Written by Grace Ryan, Contributor
A small white farmhouse perched off Poinsett Highway, the exterior of the Oak Hill Café appears unassuming; however, the culinary experience harbored on the inside is anything but. Light pine floors and an open-concept dining area are a pleasant background for the true star of the show — the unconventional dishes the café serves. Yet Oak Hill, the brainchild of David Porras and Lori Nelsen, is much more than a restaurant. The building is a vessel, a tool to display their unique process of sourcing, preparing and delivering food to the diners of Greenville; a process not only delicious, but also sustainable.
Nelsen and Porras met almost serendipitously three years ago at a Furman faculty party. Nelsen was the manager of the chemistry lab, a position she had held for 20 years, and Porras’s wife had recently secured a job at the university. For some time, Nelsen had been contemplating a transition into the culinary industry and a single conversation with Porras convinced her to take the leap. Nelsen and her husband, Dr. Brent Nelsen (a current professor at Furman), swiftly purchased the 2.4 acres on which the restaurant and farm now reside, and Oak Hill began its transition from idea to reality.
It is evident why Nelsen, who holds an MS in Analytical Chemistry from Furman, and Porras, who boasts a Masters from the esteemed Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, Spain, make such perfect partners. Porras brings a comprehensive background of culinary knowledge to the project, and Nelsen brings expertise in both chemistry and environmental sciences; in other words, they know their stuff. Yet there is a secret ingredient in their relationship — their bold and daring approach to food.
The term “Farm to Table” is not comprehensive enough to describe Oak Hill. “Seed to Table” is a much more fitting label, and one that directly correlates to the restaurant’s mission: community. To start, the restaurant focuses on using hyperlocal ingredients. Their closest source is the café’s very own garden, found just steps from the bustling kitchen. A short walk allows restaurant-goers to peruse rows of produce that, depending on the season, could end up featured on their plate later that night.
If not grown onsite, almost all ingredients are sourced from farms within a 50-mile radius, a notion unheard of in the restaurant industry. Though this standard undoubtedly complicates the process of acquiring produce, Nelsen and Porras claim this “rule” is crucial to the philosophy of Oak Hill. For one, it benefits local farmers; instead of dealing with large corporations, the owners are stimulating the local agricultural economy. As Porras puts it, they are “looking out for those whom larger corporations ignore.” However, if their philosophical dedication to sustainability is not enough to draw customers through the rustic doors, Porras and Nelsen believe the menu’s avant-garde—and delicious—offerings are.
In addition to the fauna and froth offered daily, the café offers occasional 14-course tasting events, where their experimentation flourishes—think smooth Okra sorbet, calcium-hydroxide soaked squash, or tangy huckleberry jam. The more wary diner should not be dissuaded, however, as the menu also features elevated versions of more classic dishes, like the crowd-favorite buttermilk pancakes.
In sum, the Furman duo hope their culinary ingenuity and unique process will separate them from the other options of Greenville’s food scene. As the Post and Courier put it in a recent article, Oak Hill “deserves to be considered one of [Greenville’s] best.” Porras also let The Paladin in on an insider tip — be on the lookup for new additions to the dinner menu, as he is curating a pumpkin dish unlike any other, one guaranteed to make even the most timid taste buds dance.