After more than 20 years as one of Hilton Head Island’s premier caterers, Lori Craven is is also making her mark on the dessert world. Her company Palmetto Sweets was created to showcase her signature honey pecan bars — originally a thank-you gift to clients and now a regional favorite. Made with local honey and pecans, sweet cream, butter, brown sugar and molasses on top of rich shortbread, they embody some of the best-loved tastes of the South.
Craven’s long catering career has had many high points — she has catered for three South Carolina governors, for U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and, years ago, for Walter Cronkite. She has presented intimate dinners for two and events for 800 people. But her talents extend far beyond the culinary arts; she also is an accomplished artist inspired by the late American painter Ray Ellis, who once invited her to his studio to paint with him.
“My work isn’t remotely like his, but I thought he captured watercolor so well,” she said.
For inspiration, she rides her bike on Hilton Head Island and carefully observes the Lowcountry landscape and natural world.
“I paint what is around me,” she said.
IF YOU START OUT WITH EXCEPTIONAL INGREDIENTS, YOU DON’T HAVE TO DOCTOR THEM UP.
– LORI CRAVEN
Craven, who works in watercolors and oils, has had two art shows at Red Piano Gallery on Hilton Head Island. The first was right after she’d been diagnosed with cancer.
“I didn’t care if it was the last breath I took, I was going to have that art show,” she said.
When it comes to her cooking, the kitchen is her blank canvas and her ingredients are her paints.
“If you start out with exceptional ingredients, you don’t have to doctor them up,” she said. “You want color and variety. It’s a feast for your eyes as well as your taste buds and your senses.”
That’s especially true for her honey pecan bars: Wrapped in elegant paper and tied with grosgrain ribbon, these decadent treats are often given as wedding favors, holiday presents and hostess gifts.
She comes by her love of fresh, amazing ingredients naturally. Growing up in Florida, she enjoyed grapefruits, oranges and mangoes from trees in her yard, while her mother cooked elaborate meals and her father manned the grill.
“We had avocado, tomatoes and herbs from the garden and would grill fish or lobster right off the boat that my brother had just caught,” she said.
Craven’s palate and artistic eye were influenced by her travels and her grandparents — who grew up on farms and loved cheeses, cured meats and home-grown vegetables. One of her favorite food memories is the first time she was served whole fish, in Charleston, and meals at New Orleans institutions like Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s. But it wasn’t until college — she attended Stetson University, where she studied art and special education — that she began to take cooking and painting more seriously.
After college, Craven moved to Hilton Head — where her parents had a second home — to run an art gallery and work area restaurants.
“I worked in Harbour Town for Signe Gardo (owner of Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café) in 1973,” she said. “I’m grateful to her for that.”
Craven also studied under chef Horst Semper, a veteran of New York City’s famed Rainbow Room.
“I learned about wine and how to make bouillabaisse,” she said. “It wasn’t only about the food; he taught me about service. [When the client says] ‘Jump,’ you say, ‘How high?’”
Craven still caters for many local clients who have been with her from the start. “My food and art are very personal passions that I enjoy sharing with the people in my life and those I meet through my work,” she said. “I thank my parents for instilling in me a sense of adventure and creativity, determination, love of nature and the independence to follow my dreams.”