For Shaun Garcia, boredom has led to some of his favorite culinary inventions. One slow day, he decided to throw some vanilla beans into a smoker at Soby’s, the Greenville, South Carolina, restaurant where he works as executive chef. “We were knocking around some ideas on how to get a little more out of vanilla but stay true to our Southern roots,” he says. “I wanted something unique, so I thought why not get a little smoke on them.”
The next logical step was to make vanilla ice cream. “You get ice cream that has the sweet, musky smell of vanilla but follows up with this little bit of smoke.” It’s a natural on top of cobbler, of course, but Garcia says you don’t even need to get that fancy. “It’d be great in a root beer float, too.”
Garcia learned the simple pleasures of cooking and serving country food early. He grew up in Startex, a tiny community in Spartanburg County. It was named for the fabric milled there but became a ghost town after the mill closed in 1998. His grandmother ran a meat-and-three, using recipes that had been in the family for years. Garcia paid close attention to how she treated customers. “If some people showed up and my grandmother had already closed, she would turn the fryer back on to make another mess of chicken,” he says. “It ingrained a lot into me at a young age.”
He spent summer vacations and school breaks working in the family business, but as a teenager began to long for something else. “I was embarrassed about it,” he says. “And I was just so bored. I wanted to get as far away from the restaurant as I could.” He tried a few other jobs but soon realized that restaurant work had been baked into his DNA. “You’re absorbing all this stuff and you don’t realize it until you leave,” he says. So he rededicated himself to cooking, working his way up at a handful of restaurants before landing a job on the line at Soby’s in 2003.
Garcia is something of a Renaissance man. He makes his own leather aprons, paints with acrylics and oils, and grows heirloom vegetables. He collects books, too, and will sometimes create menus inspired by literature (apple slump for Little Women, or fried chicken for To Kill a Mockingbird).
Figuring out how to smoke vanilla beans wasn’t hard, but it required a little trial and error. Key, Garcia found out, is using the freshest, most pliable beans you can because the smoke adheres to the stickiness of the bean. Stay away from strongly scented wood like hickory, and make sure there is plenty of smoke circulating around the beans, whether you’re smoking them inside a Big Green Egg while a pork shoulder cooks or on a gas grill outfitted with a container of wood chips.
If you have enough smoke going, it takes only about fifteen minutes to get a good result. Just don’t put the beans over direct heat, Garcia says, or they’ll get too crispy. Once the beans are smoked, scrape their insides out and steep in the ice cream base. His is rich with egg yolks and cream, which provide a nice counterpoint to the flavor of smoke.
And like every good country cook, Garcia doesn’t want to waste anything. “After you take out the seeds,” he says, “throw the split beans into some bourbon and just let them steep. You won’t believe how good that is.”