In 2008, South Carolina schoolteacher Erica McCier-Rayford experienced a brush with death that changed the course of her life. After suffering kidney failure, Erica was forced to leave her job and undergo dialysis treatments for five years as she awaited a transplant. During that time, she leaned into a love of cooking shows, which inspired her to attend culinary school in the days between treatments. It began as a positive distraction, but it set her on a path she never expected. To hear Erica tell it, “Becoming a chef was not my plan but my destiny.”
In 2021, Erica opened the doors to her restaurant, Indigenous Underground in Historic Downtown Abbeville, SC, which now serves as a gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Not long after, in early 2023, Erica was named one of South Carolina’s Chef Ambassadors. Since then, she’s been making the rounds offering demonstrations and education to celebrate the region’s cuisine and locally-grown products. We caught up with Erica to hear about her restaurant, her inspirations, and the cooking show that started it all!
Are you from Abbeville originally?
Erica: Yes, I was born and raised in Abbeville County.
Can you tell us a bit about the health scare that led you to culinary school? Did you have a love for cooking before your life changed course in that way?
Erica: I grew up in a large extended family whose main source of food came from my grandfather’s garden and from the livestock that he raised and processed. I was exposed to the farm-to-table concept at an early age but did not fully understand the benefits or importance of the concept until I became a chef. Before becoming a chef, I wouldn’t say that I had a passion for cooking, although I had huge exposure to observing my grandparents preparing meals for family. I would think that becoming a chef was not my plan but my destiny.
During the first few years of dialysis, I began watching a lot of shows on Food Network. It became a ritual for me that three days a week, during my treatments, I’d watch cooking shows. I loved watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats and just learning the science and techniques behind cooking.
One day, I decided to google culinary schools near me, and a few months later, I enrolled in Greenville Tech Culinary College. While on dialysis three days a week, I attend culinary classes two days a week. After a year into culinary school, I started my first business as a personal chef. Small dinner parties of four soon turned into dinner parties of 400.
What inspired the concept and name of your restaurant?
Erica: The concept for my restaurant and cuisine is what I’d consider Afro-Indigenous. It’s taking the ingredients that my ancestors utilized and giving them a contemporary flavor.
Describe the cuisine and experience at Indigenous Underground in three words.
Erica: Music. Food. Culture.
Tell us about your role as a South Carolina Chef Ambassador. What does that entail?
Erica: As a SC Chef Ambassador, I’ve been working with SC Certified farmers to educate the community of the agricultural community within our state. Seventy percent of our inventory comes from SC Certified farms.
Any big events or projects coming up that you can tease?
Erica: On October 26, we will be hosting our annual outdoor fall dining experience, which will feature five courses of SC Certified products.
Who or what is inspiring you right now?
Erica: Family inspires me. My biological family, along with my work family. I don’t do anything without considering how it affects them and how it impacts their growth.
What are your favorite places to dine around the South?
What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a business owner?
Erica: Building a business during COVID and breaking the stereotypes that a business owner who is a woman of color can only offer soul food.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Erica: To remain focused on my goals and who I am as an individual and that success comes with consistency.
Most memorable meal: My grandmother’s buttermilk biscuit with my grandfather’s homemade molasses. Growing up, there were always biscuits and molasses on the stove.
Favorite vacation spot: Thailand
Book(s) on your bedside table: [laughs] All cookbooks. The most recent is Between Harlem and Heaven by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls.
Three things you can’t live without: Family, great food, and music.
Thank you, Erica — we can’t wait to see what’s next for you! All photography provided by Old 96 District.
Give your inbox the Southern makeover it deserves. Subscribe to StyleBlueprint!