To say Josh Keeler is dedicated to the success of Two Boroughs Larder is an understatement. Since opening the restaurant with wife Heather in 2011, Keeler has worked almost every single day—missing once for a wedding, and the second time for a cold. Hard work comes easy to Keeler. Graduating from the New England Culinary Institute at 23, this one-time dishwasher with dreams of a culinary future has worked within the Starr Restaurant Group, and counts Arthur Cavaliere as his mentor.
Begun as a sandwich shop that would close at 7pm, Two Boroughs Larder has by necessity—and demand—morphed into the kind of place where creative, seasonal, idiosyncratic cooking reigns. And it’s a style that’s garnering national attention. Not only did Keeler’s burger—which he created as a concession to diners—earn a spot on Eater’s “25 Best” list, but the restaurant has been featured regularly in high-gloss publications like Food & Wine, Southern Living, and Travel & + Leisure. And Keeler himself was a James Beard semifinalist for “Best Chef Southeast.” Humble as ever, and a passionate supporter of Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” initiative, Keeler attributes his success to the staff and the restaurant itself where, presumably, he can be found most every day of the week.
Why: Food is a basic necessity but children accross this country live in homes where putting food on the table is a constant struggle. This lack of food means it is difficult for them to learn, grow and function. Working in an industry where we have access to so much food is a luxury. I feel it is my obligation to help children whose families can't provide enough healthy meals for them.
About: Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry and Cooking Matters campaigns are ending childhood hunger in America by ensuring all children get the healthy food they need, every day.
Interview with Chef Josh Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder – Charleston, SC
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Josh Keeler: It was a creative outlet for me. I grew up painting and drawing and being an artist. As I got older I didn’t anymore, and needed a creative outlet. My sister is a sous chef at Spats and so I went into cooking. I walked into a kitchen and never left.
I originally went to school for Environmental Science and hated it. I moved on to study Culinary Arts at New England Culinary Institute. They whipped me into shape. There was a lot of structure, which is what I needed. Not only did the kitchen give me a creative outlet but it had structure—what to do, when to do it, why and how. I was lost before then. I had only washed dishes, since I was a kid and didn't have much of a direction.
CH: What is the hardest thing you’ve done in your career?
JK: Open this restaurant, to take that leap from working for someone else to working for yourself. The stress in a kitchen is on someone else but becomes on you when you become a restaurant owner. I opened Two Boroughs Larder with my wife, Heather. We met in Philly, where she was managing a wine bar next to the restaurant I was working at. In under 2 years, we moved here, got married, and opened the restaurant. It was hard working on it together—to work, eat here, and be here 12-16 hours a day. It’s a difficult thing to find a time to be married and to be business partners.
CH: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JK: In Charleston we were really embraced as far as chefs taking you under their wing. Mike Lata has become a mentor to me about where I need to go and what I need to do. He has never been shy about giving his advice. Sean Brock pushed me to be creative and keeps pushing me in the direction I need to go in. These chefs are pushing people in the food scene to make it go that much further. Here, everyone knows each other. If we're not friends and supporting each other, then it all becomes fractured. The Charleston veterans push people to become friends and support each other. Purveyors come in and ask who to talk to and we refer them onto each other.
CH: To what extent is sustainability important to you?
JK: We do our best in supporting local people who practice what we admire, seed to tail. We use a seafood company and other local companies who deliver the produce themselves. They are cutting down our carbon footprint by not shipping it off to be processed, but selling to us. We talk to our younger cooks about these producers and by us promoting them, we’re setting that standard now for them. In Philadelphia no one told me who to support and what to order. Until I came here, I didn’t understand there was a local food scene. Sustainability is about educating our youth and setting a good example for the three schools here.
CH: Where will we find you in 5 years?
JK: I want to be cooking, in the kitchen. I don’t want to become a chef who is detached from the food they serve. That happens a lot. Some places need that, but I like the small restaurant. I'll only be 34, so I’ll still be young enough to be cooking. I’ll still be on the line.
Up until last week we only had three employees in the kitchen. A month ago we had two to three people on the floor, now there is four at most. We do 120 to150 covers a day. Food and wine started the restaurant. Business picked up and it changed what we were doing and the type of food we could serve. We could go further than we wanted. The bar keeps rising for us; we are doubling and tripling sales.