The Cult of Cuisine

Virginia’s modern food moment.

Perhaps you’ve noticed: It seems you can’t turn a corner in the Commonwealth these days without stumbling over a craft brewery, tripping against a small-batch coffee roastery, stubbing your toe on an artisanal cheesemaker, or staggering into a closet-sized restaurant featuring reinterpreted biscuits and gravy and a bearded chef in a trucker’s hat.

Virginia, a food movement is afoot in our state.

Where once reigned Sunday dinners of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sweet tea, we find ourselves among brunch spreads of duck hash and trout roe and $12 cocktails crafted from microdistillery gin. In the land where once we simmered a green bean long past the point of surrender, we have freshly harvested vegetables you’ve never heard of artfully arranged against a bright gesture of saffron remoulade. Our grits are heirloom. Our pork is pastured. We do food trucks. We flock to farmers’ markets. We sriracha.

Across the state you’ll find an increasingly interwoven and expanding network of restaurants and specialty purveyors, festivals and events, small producers and diners all supporting a loosely defined, but collectively recognizable ethic that may be hard to name­—but you know it when you see it.

In tiny Meadowview in far southwest Virginia you can find local artisan goat cheese, sustainably harvested seafood, and “neo-Appalachian” cuisine at Harvest Table. In Staunton you can sit down to a prix-fixe three-course dinner, with venison sausage and braised rabbit served on mismatched crockery amidst communal tables at The Shack. And at FOODĒ in Fredericksburg, you can experience a Southern-rooted menu featuring locally sourced grass-fed beef, Virginia ciders and other seasonally rotating selections.

In Richmond last fall, you could have wandered from bison on stone-ground polenta to a five-course vegan tasting menu; from Rappahannock oysters to Surrey ham; from a “Battle for the Black Sea” dinner focused on Eastern European and Turkish cuisine to a Beaux Arts Ball featuring a flavorful mashup of the familiar (grits, apple butter) paired with the unexpected (quail eggs, Korean bibimbap). All this as part of the second Fire, Flour & Fork festival, a multi-day, multi-event and -venue “gathering for the food curious” headlined by dozens of culinary leaders and experts from around the state and around the country.

Exactly what unites these disparate elements and defines this movement might seem difficult to pin down at first in a dizzying variety of descriptors. It is organic, local, ethically sourced, seasonal, free-range, small-batch and micro-brewed—high and low culture, prix fixe and fast-casual—offal and blood sausage, but also “veg forward” and vegan glam. It is a polyglot of Southern traditions, classical cuisine and world flavors embraced and accelerated by food television and its cast of celebrity chefs as well as the viral power of social media—tweeted from the kitchen, Instagrammed at the bar and Yelped on the Uber ride home.

But if you sort through the profusion of apparently unrelated elements, you find, in fact, a common theme. What joins the hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint to the multi-course tastings menu, the small-batch coffee roastery to the farmers’ market tomato, the critically acclaimed chef to the couple sipping craft cocktails at the bar, is a simple shared ethic: quality and care. Whether it’s a biscuit or a beet, a braised rabbit or a bourbon and rye, the rules are the same: Source the best ingredients. Feature what’s local or seasonal whenever possible (because that’s what’s freshest and most flavorful). Prepare it thoughtfully. Serve it attentively.

Everything Old Is New Again

 “When you are taking things that are really common or familiar and making us see them differently, those are the kind of restaurants I like to go to,” says Leslie Pietrzyk, an author who lives in Alexandria. “You see how incredible even humble food can be when prepared with artistry.”

“I like that the food I am eating is ‘close at hand,’” says Caley Cantrell, who lives in Richmond and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I am not interested in the family tree of my Brussels sprouts. I am trusting that if this is what the chef believes in, then they are doing that work.”

“It doesn’t have to be expensive and rare,” agrees Arthur Grant of Virginia Beach, a former bartender who now works as a sales representative for a liquor distributor. “When they take incredible care with their cooking and there is a focus on manners and hospitality, that is very nourishing on a deeper level.”

And that attention to craft and detail is earning us another kind of attention, with an expanding feast of accolades for what’s cooking in the Commonwealth. “A culinary scene on the rise,” Travel & Leisure called Virginia, declaring, “There’s a sense in the food world that Virginia is coming up.” Esquire magazine named Virginia the “food region of 2014.” Virginia chefs, like Staunton’s Ian Boden of The Shack, Lee Gregory of Richmond’s Church-Hill-neighborhood nook The Roosevelt, and Dale Reitzer of the city’s Acacia restaurant, now make regular appearances on the James Beard Foundation’s list of annual award nominees.

Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton’s Rappahannock oysters earned a “Tastemaker” award from Food & Wine. The “Serious Cider” from Foggy Ridge Cider in the Blue Ridge mountains south of Floyd was chosen as the favorite from among a selection of American ciders sampled by a New York Times panel. The Wall Street Journal called the tasting menu at The Shack one of the best in the U.S. And when announcing the strong growth in tourism revenue in the state in 2014—more than $22.4 billion, an increase of some 4.1 percent over the previous year—Gov. Terry McAuliffe specifically cited Virginia’s burgeoning reputation as a foodie destination as an essential factor in that growth.

