Dinner & A Show

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Cooking school was never this fun.

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At A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg, a last touch of bourbon on candied walnuts
adds to John Gonzales’ impact.

photography by KEITH LANPHER

John Gonzales pours nuts onto a cloth napkin and folds it in thirds. He’s wearing a double-breasted chef’s jacket and a lapel microphone, and he’s showing his audience how to break pecans into pretty pieces for the sauce for the night’s dessert.

“Julia Child would probably just grab a skillet and whack them,” he says, “but I’m going to go with a mallet. You can do this in the food processor, but then the ones on the bottom turn to dust and the ones at the top float around like cows at the top of the tornado.”

Gonzales, 60, is co-owner and executive chef of A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg. He also is a cookbook author and a performance artist whose medium is food. Behind him, stainless steel pans and bowls and skillets are stacked on open shelves. Ladles, tongs and spatulas hang or sprout from countertop canisters or are otherwise arrayed for easy reach when the bourbon flares or it’s time to de glace du fond, “which is French for ‘scrape up the brown bits in the bottom of the pan.’ ”

These, plus a Viking stove and a series of ovens, are his tools.

Tiered in front of him are three long tables, each place set with four forks, two spoons, and three wine glasses. Seated are 26 people, slightly lubricated with Champagne and eager not just to eat Gonzales’ cooking but also to learn how he makes it. Some have traveled from as far away as Ohio and Wisconsin, here for an anniversary or birthday, a few having timed their trips for his venison feast held every fall. To Gonzales’ side is his sous chef, Nick Allen, who doesn’t even glance down at the onions he’s slicing thin enough to read through.

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Teaching is a natural part of Gonzales’ professional arc, which includes the Watergate,
the Jockey Club,two of his own restaurants and Colonial Williamsburg.
Two Williamsburg cookbooks bear his name.

The idea for this combination restaurant and cooking school was born back in 2001, when Gonzales and his wife, Wanda Gonzales, were eating lunch at a many-TV’d sports bar in northern Michigan. Around them were bearded, plaid-shirted men, all of them watching Emeril Live on the Food Network, and John lamented aloud that while everyone got to watch the food being prepared, very few people got to actually taste it. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a restaurant where he could teach people how to cook what they were being served?

Gonzales (the second syllable rhymes with “sales”) grew up in Williamsburg in the Robert Carter house, right next to the Governor’s Palace. His father, Donald J. Gonzales, was a vice president in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation under longtime president Carl Humelsine. Young John moved to Holland, Michigan, in the early ’70s to attend college, where he washed dishes at night to cover costs.

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New Zealand Cervena venison with bing cherry gastrique, roasted green beans,
and butternut squash and parsnip puree.

“I lasted three months,” he says, and his audience laughs.

His trajectory changed when two of the night cooks drunkenly sneaked into the kitchen to dress a couple of deer they’d shot off-season. The owner caught them and the police were called.

“When I came to work at 4 that afternoon I found out that I had been promoted,” Gonzales says, “and I’ve been cooking ever since.”

He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America – “what we call the CIA,” he says – and was executive chef at the Watergate Hotel and the Jockey Club in Washington’s Fairfax Hotel, which became the Ritz-Carlton – “and they didn’t fire me, so that looks like a big jump on my resume.” He owned two restaurants – one in Maryland, one in West Virginia – and eventually was invited back to Williamsburg to take charge of the historic area’s taverns.

While there he wrote two cookbooks – The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook and Holiday Fare: Favorite Williamsburg Recipes – the latter of which contains the recipe for this night’s corn bread.

The first thing you do with the corn bread recipe,” he says, twirling butter in a pre-heated cast iron pan until it’s brown, its sugar caramelized, “is follow it. This is baking, so it requires precision. It’s not like making a soup, where you can throw in the spare pepper in the bottom drawer.”

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With Nick Allen assisting, Gonzales steers a joy ride of science and art:
Time the baking soda precisely; shun salt containing calcium silicate.
Hanging monitors provide close-ups for the students, who must book months ahead.

He’s using unsalted butter, because salt interferes with the chemistry of the cooking and keeps the butter from turning brown. “And they’re going to add the lousy kind of salt to it,” Gonzales says, “so we don’t want to buy salt from the butter company.”

He pours a handful of Beattie’s corn meal out of its yellow bag and demonstrates how it clumps in his fist. “Quaker brand is like dry sand-meal; it settles out in the bottom of your corn bread. You need a Southern-style stone-ground.”

Next he holds up a red-labeled box of Diamond Crystal kosher salt. “This is what we use, and here’s why.” He tilts his head and reads the label through his bifocals. “What it says on the side here, ‘Ingredient. Singular. Colon. Salt.’ Heaven forbid you use this trash,” he says, holding up a blue cylinder, Morton’s. “Ingredients – with an ‘s.’ It has four of them – including sugar and calcium silicate, which is the stuff you get in the box when you buy new tennis shoes. Don’t use that.”

