The Dish

Chef Tom Power comes from the restaurant family that opened The Trellis and runs The Cheese Shop and Fat Canary in Williamsburg. During Fire, Flour & Fork he will be hosting a dinner with Manakintowne Specialty Growers and Dutch & Company on Sunday, Nov. 19.

What was it like to grow up in two high-profile restaurants?

I was 15 when The Trellis opened, kind of prime time to get a summer job. I was a busboy and washed dishes, typical high school work. I thought I wanted to be an engineer, but the engineering school and I agreed that wasn’t a good fit. Academics were not my strong suit, although I did well in culinary school. I was only at Virginia Tech a year, then I went to community college and remained at the restaurant as a server.

Really I didn’t know what to do with my life. I came to the conclusion that I really liked the restaurant business. Actually I never didn’t like the restaurant business. It’s an easy way for a young person to make some dough in the summer, and there’s lots of people your own age. It’s high pace, there’s camaraderie, and The Trellis was really a cool place to work. At the time, in the early 1980s, the whole food thing was evolving and there was a sense that we were doing something that was meaningful, more than just slinging hash. Marcel Desaulniers was a celebrity chef. It was impressive and people were there for special occasions and really pleased, so that influences how you feel about your work. It’s rewarding.

I was 22 and started thinking man I’ve got to do something with my life. I started cooking, and it’s very laborious and high pressure. Even remedial tasks are evaluated based on the quality of your work and how quickly you complete a project, so there’s constant pressure. It’s both mentally and physically challenging, and I felt really good at the end of the day. That plays a big role in why people like to cook, being able to go, “Man, I got my butt kicked, I gave it a really honest effort.” That’s what always kept drawing me in.

What pulled you away from Virginia?

When I graduated from the [Culinary Institute of America], like most young people, the last place I wanted to be was where I grew up. I wanted out. I had a cousin who lived in Southern California, so I moved to south of Laguna Beach. I started entry-level at a Ritz Carleton, the banquets prep guy. About two years in, that company got very aggressive with expanding and they wanted to have a hotel in every major city. They had a property in Maui and I got it.

I lived in Hawaii for three years. I stayed at the hotel for about a year, then Chef Roy Yamaguchi was opening a second restaurant and I got a Sous Chef position at the new place. I spent a couple years with them. I had my first son while we were there. I would probably still be there, but with family so far away, it’s kind of hard to raise kids without them knowing their grandparents and having some connection. We decided to move back. I thought I’d end up in DC, but I had a family tie to a little restaurant in Duck called the Blue Point. John Power, a cousin, needed help so we moved to the Outer Banks.

What did you learn by cooking elsewhere?

Everything. I got lucky. I had a friend who lived in New Orleans. He worked Commander’s Palace and so I ended up doing my externship there. The chef was Emeril Lagasse, before he was in the public eye. Emeril was a wild man, for sure. I was so green, I could barely keep up because the restaurant was so busy. It was incredible, I just got blown up every day with production. On Sundays I would work brunch and dinner and we would do a thousand covers. I’d be there 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. So the exposure to the workload was super important. I would not want to continue to work like that, but when you’re 22 it’s the best time to do it.

I also went in with all this culinary institute attitude about how perfectly-diced things had to be, and the real world is very different. The first day I was in there, someone was cooking a huge batch of pasta for family meal. It was in a giant skillet, a steam-jacketed thing with boiling water and a hydraulic lift so you can pour it. I walk in and this guy has a big perforated container and he’s dumping it and the whole floor is covered with salted pasta water. A minute later there are four guys with squeegees pushing it to the floor drain. They just made product in enormous batches. In school you make a one-egg hollandaise and get graded on it. At Commanders you made a five-gallon batch of hollandaise with a case of eggs. Pretty eye opening.

Why did you come back?

I had actually become a business partner with Sam McGann, John Powers’ partner. They decided to open a second place, called Ocean Boulevard in Kitty Hawk. I took over as Chef de Partie while they opened it. Then I began to feel like I could do this, run a place. I was talking to them about leaving and we came to an agreement to become partners. We opened a third place, more of a cheese shop, deli, restaurant and retail space. It was really cool, but we had three businesses at one time, and inevitably there are issues from being spread thin.

Then this opportunity came up, and it was a time in my life when I just knew it. The day we started to talk about potentially opening [Fat Canary], I knew this opportunity was what I needed to do. There was a process. There was an existing tenant, and we had to talk to Colonial Williamsburg, lots of negotiations. It took almost a year and a half to gut the building. I left the Outer Banks in 2002.

The current Cheese Shop building has been here since the 1940s, and we redid the whole thing. It was a bigger project than any of us expected. I was able to spend time in here when it was just a shell, and I taped out where I thought the kitchen should be. I had this chance to really think it through as opposed to being stuck with an existing kitchen. I could design it the way I wanted.  

The Cheese Shop is an institution, have you preserved it or changed it? 

The Cheese Shop is really great, and that stems from the fundamental business sense that my parents started with. When they started, the Cheese Shop was teeny – four employees. They were able to grow and sustain the same principles. And now we have 80-100 people on payroll. I don’t really participate in daily operations at the Cheese Shop, I have two sisters, much older, who are day to day operations, and both my parents are still involved.

I worked in the old Cheese Shop location during the remodel, and it was very eye opening to me, someone used to cooking fancy foie gras. Going in I think I was a little more puffed up. I thought “Ok, I can ‘fix’ this place, show them what’s up.” And it kind of went the other way. By the time we were through a year of that I had a more enlightened perspective.

What’s it like to be back home again?

It’s a little cliché, but when people leave for the same reasons I did and come back they often think, “Wow, this is actually a great place to live.” Williamsburg is one of those places that’s just a great town. Duke of Gloucester street I could argue is one of the coolest streets in the country, and we have a restaurant right on that street. I like going to work. I’m a lucky person. I have a great business, I’m proud of it and I love the town I live in. 

Click here to see more Q&As with Fire, Flour & Fork chefs.

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