home,” says Griffey, who opened the dining room in 2000. “Abingdon Manor is a chance to slow down a little and enjoy life the way it used to be in a genteel, civilized fashion.”
And that relaxed air permeates the atmosphere of our cooking class. That is, until Griffey reminds us that what happens in the Abingdon kitchen won’t stay in the Abingdon kitchen. What we’re preparing today will grace our plates as well as the plates of other guests for that night’s dinner. No pressure, right?
“You’ve got this,” Griffey insists, and we nod in unison, a septet of bobbleheads who’ve hit a street bump.
Gourmet boot camp
I am the “seventh” wheel today, tagging along with a class of three couples: John Kimbrell and Sarah Staats, a newly engaged pair from Atlanta; and Brig. Gen. Paul Chamberlain, his wife, Lara, Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Suggs, and his wife, Lee Anna, all of Fort Jackson in Columbia. John arranged an overnight stay and cooking class at Abingdon to celebrate Sarah’s birthday, and the military folk are here as part of a birthday surprise for Lara. Paul and Matthew, who oversee the Soldier Support Institute, are about to get their hands dirty in a way they didn’t train for in boot camp.
“I definitely have some trepidation,” Matthew says with a grin. “I am here to build some confidence in the kitchen.”
The women see their turn at the Abingdon cooking school, well, a bit differently.
“To do this as a couple is just fun,” says Lee Anna, to which Lara adds, “It’s a good way to refresh your marriage.”
The cooking school at Abingdon Manor caters to couples and groups of individuals who long for a little hands-on kitchen action to complement an otherwise laid-back getaway. A variety of class options are offered, with or without overnight stays, and include personalized aprons, wine sipping and a recipe booklet so you can recreate your masterpieces at home.
Today’s class begins with a two-hour morning session during which we’ll prepare roasted red pepper soup, shredded collard salad with walnuts and pickled apples, Hpnotiq sorbet, and Campari-poached pears with raspberry sauce.
While the women lean in comfortably, the men hover behind, their nervous smiles played up by the jocular bantering they dish out to one another. We flip to the first page of our recipe booklets. For starters, there’s roasted red pepper soup, and we are faced with our first challenge: how to roast the peppers and prepare them for the soup pot.
Griffey fires up all six eyes of a serious-looking, cast-iron stovetop, and someone jokingly calls for the marshmallows. Using tongs, she grasps a freshly washed-and-dried red pepper, about the size of a cat’s head, and lays it directly on one eye. We watch, entranced, as the flames lick the slick red skin, our olfactory alarms set off by the “something’s burning” aroma blooming in the air.
“You want it to get nice and blackened all over—this is one time where I want you to burn the food,” Griffey says, laughing. And just like that, the culinary question is no longer whether we can cook an edible dish, but whether we are adept enough to incinerate a vegetable.
We watch, our eyes like saucers, as she plucks the pepper from the flame and displays the charred skin. Taking turns in groups of three, we attempt the same, hovering over the blistering veggies like they are eggs about to hatch. And then, something magical happens—we are wielding our tongs with more authority, turning the peppers on each side, comparing results and, finally, settling them down into a brown grocery bag, which Griffey quickly closes so the veggies can steam. She says this helps the skin come off more easily, and we experience the truth of that a few minutes later as we wipe away the charred surface with paper towels.
Within minutes, we have sliced the roasted peppers, mixed them with some chicken stock and other ingredients, then pureed it all with a hand blender, a handy gadget that we take turns immersing in the mixture and pulsing until we have a velvety soup. A sampling is distributed in tiny cups for tasting. Did we just make that? Judging by the looks of wonder on our faces, a kitchen miracle has just occurred.
“My hope is that everyone will learn something, be it a new technique, a new tool or that food doesn’t have to be complicated to be good,” says Griffey, whose most memorable teaching moment was showing a hand surgeon how to cut and french a rack of veal.
Indeed, any intimidation we began the day with has gradually evaporated, a fact we don’t pick up on until a little after noon. That’s when we realize another miracle has occurred: We’ve scratched off every dish on our morning list of recipes. We are giddy as Griffey recommends some Latta eateries and duly releases us to find lunch. At 1:30 p.m., we will begin preparing the second series of courses for tonight’s dinner.
History of dining at Abingdon
Adding a dining component at Abingdon Manor was not originally part of the Griffeys’ vision for the country inn, which they acquired in 1995. Trading the high energy of Miami for a gentler way of life, the Griffeys chose the Latta landmark partly for its proximity to I-95 and partly for its bucolic setting. But living here had a major drawback: Guests had to leave the property in search of dining options, few of which complemented the Abingdon experience.
“We knew we would lose the repeat overnight business if they [the guests] didn’t have an excellent place to dine,” Griffey says. “Once we embarked on the journey, we decided to do it in a manner similar to what we experienced traveling in England and Scotland, staying at manor-house hotels with fine dining.”
Having honed her skills through years of gourmet cooking classes and hosting countless formal dinner parties, Griffey—South Carolina’s own version of Martha Stewart—was confident in her ability to establish a dining room worthy of Abingdon Manor.
“I enjoy the process of planning, shopping and executing meals that are tasty but made more special by being served on china with silver and crystal,” she says.
Making the grade
The first cooking class was offered in 2002. Today, I am a part of class number 104, though Griffey treats us as if we are the most important group to ever wear Abingdon aprons. That fuels our determination to get things right and make our teacher proud.
The afternoon session is led by Griffey’s right hand, Jeff Grubb, who’s been assisting as sous chef since the dining room opened. He leads us through the steps of making focaccia, rolling out an impressive litany of bread-making do’s and don’ts along the way.
Wine is passed as we finish the remainder of the menu: ravioli with spinach, prosciutto and goat cheese with portwine reduction, and lobster thermidor. We crank sheets of dough through a pasta machine, fill and seal them, then slit lobster tails, carefully prying out the prized, sweet meat.
I sit back on a stool to observe and jot down a few notes. As I look around, I no longer see the awkward foodies that began this culinary journey. We are a team of budding gourmets, and we’ve prepared a sumptuous meal worthy of the tables at Abingdon Manor.
307 Church St., Latta
(843) 752-5090 or (888) 752-5090
COOKING CLASSES are usually slated once a month for a maximum of six people. Special requests for dates are sometimes accommodated for groups of four to six. The tastes, dietary limitations and interests of participants are taken into consideration for menu planning.
Packages include a two-night weekend stay, with breakfast each morning, dinner each night and Saturday cooking classes, for $440 per person; Saturday-night accommodations with dinner and cooking classes for $275 per person; and a classes-and-dinner-only day package for $175 per person. All packages include cooking classes, wine sipping, recipe booklet, aprons, tax and gratuity. Gift certificates are available.
THE ABINGDON MANOR DINING ROOM is open to the public for dinner Monday through Saturday, by reservation only. The six-course, prix fixe dinner is $55 per person, plus tax and gratuity. If you’d like to include a wine pairing, the cost is $77.50. Cocktails and wine are served in the parlors at 7 p.m.; dinner begins at 7:30 p.m.—one seating only. For overnight guests, dinner is served seven days a week. Monthly menus are posted on the website.