by Susan Frampton
In the afternoon light along Augusta's Broad Street, the doors of one of the city's finest eating establishments open and close to a steady stream of waitstaff arriving early to begin preparations for the evening rush. it will be several hours before Frog Hollow Tavern opens for dinner, but along the rush of air escaping at the entrance of each staffer, increasingly tantalizing flavors waft out into the street.
Inside, the light, lemony perfume of roasting chicken mingles with early scents that the oven is beginning to coax from fresh, local vegetables. Like a happy memory long stored away, the aromas harken back to the pure flavors of a simpler time. In a black baseball cap, Sean Wight, the man responsible for reawakening Augusta's culinary senses, emerges from the kitchen. There is no hint of arrogance in the man that many consider to have launched the renaissance of Augusta's fine dining scene. Instead, the chef and restauranteur's boyish smile reveals that the spark ignited over dirty dishes still burns brightly in the grown man.
Wight's journey to Broad Street is one that took him to a circuitous route that began in Florida's tourist-driven Orlando and idled in sleepy Edgefield, SC for his high school years. It led him back to the sunshine state and a job at Disney World, then sent him crisscrossing the country following the Grateful Dead. The trek then deposited him to a South Florida culinary school for two years, before finally leading him back to the Augusta area - the place he feels is his true home.
He opened Old Edgefield Grill in 1999, an he was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the rising tide of the farm-to-table culinary revolution. "I knew a lot of farmers in Edgefield. They kept on bringing me all this free stuff like corn, peppers, eggplants, and broccoli, and I wanted to use it all. That's really how I got into using locally sourced food.
After ten years in Edgefielld, Wight turned his attention to downtown Augusta. "I just saw the potential there," he says of the area's wide main street and impressive architecture.
His high service standards and flavorful dishes made Frog Hollow an immediate success and helped to jump start Augusta's culinary renaissance. In addition, it brought renewed interest to the downtown area, playing a role that Wight firmly believes is vital to economic development.
The success of Frog Hollow Tavern led to his next endeavor, Farmhaus Burgers, which he opened in downtown in 2012. Wight saw a need, and says that the contemporary burger joint, featuring a custom grind of beef from local farmers, boozy "milk" shakes, and a full bar, "came about because I wanted a killer burger place to go to, and be able to get beer, and know what I was eating. I really like to know what I'm eating."
As busy as he is with the restaurants, Wight and his wife, Krista, a CPA who handles the books for Frog Hollow Hospitality Group, travel in the rare time they have off, to places like Atlanta and New York, to dine, and take note of what works in other cities. "We really liked the upscale bars we visited in some of those places, and thought that concept might work well in Augusta. In 2013, Craft & Vine became our third restaurant."
Once again, Wight's instincts for what the dining public craves paid off. Craft & Vine's hand-crafted cocktails, an impressive wine selection, and a selection of delectable small plates set amidst old wood and modern metal, draw a steady stream of savvy sippers to the cocktail bar and eatery.
Wight says that what he loves best about being a chef is that there is never a dull moment, and every day is different. If variety is indeed the spice of life, there will be plenty of zest in the days ahead for the chef's burgeoning empire, with plans in the works for a new downtown taco and tequila bar, serving fresh, hand-made tortillas.
Wight's success has truly been cultivated from the ground up. With a culinary philosophy based on the region's bountiful harvest, and Augusta's fertile fields of potential to plant the seeds of his ideas, the chef's roots in the area continue to grow stronger and deeper with each new endeavor.
But what he finds most fulfilling is to see people leave his restaurant happy. The phone rings as reservations are confirmed, and the staff begins subtly ramping up for the guests that will soon begin to arrive. As the flavors that have teased all afternoon come together, Wight presents a finished plate of roasted chicken and fresh vegetables - a feast for the eyes that immediately sets mouths watering.
"I just stick to quality ingredients, treated simply and respectfully," he says of the perfect dish destined to help make this night special for someone. "I'm not one of those new age chefs that do everything for your eyes - I do it for your belly. People going away with full bellies and smiles on their faces - that's what makes me happy!"