But for all the plaudits and “discoveries” about the Virginia food scene the national media has claimed, you could argue that what we’re doing is actually a return to our agrarian roots, when farm-to-table wasn’t so much an ethos as a necessity in a time before industrialization and mass production began to ship us Mexican peppers and South Asian shrimp during any season. In a 2011 profile of the Virginia-born Sean Brock, executive chef of the lauded Charleston restaurant Husk and formerly sous-chef at The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, The New Yorker magazine noted the extraordinary variety of home-grown and -hybridized vegetables and grains in particular that once made up this region’s diet. Now we’re in the midst of a rediscovered appreciation for that wealth, with heirloom seeds and breeds returning to our plates, even as we’re infusing a range of new global flavors into our already multicultural culinary tradition of American Indian, Anglo-European and African influences.

The newest crop of Virginia chefs are plumbing both the past and present for inspiration, and putting the results on their menus. Gregory says he began cooking “based on what I grew up eating on Sundays in South Carolina, and at family reunions,” but “using those regional or Southern ingredients to cook what we want to cook. So we’ll take local cabbage and make kimchee, or heirloom rice out of South Carolina and make fried rice.” As Gregory sees it, “We are not just riffing, but growing our own version of things.”

“Southern food is changing incredibly,” agrees Joy Crump, executive chef at FOODĒ (and now also Mercantile) in Fredericksburg. “Chefs are taking this food and everything that is comfortable about it and really pushing it to its heights in terms of the ingredients you pick and how you use them.”

Chef Joe Sparatta opened his first venture, Heritage, in Richmond (he has since partnered with Gregory on the city’s Southbound restaurant as well), as “a neighborhood restaurant using local produce as much as possible,” he says. He works with foragers to bring native and “forgotten foods,” like local mushrooms, or pawpaws and persimmons, to his menus. His focus, what inspires him, is “really cooking with your land and your seasons.” But you’ll also find him pairing Virginia peanuts or local mushrooms with bok choy and Thai basil.

The brother-and-sister team behind Sub Rosa bakery in Richmond, Evrim and Evin Dogu, draw together their Turkish family background and locally sourced, freshly stone-milled heirloom grains and other ingredients to bake crusty loaves of wheat or rye or polenta bread, pain au chocolat and croissants, or Turkish borek and pogaca, all pulled warm from a wood-fired oven. (The word is out, by the way—arrive too late in the day and often you’ll find the bakery already sold out.)

Boden acknowledges a wealth of influences that also inform his cooking, including old cookbooks, food historians, and his wife’s family’s Appalachian heritage. For a recent dinner in which Boden teamed up with guest chef Travis Milton of Richmond, the menu featured fried collards, lamb latkes and Tokyo turnips.

The effort to connect with the culinary traditions of our history extends to farms and producers across the state. The Virginia Food Heritage Project, begun in 2011 by UVA’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation, preserves heirloom plant and animal breeds that have declined in the face of industrial food production. The project connects farmers with chefs and diners to help incorporate traditional foodstuffs, like American persimmons and maple doughnuts, in to modern menus. The project has helped spawn similar organizations in other areas of the region, including the Central Appalachia Food Heritage Project, and has recruited some of the state’s top chefs, including Travis Milton, to serve on its board of directors.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Of course, whether it’s collards or kimchee on your plate, it doesn’t matter what you’re serving unless somebody’s eating. So who is sitting down at the table, and what are we looking for when we do?

You can’t get more dedicated to the job than Sanjay Hinduja, 45, and Ivanna Kokriatskaia, 43, possibly the foodiest two foodies in the Commonwealth (though for the record, they don’t particularly care for that term). The two, who work for Capital One and live in Richmond’s Far West End, tackle eating their way across the country and around the world with the single-minded determination of Ironman triathletes.

They call the search for that great place, that memorable experience a “chase,” a “challenge,” a “quest.” He has visited 648 (and counting) restaurants in Richmond alone, she’s tackled 572, and together they’ve dined through 18 different cities (some more than once) in the past two years. He spends more on eating out than his mortgage. She never orders the same thing twice. From street-vendor tacos to three-star Michelin Guide restaurants, “there is almost nothing we won’t eat or try,” he says.

They praise the “intimate, small, accessible, approachable” feel of some of the best of Virginia’s restaurants, like the Red Hen in Lexington. They like how neighborhoods in Richmond such as Church Hill and Jackson Ward are being developed with a growing selection of eating choices. They cite memorable experiences: an off-the-menu soup of mushrooms, pumpkin, apple, saffron and pomegranate seeds at Mel Oza’s Curry Craft in the city’s Carytown neighborhood (“fall in a bowl,” says Hinduja); the veal sweetbreads and lobster at L’Opposum in Oregon Hill; the rye bread at Sub Rosa bakery in Church Hill; the wings at 88 Garden on Midlothian Turnpike; the chicken biscuit at Saison downtown.

“The most difficult thing to nail is consistency,” says Hinduja. “Then it is all about ingredients and simplicity.” And in a small space—perhaps no more than 30 seats—“You can control a lot of things, you can only cook what’s fresh.”