Next comes bicarbonate of soda, the base that will combine with an acid plus moisture to create the bubbles that will make the cornbread fluffy. “Without leavening this would be tough, chewy, gooey, corn meal mush,” he says. “I know this from experience; one of the reasons Nick is standing there watching what I do is because I get talking about these ingredients and sometimes forget to put them in.”

Nick Allen, 26, is also a CIA-trained Williamsburg native, who detoured to Sicily, then returned two years ago and began work at A Chef’s Kitchen.

Gonzales shakes baking soda into a cup and adds water. Nothing happens. “But watch this,” he says, and pours in vinegar. The mixture churns and bubbles over like a volcano at a science fair. “You have to have an acid and a base to make the bubbles, but don’t activate them too soon or they’ll go flat. That means don’t mix them and then turn on the oven. All of your fizzle will be gone and your cornbread will be a brick.”

Dinner classes at the restaurant run for three hours, each course paired with what the Gonzaleses call a “great-find” wine. The menu this night includes a cauliflower and corn chowder served with Fabrini Marche Chardonnay 2012. “This wine comes from Italy, on the Adriatic side,” Gonzales says, drawing maps in the air. “So look at Florence and look at Tuscany, and it’s to the right.”

It and dozens of other wines are available in the shop in front of the restaurant. All of the wines are $10, and each is selected by the Gonzaleses. “We always had wine with dinner – back when we got to have dinner together,” says Wanda Gonzales, “so we started trying to find the best low-budget wines. Then we thought it would be nice to have a store with wines for $10 a bottle that you know will be good.”

In “Chef John’s Favorites” – the list of ingredients attached to the recipes guests take home – Gonzales points out that all of his wines are highly recommended by professional reviewers “or we just outright adore them.” On the list also are olive oils and spices, most of them available in the store for the smallest of mark-ups.

This night’s soup is followed by roasted portobello mushroom and bok choy salad – the gills of the mushrooms scooped away with a melon baller to avoid their “too-mushroomy” flavor. The salad is tossed with a sesame-peanut vinaigrette that includes the citrus-infused soy sauce called ponzu (“Same shelf as the soy sauce,” Gonzales says. “Just look about a foot to the left”) and Sriracha hot sauce.

That’s followed by a jumbo sea scallop with grapes and a pan sauce that includes nonpareil capers, “which is fancy for small and expensive, but really it’s because they’re smaller and more tender,” Gonzales says. “They’re the flower bud of the Mediterranean caper bush.”

Each menu is made for a month, night after night of weaving the story of the science with the color of the cooking. The Gonzaleses build the menu from their own collection of recipes and those they find in cooking magazines, a menu chosen for flavor, usefulness for the audience and the potential for entertainment, either because it inspires stories or because there’s panache in the process. This is, after all, a show.

Wanda is the restaurant’s business manager,
responsible for payroll, paperwork and personnel, and until recently, The Book. The restaurant is open five nights a week year-round – six during December – and answering the phone and keeping track of the reservation book is nearly a full-time job. Corporations sometimes rent out the whole place for client or employee appreciation dinners, and some people plan entire Williamsburg vacations around their ability to reserve a seat.

On this night the protein is venison, imported from New Zealand at $24 a pound, a meat Gonzales committed to six months before. “Why not use local venison?” a guest asks, and Gonzales laughs. First, local venison is not USDA-inspected, and thus would be illegal to serve. But second, “Those deer up on the Parkway are starving on rhododendron buds, and these guys are free-range on a farm, eating bales of hay and fruit off of apple and pear trees.”

He slides one of the venison roasts onto his cutting board. Early in the night Allen had seared it, made a red wine glaze out of the drippings and stuck it all into the oven to roast. Now Gonzales gives it another moment to rest. It is plump and inflated, and if he cuts into it immediately, he says, “It will pop like a water balloon.” Instead he waits, and thus makes his audience wait, as the juices absorb back into the muscle, so when he does slice it the cutting board comes away nearly clean and the meat is tender and juicy, even though it’s about 98 percent fat-free.

Over it he serves a sauce of cherries and sugar and vinegar, sweet and tart, making the taste buds pop. And as his audience enjoys, he melts sugar in a pan, adds his beautiful pieces of pecan and swirls them until they’re candied, then adds bourbon and sets the thing ablaze, the flames flashing.

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As Gonzales is absorbed in demonstrating and talking, Allen helps keep things on track.
Less often seen but a vital ingredient: Wanda Gonzales, co-founder and the
business manager for the restaurant and its shop.

In one of the shiny bowls he whisks milk and cream, then adds heat and sugar and egg yolks, talking all the while, swiveling the whisk in his fist, explaining the necessity of running the custard through a mesh to strain out the little chalaza lumps – chalaza being a Greek word for the bits of tissue that anchor the egg yolk into the white, in case you ever need that word for Scrabble – and talking about how he likes to push things to the edge, even though he knows that if he stirs for too long he’ll have scrambled eggs instead of custard, and Allen, standing again with arms crossed, says, “Three, two, one,” and takes the bowl away and serves up airy sticky buns topped with the candied walnuts and the custard as Gonzales keeps talking – about the coagulation of dairy proteins, about the different kinds of cinnamon. If he doesn’t know an answer he looks it up in his collection of cooking science books.

