January 2019

5 Drinks With: Lucky Rooster Chef d’Cuisine Phillip Sirmans

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

The bass-playing rock star from Cranford Hollow talks his culinary background, Amish transportation, and the secret to keeping a whole band fed for $40.

Long-time CH readers may recall the “Five Drinks With” column from the magazine’s early years, penned by local legend Tom Bastek. With Big Tommy’s blessing, I’m proud to reintroduce this monthly sit-down drinking session with some of the Lowcountry’s most fascinating people.

Basically, we want you to meet the many rock stars, literal and figurative, that make our area special. And I couldn’t think of anyone better to inaugurate this space than Phillip Sirmans, who is both in the truest sense. Literally, as the bass player for Cranford Hollow, and figuratively as a culinary rock star who is raising the bar at Lucky Rooster.

Phillip is drinking:
Gin and tonic and a Jameson
“I’m into regular whiskeys, not all this bourbon stuff.”

I’m drinking:
Svensk Punsch, a traditional Caribbean/Swedish punch made with aged rum, Batavia arrack, spiced tea, Champagne and unbridled aggression from bartender Paul Rabe, who hand-smashes all the ice for the drink as if it owes him money. Seriously, the drink is worth it for the show alone.

I don’t think a lot of people realize you’re a chef. How long have you been cooking?
Since ’98, just as a high school job. I grew up watching my grandfather, just standing there watching him cook. In 2001, I opened a little country restaurant right out of high school in Tennille, Georgia called The Crossing. I don’t know if you know Tennille Georgia, but it’s pretty small. It’s pretty much defunct now. When I was there, there were only two restaurants and a hardware store. One lady owned most of the buildings and I rented the building from her, and she didn’t like that it was a restaurant and bar. She didn’t like the nightlife. Since we were the only place in town, I’d bring in bands and we’d do what I like to do: cook food and listen to music.

How did you get from there to the Ritz-Carlton?
They’d just built the one in Lake Oconee. They needed anyone who could cook, and I thought I needed to jump on that opportunity. I walk in and it’s me and four other chefs from other Ritz-Carlton properties who wanted a working vacation to check out the new property. Every day I was told there were way too many chiefs and I was the one Indian. I was green to all that.

And these are all seriously experienced chefs.

Yeah, from all over. France. Canada. I’m this Southern boy, and I was just trying to figure out their accents. They’d be throwing all these French terms; “brunoise this” and I’m just like, ‘So, you want me to cut it, right?’
The chef that I worked for, Scott Ross, was like, “You want to go to culinary school, right? You just walked into one.”

Sounds intense.
There were times I’d sleep in the parking lot because I lived 45 minutes away, so it was an hour round trip for four hours of sleep. Luckily, I had my shagging wagon, which was a giant cargo van I used for my old bands and stuff. I put wood walls in and a futon and of course brown shag carpeting. I remember working 85 hours one week. Then the next week I’d cut down to 60. If they were going to give me the hours, I was going to take them. I was young and I could do that. I don’t know if my body could take it now.

I worked there for about two years and then opened a steakhouse in Milledgeville with my buddy. I did that for two years then got a phone call from the Ritz-Carlton offering me a lot of money. They said, “We don’t have anybody that learned as quick as you.”

Were you cooking and playing back then, too?
I took a few years off for my first band, Daddy Hoovie. I spent a few years doing that and filling in at my buddy’s restaurant. I knew the restaurant, helped open it, so it was easy to kind of slide in there. That band—we were good, but it was more of a [mess] than Cranford Hollow. Milledgeville has Georgia College State University and Georgia Military Academy; it’s like if you take one block from Athens Georgia and plop it in the middle of nowhere.

(Going back through my notes, it’s unclear how the conversation turned to Amish kick scooters. But suffice it to say, that is some strong punch)

Wait, you do what?
I collect some of those Amish kick scooters, and I put motors on them. It’s sitting right over there. It’s like a giant Razor scooter, but with a 16-inch wheel on the front and a 26-inch wheel on the front. It’s like a hotrod.

And this is what the Amish ride around on?
A lot of the Amish weren’t allowed to ride bicycles, so they made these kick scooters to ride around on. At least that’s what I heard. Or that’s what I just made up.

It makes sense. You start with the bicycles and next thing you know you’re using smartphones. The bicycle is a gateway.
What brought you to Hilton Head?
The chef I worked for at the Ritz-Carlton, Scott Ross, I worked with him another time at Breakwater, but he took the executive chef at Long Cove job. One of my best friends Nick Berta came up here and was a sous chef. I said, ‘Sounds like you guys are having fun down there. Got any openings?’ They just said, ‘When can you start?’

And of course, you were like, ‘Give me two weeks, I’m traveling by Amish scooter.’
Yeah, exactly. ‘It’s gonna be a hot minute.’ I had been running a place called Aubrey Lanes. We were open six days a week, lunch and dinner, and I’d go in there on Sundays to do inventory, making sure everything was tight. I was crazy about inventory and keeping my food costs right. After two and a half years, I didn’t take a vacation. I’d play shows. I had a band then called Jake Outlaw and the Short 68. It was three of us, and the other two guys were my dishwashers. We played shows at the restaurant, and if we ever had a show anywhere else, I’d be down a chef and two dishwashers.

I came to Long Cove because I just wanted to cook with two of my best friends.

Were you still playing?
When I moved here, I sold off all my gigging and touring stuff except for one bass and one little amp and lived in the Days Inn. By February, I met Phil Mullins at the Lodge, and we started talking music. I told him I was a bass player and he said, ‘I got someone you have to meet. What are you doing Wednesday? Come to open mic.’