“It translates into the food,” agrees Kokriatskaia.

A Lesson Before Dining

Admittedly, they’re aren’t enough Hindujas and Kokriatskaias, ready to try anything, to fill the seats of every new ramen shop and Guamanian eatery that opens its doors across the state. But over the past 15 to 20 years, what you might call the “hummusification” of Virginia has reached into the most distant corners of the state, broadening all our palates. What once might have seemed exotic—sushi, samosas, salsa—has become downright commonplace. You can get ginger-and-miso-flavored tuna tartare in Wise County, Cuban burgers in Harrisonburg, gravlax and escargot in Clifton Forge and guacamole in Big Stone Gap. Not to mention organic greens and quinoa at most Costcos.

Creating demand for what is fresh and local and uniquely our own—Virginia cider or cheese, forgotten vegetables (cardoon? greasy beans?) or more adventurous braised beef cheeks and roasted bone marrow (Maple Avenue Restaurant, Vienna) and rabbit pâté (Mas Tapas, Charlottesville)—is the result in no part of a steadily determined effort to cultivate new tastes and new expectations.

“Finally all these years later the Food Network has made its mark,” suggests Gregory. “People are aware of what they want to eat, and what they want to drink.”

“I feel that all what the last decade has been is education,” says Michelle Williams, who is executive chef and operating partner for the Richmond Restaurant Group, which operates six (and soon seven) restaurants in Richmond. This newfound comfort with previously unknown dishes is still ongoing, yet there’s no didacticism here. “We push our diners a little bit, but only if they want to be pushed,” explains Boden.

Some chefs, however, describe themselves more specifically as educators. In Roanoke, Diane Elliot, owner of farm-to-table restaurant Local Roots, says that rutabagas, turnips, pig’s ears—all items that have appeared on her menu, along with pickled chard stem, sunchokes, sorrel, and chicken-liver mousse—have to be served with a healthy portion of education. She perseveres because her restaurant is “a mission,” she says, grounded in an ethic of drawing from what is sustainable, seasonal and locally sourced.

Undeniably—due at least in part to social media and the Internet—a taste for pork belly and pastured eggs has become a new kind of cultural signifier for some, the millennial generation in particular, say trend-watchers. Just as having rare records from indie bands or attending word-of-mouth-only live shows can suggest an independent-minded cultural discernment, so too can your appreciation for single-origin cold brews and obscure taquerias set you apart from your Starbucks- and other chain-devoted peers.

Tony Doucet, 28, of Richmond, who admits his own interest in food was born of a steady diet of Food Network television, calls this culinary knowledge a form of “experiential currency,” a way to mark that though you might be a crowd-sourcer, you’re no crowd-follower. James Madison University sophomore Livvy Call thinks her generation has been steeped in greater awareness of issues like sustainability or the health consequences of what we eat, but she also thinks that their social media habit and supposedly fleeting attention span might also contribute to an interest in the latest foodie flavor of the week. Did you see it on Pinterest? Did your friend Snapchat it from the table? “We want different varieties and different cultures,” she says. “We always want something new.”

Yet there also seems to be a genuine hunger for an authentic connection with people and place, and a trust in the eccentric—in the best sense—vision of an individual chef or baker or bartender.

“I look for restaurants that pay attention to the seasons and what connects our palates with our emotions,” says Carter Nevill of Warrenton. “I want honesty and simplicity. I don’t need a thousand choices. I just need to know that whatever I order will be good.”

Harvest Our Strengths

Diners are eating more broadly and yet more thoughtfully, with a desire for both global flavors and locally sourced ingredients, and Virginia is ideally situated for that future.

“Where we live is the breadbasket of the East Coast,” says Boden, reeling off the abundance of Virginia’s resources in agriculture, aquaculture, viniculture and more. Oysters and cider. Goat cheese and stone-ground grits. Wild mushrooms and free-range turkeys. Heirloom tomatoes and smokehouse ham. Bourbon and cabernet. Ocean to mountains, Shenandoah Valley to Eastern Shore, horse country to Appalachia, we claim a wealth of environments, growing conditions and food traditions to feed our future.

“In a state this rich with agricultural tradition, it is a no-brainer that this will keep happening,” says chef-turned-artisanal-goat-cheese-maker Gail Hobbs-Page of Caromont Farm near Charlottesville. “I hope that people won’t see it as a trend but as a way to be Virginians.”

So maybe today, when Virginians gather around a table, if there are Rappahannock oysters, and Foggy Ridge cider, Caromont cheese and Sub Rosa bread, heritage grits and home-pickled beets, all served up on Snapchat with a side-order of national-press acclaim, then nevertheless it’s not so different from those Sundays at your grandmother’s.

There might be craft cocktails in place of sweet tea. In lieu of blue-rinse and a sweater set, your server might come elaborately tattooed and art-school dressed. There might be pork belly on the menu. Or farro. Or duck confit. Or kimchee.

But whatever the menu, it will be served with the same shared ethic: thoughtful preparation; carefully selected fresh ingredients; attentive and artful presentation.

Pass your plate.  


This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.

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