“It’s theater,” Wanda says, “and when it’s time to perform John comes alive.”

The best part about it is, it’s theater you can eat.


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photography by AMANDA LUCIER

Pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, was one of the staples in our house. It was always big bowls and big spoons and slurping and talking. I’d never made it myself; it was a work for my elders. But with my own family, it came time.

When I asked my dad for the recipe, his first response was to correct me. That didn’t surprise me; my mother had taught English and my father had taught math, so verbal and mathematical precision was mandatory in our household. On this night he told me, This is not a recipe. It’s an art. First you will do, then you will know. And each time you will do it better.

But when he started to use units like “the biggest pot you have” for water and “about half the size of your palm” for ginger, it occurred to me: In all those years of exactness in our house, I’d never seen a measuring cup or spoon. From what I could tell, it was all experienced improvisation, using sight, taste and smell. Most of the recipes I’d gotten from my siblings featured as the primary unit of measure one of those little rice bowls you get in the Asian market; teaspoons were any small spoon we had bought from the Salvation Army. Tablespoons were the big ones. My mom – the standard by which I will always measure my cooking – had never measured a thing. She had done, and known, and done better, long before we came to America.

When I asked my dad which meat to use, he told me, “Whatever you have is fine.” Now, this I did remember from childhood. When it came to relatively expensive ingredients such as meat, we used what we could afford and made it go far. For pho, my parents, as so many before them had, cooked soup bones and big cuts of inexpensive beef and tendon, along with aromatics, for all that wonderful flavor. This soup – and all my favorite dishes from childhood – is made of very inexpensive ingredients: some form of rice, some kind of flavoring, fresh vegetable garnishes, and very little meat. To this day, I bristle at paying double digits for a Vietnamese meal out.

So for more than an hour, I pressed my dad for specifics. And for the first time, I did – I cooked up a pot of pho for my own family. And I knew; it was not the best. But each time I will do it better.

This is how I did it.

* It’s pronounced “phuh,” not “phoe.” Impress the Vietnamese speakers you know by inflecting upward, as if you’re asking a question. Pho, anyone?


for about 4 people (“but you could invite more!” my dad says, a nod to the Asian’s respect for social obligation):

1-2 sweet or Vidalia onions
1 chunk of ginger root, maybe 3 inches long
1 daikon radish, trimmed
Beef soup bones (big ones, if you can find them; I used a couple pounds’ worth)
1 bag of banh pho (these are very brittle, white
rice noodles; they come in small, medium and
large noodle size. I used medium.)
About a teaspoon of sugar (add more to taste)
Salt to taste, about a teaspoon
2-3 star anise (sometimes called star aniseed) pods
2 pounds oxtail, trimmed, optional
2 pounds beef chuck for flavoring the broth, optional
About 1 pound of beef for serving rare on top of  the pho (my family likes to use chuck eye or rib eye, but you can also use filet mignon)
1 package beef tendon, optional but so delicious

Thai basil if you can find it, though any basil will work
Green onions
Bean sprouts
Hot pepper sauce, such as Sriracha
Jalapeno peppers
Hoisin sauce
Fish sauce (optional)

1. Char the ginger and onions over an open flame if you have it; I didn’t, so I cut them in half and broiled them, cut side down. The ginger takes a bit longer than the onion and gets a deep yellow color inside.

2. Throw the charred onions and ginger, along with beef bones; oxtail, beef chuck and/or tendon if you have it; daikon radish; and star anise into the biggest soup pot you have. Fill the pot with water and bring to a boil. Start with a lot of water, my dad says. It boils off and concentrates for flavor.

3. Boil on low, uncovered, for at least 4 hours. With a big, shallow spoon, skim off the foam that will come to the top. After an hour, add the sugar and little salt. Don’t oversalt or sugar, my dad warns. You can always add more later. If you’re using tendon (my favorite part), you can throw it in about an hour into the cooking process. Keep careful watch over the tendon, though; “It could turn to Jell-O – actual Jell-O!” my dad says.

4. Chop up the toppings and arrange to present later. If you are using the rare beef, cut it extremely thin against the grain. Set aside.

5. When you’re about ready to make the bowl, boil up the banh pho. I’m told it’s also available “fresh” (read: pre-cooked), but I got the dry stuff. For these brittle noodles, get a big pot of water boiling, and drop them in. For this, my dad returned to his familiar precision, in English math to make absolutely sure I understood: Watch them very closely, he said. It’s important to let these go to only 95 percent done; they’ll do their final 5 percent of cooking in the bowl. I found that this took around 2-3 minutes.

