“In the weeds” is restaurant slang for when a server or chef feels hopelessly behind and is struggling to catch up. For restaurant pastry chef Charley Scruggs, the term has quite a different meaning. The pastry chef and head baker at Terra in Columbia, South Carolina, spends his free time “in the weeds,” picking local dandelions for a unique component to his desserts.
Scruggs is passionate about finding new uses for flowers and weeds. This interest has led to new discoveries including the development of a dandelion syrup, which he is incorporating into his desserts and even sharing with the bar team. Traditionally considered a weed, there is no shortage of dandelions, and he forages the outskirts of local, organic farms to collect his new favorite ingredient.
Once he gathers enough dandelions, the pastry chef begins a fine-tuned process of creating a dandelion tea that he then transforms into a syrup. A new addition to the pastry menu, he recently created a caramelized honey tart with spiced cocoa and lime zest paired with goat’s milk ice cream — all drizzled with dandelion syrup.
“Five or six years ago, the trend of foraging started to get big, and dandelions are a big thing in the South,” says Scruggs, who joined Terra a year ago after working his way up the culinary ladder. “Some chefs use dandelion greens, which are spicy like arugula. I use the dandelion petals to make a sweet flower tea, which is bright yellow in color. I start with a cup of petals, chop up a half of a Granny Smith apple and half a squeezed lemon, bring the tea to a simmer and steep it for 30 minutes. The pectin from the apple thickens it up slightly. To make the syrup, I usually go with equal parts tea and sugar, and I’ll cook the sugar longer so it’s nice and thick. You get a very faint and nice flower flavor with great color and a little acidity.”
Born in Naples, Italy, Scruggs spent his formative years in many places, including Puerto Rico, Italy, Corpus Christi, Texas and St. Marys, Georgia. Between his mother’s Lebanese influence, his father’s North Carolina roots and his time spent living abroad, Scruggs developed an appreciation for worldly, innovative cuisines and often turns to his heritage for inspiration. He remembers stuffing grape leaves, shucking fresh beans and corn, and his mom’s sage advice to never pass up an opportunity to sample a new cuisine. Now, he approaches the culinary world with an inventive, multi-faceted, and versatile palate.
“My father was in the US Navy and my mother grew up in Lebanon — she made our lives very experience heavy,” he says. “We grew up eating za’atar (Lebanese flatbread). For me growing up, we were encouraged to try everything at least once.”
Upon completing his bachelor’s degree in humanities at Columbia International University, he realized his true passion for cooking and enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Culinary Program. Upon earning a culinary certificate, he began working in various kitchens and honing his skills as a pastry chef and baker.
Scruggs learned the basics of classic cooking under the tutelage of executive chef Blake Faries as a sous chef at Saluda’s Restaurant. Along the way, he continued developing his repertoire and learning new techniques in the kitchens at Wild Dunes Resort, The Oak Table, Rise Bakeshop and Tallulah. At Terra, Scruggs leads the pastry and baking program in one of Columbia’s most renowned and well-regarded restaurants. Upon joining the team in 2018, Scruggs initiated Terra’s exceptional bread program that translates to fresh-baked goods, pizza doughs, desserts and more. He also oversees the production of pastries, homemade ice creams, and rotating confections.
“Terra is ingredient focused with a menu that is approachable,” he says. “Our techniques are French traditional, and our style is fine French with a Southern twist. We’re so close to so many farms. We are all about finding what the farmer has and basing our food off that.”
Terra’s chef/owner Mike Davis grew up close to the ground in a farming family in Dothan, Alabama, and is a standard bearer for local, seasonal ingredients. Wood-oven-baked pizzas made with Columbia’s own Adluh Flour, incredible small plates and inventive desserts are perfect complements.
One challenge with relying on local ingredients can be consistency of supply. Scruggs points out that many farmers rely on high-volume cash crops like corn and sweet potatoes, and not many want to take a risk growing things they might not be able to sell. But local organizations help connect the dots between local farmers and local restaurants that are pushing the envelope for demand of creative ingredients.
“GrowFood Carolina is a nice program that will connect us to smaller farmers. The important thing is that it has to make sense for the farmer,” Scruggs says.
In his free time, Scruggs enjoys reading through new cookbooks, heading to the mountains and trying out recipe ideas in his kitchen at home. He’ll grab a book about regional wildflowers and read through the pages cover to cover. “For Columbia, people like familiarity,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun to see people’s response to the dandelion syrup. This dessert has been very successful because it is very simple and familiar.”