And that’s where I met John Cranford. We talked, shot the [breeze], whatever, and a week later me and him were playing a show together with his band Treble Jay at the old Remy’s behind New York City Pizza. I didn’t even know it existed. I had my bass down here, but I still didn’t have a car. I got to be good friends with Gary who worked for Yellow Cab. I remember telling him. ‘You’re going to need to bring the van tonight,’ and he told me, ‘I guess I’m your roadie now, too.’

So, you were playing with Treble Jay while working at Long Cove
It was just me, Nick and Scott Ross at Long Cove. There was another cook, I can’t remember her name. But it was just us. So, my two-week paystub would have 90 plus hours on it. By the end of a year, me and Nick were making our own lunch meats, curing our own ham, everything.

I’d play almost twice a weekend with them, so that meant doing my normal shift at work, getting home, cleaning up, calling the cab, getting all my gear in the taxi then playing a show from like 11 until 3, loading all my gear back into a taxi and getting home. And I had to work daytime. We did a Sunday brunch at Long Cove, so that was tough on a Saturday night. I’d be out until 3 and then have to be up and head into work on a bicycle at 7 a.m. to get the brunch rolling. Fortunately, I was good about prepping a lot ahead of time.

How long were you doing this?
A year. We did a little New Year’s show, and we all looked at each other and said, ‘We should do this Cranford & Sons thing. Like as our job.’ We were having a blast and we could get gigs. In my head I’m thinking I should jump on this opportunity. I was just 29 or 30. There are years down the road. I can become a chef when I’ve blown out my ears and can’t hear anymore. I can go back in kitchen and ignore people while I cook.

I put in my notice, quit, and in that first week I wrote six songs. I still had that kitchen mentality, where it’s 8 in the morning and I have to do something. I got with the band, John had written songs too, because he just hadn’t had an outlet for that. I think in April of that year we were in the studio.

From then, you guys were touring heavy, you were playing around here a lot…
That first year, for me and John, we did 289 shows between Cranford Hollow and Treble Jay. We treated it as if we were doing 50-60 hours in the kitchen, like we were used to, so we just crushed it.

That’s right, I forgot John had a culinary background too.

He was in the same mindset, I was used to working all the time, and he was the same way. So, we just crushed it. I don’t remember a lot of it, but we had a good time.

So, what are you guys doing now; are you scaling it back? You’re doing this, John’s running Coligny Theater with his wife…
We’ve been planning on scaling back. John got married last November, and Yannie Reynecke, our guitar player, is going on to do things with Angie Aparo off and on. We’ve been doing this for five years straight; we’d put out five albums and did four tours a year, so we decided just to hit the big shows for a year and then revisit. We have some things in the works. We might do a tour in Colorado.

I bet with a culinary background it’s hard to subsist on road food.
That’s the good thing about that. John and I did a summer tour, and I think we ate fast food like twice in seven weeks. We brought our own grill and a Traeger smoker and a box with pans, knives and everything. We’d camp out a lot since it was summer, and I would unhook the van while they set up campsite and take the van and $40 to the grocery store. I could feed all seven of us for $40, and you can’t get out of a fast food restaurant with that. I’d bring it back and we’d have a grand old meal from a then-former chef that was economical, tasty, and way better for us. We’d have salad entrée and sides for under $40.

What’s the secret to feeding that many people with $40? What do you get?
Whatever’s on sale. I literally didn’t go in with recipes or a menu n mind; I just see what needs to be eaten that day. I must have probably cooked 60-70 meals on the road. I’d do anything I could get my hands on. A lot of chicken thighs. A lot of pork loins, because usually we could get a pork loin for $12 and feed seven people meat, cutting it into individual cuts since I could get it cheaper in bulk.

We always had a salad. You gotta eat something a little healthy.

That’s the rock and roll lifestyle. No Jameson until you finish your salad. So, when did you start here at Lucky Rooster?
Last November. My buddy Nick worked here for a while, and I’ve known Clayton for a while. We’ve played shows here, and it was always my favorite restaurant. I knew the band was slowing down and he was in need of line cooks, and I was like, ‘I can do that. It could be fun. I haven’t been in a kitchen in six years, but I’m sure I still got it.’

Or at least a kitchen you didn’t have to pack up into the back of a van.
It’s weird because my buddy Gary Graham, who I ran the steakhouse with, he was actually here with Clayton. He worked here with Clayton and Nick Berta—they were both here at the same time. They met, and they were like, ‘You know Phil?’ Me and Gary have been in different restaurants together from the Ritz-Carlton to Milledgeville, but I never worked with him here. I love it here. I don’t have many bad days here.

How often do you play now?
I’ve been out since late September with a hand injury. I just played last week. It went through here and cut a nerve. I had surgery. It’s still numb right here. It’s usually called an avocado injury; for me it was a box and a dull knife. I immediately knew. My thumb just went pins and needles. I didn’t even look at it, I just gripped it, wrapped a towel around it and said, ‘Time to go to the hospital.’ I have therapy for it tomorrow. But I just played a private show with Cranford Hollow, and it was the first full show back. Wednesday, I played two-three songs with Bobby and Yannie wearing a brace.

So, are you a chef who plays bass or a bass player who can cook?
God, I don’t know. That’s weird, but yeah. I was playing bass before I really cooked, and I cooked before I really started playing bass. So, I guess the answer is yes.

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