6. Put a small amount of mostly cooked noodles in a large soup bowl. Again, my dad brought out the rare precision – in English: “Given that X is your bowl, fill it to no more than .4X. This is very important! No more than .4X!” You’re going to be very hungry after smelling this thing cooking all day, he warned; the temptation will be to fill to .8X. But this thing is about the broth and the toppings; the noodles are just a venue.

7. If you are using the rare beef, drop a few slices in with the noodles and they will cook in the broth as it goes in, or you can drop them into the pot of broth for less than a minute. Top the noodles with it and tendon, beef chuck or oxtail, and plenty of broth.

8. Serve with prepared toppings.



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photography by KEITH LANPHER

Down at the north end of Colley, there’s a British guy who’s “not your grandmom” –though he and his colleagues sure cook like they are (and love the reaction).

Damian Gordon grins and moves his hands in happiness, showing how he rubbed a lamb roast with garlic and rosemary before putting it into the oven for today’s special. Beside it he’ll serve sautéed string beans, and sweet potatoes sliced thick and rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper and just a touch of Cajun heat, all of it drizzled with a marsala gravy.

Gordon is the Southern grandmother creating the specials and cooking the enormous meals served at Chow, the comfort-food restaurant that opened in December on the north end of Colley in Norfolk. Except he is neither Southern nor a grandmother. Gordon, 32, grew up in London, a blend of Jamaican and English blood. Yet his chicken and dumplings is created Deep South style, the broth made of cooked-down chicken carcasses, plus onion, garlic, carrots, celery and potatoes, all simmered together until the gravy is thick and rich.

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Out front, Stephan Stockwell greets a customer from behind the bar. “Hello, miss,” he says to the middle-aged woman. Stockwell, co-owner and general manager, is 32, trim in jeans and a snug T-shirt, his arm tattooed in honor of his father.
His Triumph motorcycle is parked outside. “First time here?”

It is, but she knows what she wants – the fried chicken, with a side of the restaurant’s Yelp-renowned macaroni and cheese and a side of collards, too. And she wants a second order to go, but swap in fries and coleslaw. The restaurant serves between 100 and 150 pounds of chicken a day, dredged in flour and the simplest of spices. It is the quintessential Southern comfort food, especially paired with the collards, here cooked for hours in a broth of smoked ham hocks, vinegar, red pepper and Tabasco.

“What’s your name, darlin’?” Stockwell asks, and shakes the customer’s hand.

He and partners John Boggs and Tom Pittman, who also own A.W. Shucks and Tortilla West, envisioned Chow as a neighborhood diner, the place to go for the kind of familiar food that leaves you warm, satisfied and full. The influence is heavily Southern, with South Carolina-style pulled pork and fried catfish, but there also are spaghetti and meatballs and crab pot pie, and the PBBB – a grilled peanut-butter-banana-and-bacon sandwich. “Any region you’re from would have something that you grew up with,” says Stockwell, “something that makes you smile when you see it.”

Customers at Chow smile too because the portions are huge. “It’s all about the experience,” he says, “so when people see that plate of food come to the table, their eyes get big and they always make a joke. I love it.”

Back in the kitchen, sous chef Gordon minces fresh rosemary leaves and whisks them into a blend of cinnamon and sugar and eggs and cream. He’s making the batter for today’s lunch special – sweet and savory French toast topped with corned beef, sautéed peppers and onions, and a slice of Monterey Jack.

He comes up with new weekly specials every Wednesday, sometimes not knowing what he’ll make until he gets there, sometimes asking the other cooks for ideas and then adding a pinch of this, a touch of that, creating combinations that wouldn’t occur to most home cooks.

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Gordon worked down on the Oceanfront as a cook at Mahi Mah’s Seafood and Sushi while he studied psychology at Old Dominion University. He wanted to be a therapist, but the cooking grabbed him and he went on to study at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh. “You either really love cooking or you don’t like it at all,” he says. “Either it’s in you or it’s not.”

On the Vulcan range behind him is a 4-gallon pot of mashed potatoes, boiled down this morning and blended with heavy cream and butter. They’ll be topped with gravy made of cooked-down bones and vegetables, strained and cooked with a roux.

“It’s amazing!” Gordon says, then laughs along as the restaurant’s dessert chef, Mike Sutherland, makes fun of his accent.

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The macaroni and cheese is nearby, rich with cheddar, cheddar jack, smoked gouda and cream cheese. In a jar in the refrigerator are pickled vegetables, high on the chalkboard menu near the goat cheese that Gordon squeezes into a pear shape before rolling it in panko, frying it, and then popping a sprig of mint in the top to simulate the stem of the pear. Sizzling on the griddle are slices of pineapple that will be arranged with strawberries, tomatoes, onions and flat-iron steak over a bed of arugula.

“I love making that salad!” says cook and artist Amanda Janes, who also created the restaurant’s wall-sized chalkboard menus. “It’s like having a little palette to play with.”

“Coming through,” says cook Bobbi Eaves, carrying a tray of more than a dozen perfectly roasted chickens.

