Chef Amalia Scatena
Photography by Eric Kelley | Words Stephanie Hunt
Maybe the secret to a stunning wedding is, in fact, quite simple – maybe it comes down to just one thing: marriage. At least that’s how it seems to work at Cannon Green, a versatile and sumptuous venue on up-and-coming Spring Street in the heart of downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
Here, marriage is both the essence of what makes Cannon Green’s aesthetic so appealing, and the key ingredient in Executive Chef Amalia Scatena’s cuisine. Take the ingenious reincarnation of a dilapidated 1840s Charleston Single House into this smart and airy tripartite dining room, courtyard, and trolley room (aka spacious reception hall) – marriages of old and new, historic and hip, where Old World elegance meets verdant contemporary style. Likewise, the flavors and dishes coming out of Scatena’s kitchen are a brilliant culinary matrimony of simple with sophisticated, local with Mediterranean, fresh with fresher. Scatena’s a matchmaker if ever there was one. Fresh-faced and upbeat, Amalia Scatena seems every bit the vibrant California girl she is, or was, growing up in the SanFrancisco Bay Area. But don’t let her strawberry blond hair and sparkling emerald eyes fool you – she’s got thick Italian blood, thanks to family roots in Lucca, Italy. Her father, a lawyer and the primary cook of the family, is a first generation American. Her mother, a talented musical theater singer and dancer, amped up the family’s creative juices – which, for Scatena, were always stirred in the kitchen. This was the early 1980s, and California cuisine was finding its nouveau-earthy groove, thanks to visionaries like A lice Waters, the pioneer of today’s farm-to-table ethos. After outings downtown to see her mother perform, Scatena, her younger brother Bill, and her parents would venture to one of San Francisco’s noteworthy restaurants, including Waters’ Chez Panisse and Hubert Keller’s trendsetting Fleur de Lys. “I didn’t fully appreciate t hen t he sort of amazing eat ing experience I was having,” Scatena admits. But when the family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, during her freshman year in high school, she realized that one of the many things she missed about California was its culinary depth and diversity. “I didn’t just fall into this [career] ,” she says, her smile as warm and bright as the cheerful Cannon Green environs, where lush plants and f loral designs by co-owner Anne Bowen Dabney are décor highlights. “It’s everything I [have] always wanted to do. I always loved the kitchen process, loved following recipes. There isn’t a lot of gray area with Italian cooking, ‘you make the vinaigrette, the Bolognese sauce, this way, not that’– but I was always modify ing. I was push ing t he boundaries at a young age,” says Amalia, who after graduation, when considering culinary school , similarly pushed geographic boundaries. “Going to Italy just made sense for me,” she says. As a student at the Culinary Institute of Florence, she traveled during school breaks and enjoyed the informal global education that came from sharing meals with international classmates. She mostly spent that first year exploring, without a clear career direction. However, that all changed when an apprenticeship back in Charlottesville under Chef Melissa Close at Barboursville Vineyards’ Palladio restaurant opened up. “I thrived in that classic Italian kitchen. I loved the pressure, the energy. I was 100% sure after a few days on the line that this was my path,” says Scatena, who ended up staying at Palladio for a year and a half. When she returned to Florence, she “was all business.” After graduating with Head Chef honors, Scatena returned to Virginia to join Chef Craig Hartman’s team as a line cook at Keswick Hall, an Orient Express hotel (now part of the Belmond group), where she did everything from breakfasts to banquets. Before long, she worked her way up to become Keswick’s Chef de Cuisine, getting to know Dean Porter Andrews, then the Senior Operating Officer of Orient Express, and Lynn Easton, a premier event and wedding planner, along the way. When Andrews and Easton launched a new venture of high-end boutique hotels and event venues, they knew Scatena was the culinary mastermind to bring their vision to flavorful fruition. “Amalia gets it. She’s as passionate as we are about offering our guests a memorable experience. Her culinary focus is local, seasonal ingredients in creative and fresh presentations,” says Andrews. Fast forward to Cannon Green, the latest addition to the Easton & Porter Group’s portfolio of distinctive properties. An architectural marvel in the heart of Charleston’s historic Cannonborough–Elliotborough neighborhood, the lively pulse of Cannon Green emanates from Scatena’s kitchen. Here she expounds on her early influences – her Italian heritage and California’s innovative cuisine – to honor the bounty of the earth, the robustness of local flavor, and the minimalist artistry of melding and match-making tastes, textures, and presentation. “I try not to do a lot to a product, just showcase the freshness of the ingredient,” says Scatena, who also oversees the culinary direction of all Easton & Porter properties, including collaborating with the chefs at Charleston’s Zero George Hotel and Pippin Hill in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s also thrilled to be back closer to the water in Charleston, as her infatuation with local seafood demonstrates. “I’m definitely pumped about the abundance and quality of fish and shellfish I’m finding here,” she says, basing menus on what her Johns Island seafood purveyor, St. Jude’s Farm, has fresh on the docks (her delicately zesty shrimp escabeche is a best-seller). All produce is seasonal and fresh from small local farms ; breads and pastries are house-made, and, of course, Scatena’s handcrafted pasta is a Cannon Green staple. This holds true whether a family comes to the restaurant for dinner, for brunch, or for the chef’s table experience, or if Scatena is feeding 200+ wedding guests. “We are reinvent ing the concept of catered food,” says Scatena, who infuses herbs and edible f lowers in most dishes. “They’re not just a flourish, they taste like something, [and they] add something,” she explains. She sits down with each couple to offer a special tasting and guide their choices to accentuate whatever will be in season on their particular date. Menus can range from charcuterie to traditional Low-country fare to basically whatever t he couple desires – as long as it passes Scatena’s one test: “My philosophy is excellence always,” she says. “I don’t believe you have to lower your standards just because you’re cooking for 200. I love creating a wedding dinner experience, say, of made-to-order pasta with local truffles and fresh arugula served table-side, and they’re like ‘Wow, what just happened? ’”
“I was looking for more than good technical training. I wanted to be immersed in the casual lifestyle of eating and cooking, to experience the whole culture of it,” says Scatena.
Read more in Issue 03