An Aiken chef who spotlights products from local farmers on his menus will share his dishes at a larger table – the state of South Carolina - this year.

Aiken native Jason Tufts, the executive chef at Malia's on Laurens Street, is one of four 2020 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers and S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Duane Parrish named the participants from a large pool of nominations in late January. The four chefs were chosen for the quality of their provisions and their dedication to incorporating healthy, locally grown ingredients into their menus, according to a news release from SCPRT.

“They look at chefs who are committed to procuring and using local ingredients – and when I say local, I mean South Carolina products – to help promote tourism and agriculture in our state,” Tufts said. “I'm completely blown away and humbled to represent Aiken, my hometown; my region; and my restaurant. Our awesome town is finally getting a little recognition statewide.”

Tufts said cooking with local food products is important not only for maintaining sustainability but also for helping people get to the root of where and when the food on their tables is grown.

“As a people and in society today, we have really lost touch with food – where our foods come from, what foods are in season. We can get tomatoes year-round now. They're not the best tomatoes, but we can get them,” he said.

That disconnect between farm and table compromises quality, Tufts said.

“I feel it's important to bring to the public knowledge of fresh produce in season, what tastes good, what's the highest quality,” he said. “As a chef, you want to take high quality products, do less manipulation and let the products speak for themselves. I believe a truly talented chef doesn't need a whole lot of seasonings. He's choosing good, quality products and enhancing their natural attributes.”

Tufts said Aiken County has “awesome farmers” with products that enhance Malia's menu.

“I can get local honey from my best friend's dad growing up – that's awesome,” he said. “We get beautiful tomatoes and petite squash – just quality ingredients – from Robert and Hollie Gartman, who have a small farm. We were getting local microgreens from a gentleman who just closed shop.”

Tufts said Chef Matthew Shackleton, the co-owner of Malia's, has developed strong relationships with local farmers who sell their products at the Aiken County Farmers Market on Williamsburg Street.

“By extension, I've made these really great relationships, too,” he said.

Tufts said Malia's bills its menu as new American cuisine with a Southern twist.

“Obviously, we're really entrenched in Southern cuisine and producing it, but Chef Matthew and I put what we call 'Malia's spin' on it,” he said. “So we don't just do pimento cheese. We do white cheddar, jalapeño pimento cheese with fried green tomatoes, things like that.”

But Tufts said he doesn't have a defined style of cooking or a favorite dish.

“Me, personally, it's really what I'm in the mood for,” he said. “I like to learn different cultures, different techniques, different recipes, different ingredients. It really depends on what I'm cooking. If I'm cooking Italian, I really want to go authentic. My family is Italian. If I'm learning Indian, I want to procure authentic ingredients and proper equipment and learn and be a student of the craft.”

As part of their duties, the ambassadors will represent South Carolina at special events, food festivals and media missions throughout the year, according to the SCPRT news release. Dishes will be made with certified South Carolina produce, meats and seafood to deliver an authentic Palmetto State meal, according to the release.

For his first event as an ambassador, the opening evening of the Charleston Wine and Food Festival March 4-8, Tufts will use quail donated by Manchester Farms in Columbia.

Tufts, a son of Laura Jarvi, said he always wanted to be a chef, except for a time as a teenager when he fantasized about being a rock star drummer. He also spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking with his grandmother, Isabelle Cavalcante.

“At least I had common sense to know I was never going to make it in music. My Mom said, 'There's a culinary school in Charleston. You should apply,'” Tufts said. “I applied and almost forgot about it. I did a chef certificate program at Aiken Tech. The day I got back from my last day of class, my acceptance letter was waiting for me.”

Obviously, Mom knew best.

Since graduating from Johnson and Wales University in Charleston in 1999, Tufts has been the executive chef at the Doctors Hospital in Augusta, at the Green Boundary Club and Woodside Plantation Country Club in Aiken.

Brandon Velie, the owner of Juniper restaurant in Ridge Spring, nominated Tufts to be a South Carolina Chef Ambassador. Velie was in the first class of ambassadors in 2014.

“It's just a ridiculous honor,” Tufts said.

​Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.