In the back room of the kitchen, Sutherland, whom Gordon calls The Dessert King, is working on his peanut butter pie. His favorite is the apple, although his pecan and his bourbon-and-walnut are in high demand – all made with recipes from his Georgia grandmother.

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Up front, Stockwell maintains eight conversations at once, his hands always moving, pulling beers from local breweries O’Connor and Smartmouth, pouring the whiskeys that are the bar’s emphasis, greeting customers, often by name.

He came to Norfolk courtesy of the Navy, where he worked in ordnance, a skill set that doesn’t translate easily into the civilian world. So he took a summer job as an ice cream man, tinny music and all, and loved it. “Growing up, we had an ice cream man who knew our names,” he says, “and if we didn’t have money he’d give us little treats, so I have just great memories from that.”

He doesn’t remember the treats so much as the feeling of familiarity and joy, which is what he’s trying to give customers at Chow. “You may not remember the details of your meal,” he says, “but you’ll remember that it made you feel good, and that will keep you coming back.”

Stockwell became a waiter when A.W. Shucks opened in 2005, and from there he eventually moved up to management at Tortilla West. When Boggs and Pittman decided to open a new restaurant they asked him if he wanted in. Then the three of them waited for a space to open up, and then for it to speak to them and tell them what shape the restaurant should take. They settled on the old Tanner’s Creek location, just south of the Colley Avenue bridge. The wide windows told them to go with blond wood and keep the checkerboard floor of blue and white tiles, to give the space a homey feel. Then they asked Gordon, who was working at Shucks, if he’d come do the cooking.

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Now he dodges Janes as she lifts the chicken from the fryer while Sutherland reaches for a pan of cream cheese that he’s left to soften for a cheesecake he’s whipping up. Gordon rings the bell to send out another order – pulled pork piled high on a toasted ciabatta bun. Then he pours olive oil into his favorite pot, 4 inches deep and 2 feet across, and begins sautéing a mountain of mushrooms.

“People say, ‘I thought there was a grandma here, someone from the South,’ ” he says, and grins yet again, as Sutherland takes in the British accent and laughs. “I’m sorry,” says Gordon, “but I’m not your grandmom.”

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Barking Dog

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photography by KEITH LANPHER

You might think a restaurant on the water would be just another seafood joint.

Not so in the case of The Barking Dog. Sure, seafood is on the menu, but there’s also much more – gourmet hot dogs, Carolina barbecue, an eclectic beer menu and veggie fare.

It’s all served up on a flip-flop-friendly deck that overlooks Sunset Creek near downtown Hampton. Diners can drive, walk or even boat up to a place the owners hope will become a community hangout.

Several restaurants have laid claim to the little spot next to where the fishing charter Sally T docks in the creek off the Hampton River. But none has lasted very long. About a year ago, Gary McIntyre stopped in for a beer when the restaurant was called The Hook and wondered why.

“I saw all the potential,” says McIntyre, who’s been in the Hampton Roads restaurant business for more than 30 years.

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McIntyre acquired the business and, with his partners Sean Pepe and Tricia Waclawski, gutted all but the kitchen. They covered the patio, added picnic tables, named it The Barking Dog, and hung out a cheerful yellow sign to beckon passers-by from Kecoughtan Road. The place quickly became popular after opening at the start of summer, and the owners plan to tent in the patio to keep it open year-round.

Hot dogs top the menu, but these aren’t ordinary dogs with mustard and ketchup. The Carolina Drive-In Dog is topped with barbecue, slaw and red pepper mayo. The Seattle Dog comes with cream cheese and caramelized onions. The artisan-style buns are made by a local bakery. The menu also features sausages and bratwurst, burgers, and cold salads, along with crab cakes, clam strips, popcorn shrimp and fish sandwiches. Rockfish tacos were a popular summer offering – The Barking Dog serves what’s fresh off the fishing boats.

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Drinks come in cans tucked into koozies; a can crusher mounted on the deck encourages recycling. On the tables, napkins are weighted down with river stones painted with – what else? – pictures of dogs.

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The Pie’s The Limit

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photography by AMANDA LUCIER

Pie making didn’t come overnight to chef Daryl Thomas. It took decades of watching his grandmother Nonie Anderson and mother Violeen whip up “toe-wiggling” tasty pies.

“It was,” he says, “an event to watch them cook.”

If he wanted blackberry pie, he’d fill a bucket with berries from the backyard of his parents’ home, in Danville. Violeen – Vy – was his main pie maker. “She’d say, ‘If you pick ’em, then I’ll make a pie.’ So of course, we’d pick ’em.”

In 2012, he decided to take all that knowledge and pour it into Vy’s Pies, his own business. After months of research and trial and error – he waves a small hand-held mixer: “That was upgraded” – he got organized and did away with the basic kitchen tools.

He started off with five recipes, all handed down from his grandmother to his mom and then to him. He has since added his own – but even those, he says, he keeps true to the techniques he learned in his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. “I twist them in a way to make them mine but in a way to keep them pure, the way my grandmother did and the way my mother did.”

His delectable pies can be found at local farmers’ markets, Virginia Beach’s Whole Foods Market, and online at his Vy’s Pies site. He is humbled when people choose his pies for the holidays. The fall and winter favorites, he says, are the sweet potato pie, apple pie, carrot cake and the coveted pecan pie – a recipe he concocted that eliminates the standard thick molasses flavor and leaves only that buttery pecan and hints of brown sugar taste.

It’s a secret he prefers to keep, but he’s shared with us some of his other recipes.

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Sweet potato pie

With pecan or ginger snap topping

Allow time to bake the sweet potatoes, then to let them cool before you peel them.


One pie crust, ready for filling. (Recipe follows, or you may use a refrigerated, purchased crust.)

Olive oil

2 medium sweet potatoes

1 large egg

½ cup sugar

½ cup light brown sugar (not packed)

½ stick unsalted butter (1/4 cup), melted

¼ cup whole milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash sweet potatoes well and pat dry. Coat lightly with olive oil, then roast for about 50 minutes or until they are done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

Peel the potatoes. In a medium mixing bowl, beat them until smooth.

Add egg, sugars, melted butter, milk, vanilla and cinnamon.

Pour filling into crust. Bake for 45 minutes or until done. The pie is done if the filling barely wiggles in the middle (this yields a silkier result, Thomas says) or if a toothpick inserted in the
center comes out clean.


6 tablespoons butter (¾ stick)

½ cup light brown sugar (not packed)

½ cup pecan pieces

1 tablespoon heavy cream



Prepare after the pie has baked and cooled completely, or the topping will melt.

In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the brown sugar and stir constantly
until it is dissolved.

Stir in pecans and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in cream very well, remove from heat and let the mixture cool for about 2 minutes.

With a rubber spatula or butter knife, spread the pecan mixture evenly over the cooled pie.


After you’ve poured the filling into the crust, arrange ginger snap cookies on top. Bake as usual.

Pie crust

Yield: two single crusts or one bottom crust with a top.

Freeze the flour for about 2 hours for a flakier crust, Daryl Thomas suggests.

The crust for the sweet potato pie doesn’t need to be baked separately since the filling is thick, but when you’re ready to bake, use the bottom rack of the oven.

2½ cups all-purpose flour, very cold

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, cold, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 teaspoon white vinegar

½ cup of ice-cold water (Thomas suggests adding

a couple of ice cubes)


In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar and salt until thoroughly combined. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until it is the size of tiny peas.

Add the vinegar to the water and drizzle over the mixture. Use a rubber or silicone spatula to fold the dough together, pressing on it until it sticks together. (You may need to add 1 tablespoon of water at a time to bring it together.) Make a mound of the dough and knead gently. Don’t
overwork it or the crust will be tough.

Divide the dough into two even balls and flatten each into a 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days before rolling them out. (They also may be frozen; to defrost, refrigerate 24 hours before use.)

When you’re ready to use it, roll out each piece of dough to about 12 inches wide for a 9- or 9½-inch, deep-dish pie pan. Grease pan. Place dough; trim and crimp edges. Fill and bake.

If you’re baking this crust unfilled, use the middle rack. Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 425 degrees or until golden and flaky. Prick sides and bottom with a fork and let cool in refrigerator before filling.

Chef Daryl Thomas, Sweet Potato Pie, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Vy's Pies, Pecan Topping, recipe, Gingerbread recipe, Biscotti, Pumpkin Biscotti

Pumpkin biscotti

Daryl  Thomas offers these as a perfect recipe for gifts. We dipped ours in a ganache of semisweet chocolate chips and shortening.


2½ cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

¾ cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups (16 ounces) canned plain pumpkin

  (not pumpkin pie filling)

1 teaspoon rum (optional)


Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium mixing bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, vanilla, pumpkin puree and rum if you’re using it. Add the dry ingredients.

Mold the dough into a loaf on the cookie sheet. Bake for 40 minutes; let cool for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven again, to 400 degrees.

With a serrated bread knife, cut the loaf on a bias into ½-inch slices. Toast these slices directly on the middle rack of the oven, flat, for 7 to 10 minutes, paying close attention so that they don’t burn.

Side Show

Cobalt Grille, Spanish Coffee, Flaming Drink, Distinction Magazine, Distinction

Cobalt Grille, Virginia Beach, Spanish Coffee, Flaming Drink, Distinction Magazine, Distinction

Most things that start with Bacardi 151 don’t end well, but the flaming Spanish coffee at Cobalt Grille is a noteworthy exception.

The popular drink isn’t listed on the menu of this Virginia Beach eatery but is available by request. At tableside, bartender Christina Harbour starts with a shot of the high-proof liquor, poured into a wine glass and ignited with a lighter into a swirl of blue flames that entertain while caramelizing the sugared rim of the glass.

Sprinkles of cinnamon and nutmeg send tiny orange sparks flying, extinguished at the end by a combination of Kahlúa and coffee topped with a swirl of whipped cream.

The mesmerizing mixture smells like Christmas and looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie, but the taste is more grown-up: warm and not too sweet, the liquor not overpowering the robust French roast. It’s a perfect after-dinner drink that’s good enough to stand in for dessert but not too sugary to pair with Cobalt’s bread pudding or signature crème brûlée sampler.

It’s also a great alternative to the more-potent Irish coffee. But don’t be surprised if other patrons copy your order. Harbour says the flashy drink tends to be infectious.

 – Kathy Adams


Olli Salumeria

Olli Salumeria, Olli Salumeria sausage, Mechanicsville va, distinction Magazine, Distinction, Richmond, Sausage, Gourmet sausage

photography by KEITH LANPHER

Inside a secluded brick office building, just past the Loading Dock Equipment Company in the unmarked commercial space next to McKeever Electric and Plumbing, a 34-year-old in Italian leather shoes and designer jeans is leaning over an industrial vat of ground pork and describing the pink stuff the way a sculptor might describe clay.

 “Meat is a very difficult medium,” he says, sounding oddly poetic for someone leading a tour of a small processing plant. “It leaves little room for error. It’s quite messy. But if you give it time, you can do beautiful things with it.”

Welcome to Mechanicsville, a rural community north of Richmond that’s probably best known as the site of several Civil War battles, a couple decent barbecue joints and – as of late – the source of some of the nation’s finest salumi, that broad class of slow-cured Italian meats, of which salami is but one.

The Olli Salumeria headquarters, located in an unnamed business park off Bell Creek Road, doesn’t look like much from the outside. Entering, though, feels a bit like traveling abroad. A tall, dark-haired man greets you with an accent that’s as foreign to these parts as the ancient process he uses to turn free-range hogs into sweet cacciatorino. He offers a cup of coffee and returns a moment later with a shot glass of imported espresso.

“You’re probably wondering what this business is doing here,” Oliviero Colmignoli says. Olli, as most people know him, says he can explain.

The story begins more than 150 years ago in rural Italy, chronicles the rise of a family business-turned-food empire, and includes a misguided effort to sell high-quality Italian meats to consumers in the United States. Then, years later, a changing market, a big idea, a fortuitous meeting with a Whole Foods executive, and – boom, Olli, a guy who went to school to become a photographer, is suddenly one of America’s top gourmet salumi makers. In only its third full year of operation, Olli expects his little Virginia startup to bring in more than $6 million in profit this year and is planning to soon quadruple production at a new West Coast facility.

How the heck did it all happen so fast?

He’ll get to that. Like curing meat, the story is better if you don’t rush it.

Olli’s roots in salumi can be traced back to 1850, when his great-great-grandfather Innocenzo Fiorucci opened a small meat market in the town of Norcia, Italy – a family business that would be handed down to Olli’s great-grandfather, and then to Olli’s grandfather, Ferruccio Fiorucci. During the winter, when the temperature was ideal for fermenting meats, the Fiorucci men made some of the best salumi around. In the summer, they repaired shoes.

And so it was for nearly a century. Then came World War II, a brutal food shortage – and opportunity. Ferruccio Fiorucci recognized that Italian cities needed more food from the countryside, so he began delivering meat and other goods to Rome, traveling more than 100 miles each way. After the war, he bought a decommissioned U.S. Army supply truck and expanded the operation. Fiorucci Foods was born.

“Eventually he opened a second shop, started processing in a third shop and from there he grew,” Olli says. “He grew and grew and grew and eventually became one of the biggest meat producers in the country. He mastered the art of mass-producing a quality product. I grew up with this kind of environment.”

Olli was 7 when his father was tapped to lead a major expansion. In 1986, he moved his family to Richmond to launch Fiorucci U.S.A. They chose Virginia because of its established hog culture, with Smithfield not far away, and because of its location along I-95. The goal was to sell traditional Italian meats to Americans. But it wasn’t long before the company abandoned its original plans and began emulating the local competition.

“We tried to do traditional Italian products, but that didn’t work out, so we really had to step down the quality and the process to something the consumer was more used to here,” Olli says. “Because they had never had it before, people didn’t recognize it as good. We had to change the production to something that was more American. We made pepperoni.”

Over the next several years, Olli bounced back and forth between his native country and his adopted home. “I grew up between Richmond and Rome,” he says with a laugh. He recognized good and bad in both cultures. Nothing in America could match Italian cuisine. Americans, on the other hand, knew how to run an efficient business. With one foot in both worlds, Olli would eventually bring those principles together.

But first, he wanted to take pictures.

Olli returned to Italy in the mid-1990s to finish high school and attended university, where he studied to become a photographer. He wanted to do something artistic – but not with meat.

“This is the last thing I ever wanted to do back then,” he says. “You’re young. You have the whole world in front of you; you want to do your own thing.”

The dream was short-lived. Olli met a woman, married, and soon started a family. Not long after finishing school, he took a job at the family business in Richmond, and within a few years he was a vice president. He had learned the art of curing meat growing up; now he was learning the business side. He stayed with the company for several years, even after his grandfather sold it to a private equity firm, though he knew he needed to eventually find something more fulfilling.

A dinner party in 2009 provided the spark. Chip Vosmik, a Richmond businessman, noticed Olli always brought prosciutto, slow-cured by his family’s company in Parma. “Why don’t you bring the prosciutto you guys make
here in Virginia?”

Olli laughed. “Because this is better!”

The difference is in the quality of the hogs and the time invested in curing the meat, he explained.

“How about this,” Chip asked him. “If I get you some really good pasture-raised pork, could you make prosciutto as good as the stuff you guys make in Italy?”

“Absolutely,” Olli said.

Olli Salumeria Sausage, Olli Salumeria, Mechanicsville va, Richmond, Distinction Magazine, Keith Lanpher, Mike Hixenbaugh, Distinction

A week later, Chip presented Olli with three Berkshire hams from an organic farm in South Carolina. Olli was so impressed with the quality of the meat, he called the farm to order 60 more. He spent several days bleeding and salting the meat, meticulously following one of his grandfather’s old recipes. He hung the hams up to ferment and then – this is where good prosciutto salumi becomes great – he waited a year and a half.

Chip threw another party at his house to unveil the homemade prosciutto. People raved. A few guests, unaware that Olli had prepared the meat, asked where they could buy some. Chip slapped his friend on the back. “You have the beginnings of a nice business here,” he said. “What are you waiting for?”

Olli had never considered that “doing his own thing” could involve making real salumi and selling it himself. This wasn’t the same market that 20 years earlier had shunned quality in favor of the familiar. He figured the same foodies who had begun buying craft beer and free-range eggs would be willing to pay a premium for authentic, all-organic Italian meats. He called his grandfather in Italy and shared the idea. “Don’t do that,” the old man said in Italian, noting that although he had sold the business, Olli’s father was still the head of U.S. division of the company that bears his name. “You’re leaving the company I founded to go compete against us.”

But Olli continued working the idea. Eventually, his grandfather changed his mind and became one of his first investors. Olli and Chip went to work drawing up a business plan and soon set up shop in Mechanicsville, where Olli began tinkering with recipes. They figured the small commercial space would leave them enough room to grow for a number of years.

They were wrong.

Olli’s face lights up when you ask him to explain what sets his salumi apart from the products that are available in most grocery store delis.

“The difference is in the taste and the texture,” he says. “It all comes down to the quality of the hogs and how long you’re willing to allow for the natural process to work.”

After grinding, seasoning and packing the meat, Olli ferments his salumi at 72 degrees – never higher – during the six weeks it takes to make a single batch. Most U.S. salami makers, he says, ferment at 104 degrees, then crank the temperature up to 140 for an hour – shaving weeks off the process and ensuring larger yields. Olli starts with 400 pounds of pork and ends up with about 200 pounds of salumi. Most big producers lose only 30 percent from the original weight, Olli says.

Other things that set his products apart: Olli uses only free-range hogs that have not been treated with antibiotics, and he uses a compound that comes from celery as a preservative instead of nitrates, which some recent studies have linked to cancer. “Our research showed us these were all things the market wanted, but there wasn’t much in the way of supply.”

The other big thing for Olli was the marketing. He pushed for a sleek, modern logo to help set the product apart. “We didn’t want to be another little Italian guy with a little Italian flag standing by a chub of salami because I’m Italian. We wanted to do something a little more clean-cut.”

The salumi tasted great. The consumer was ready for it. But how do you connect the two?

Enter Whole Foods, the foodie mecca of grocery chains. Not long after officially launching the business in March of 2010, Olli noticed something interesting: He and Whole Foods were buying from many of the same organic hog farms, but the store chain was buying only choice retail cuts – loins, bellies, ribs – while he was buying the off cuts. Through one of his suppliers, he arranged a meeting with the head of Whole Foods’ meat-buying division.

“I told him, ‘If we buy the whole hog, you can use the retail cuts, I can use the other cuts to make salami, we help the farmer because he sells the whole animal, and we help ourselves because we get a better deal on the price,’ ” Olli says. “It really was that simple. Through that synergy, we started working together.”

Whole Foods agreed to sell Olli’s products at some of its stores at about $8 a stick. They flew off the shelves, and Whole Foods executives took notice.

So did national food critics. A New York Times writer raved, “The salamis deliver elegantly fine-grained meatiness at the crossroads of salt and sweet.” A Wall Street Journal food writer, for a story about the burgeoning U.S. salumi market, staged a taste contest and named winners in six categories of slow-cured meats. Olli was declared the winner in half the categories, the only salumi maker to win more than one. The sweet cacciatorino was “Earthy, with a perfect disbursement of fat throughout.” The finocchiona had a “nice balance of fennel, salt, garlic and oregano.” The Genoa, named after Olli’s hometown, was “perfectly cured with a mild, honest pork flavor and a hint of spice.”

Demand grew.

Six months after Olli struck a deal with the grocery chain, his salumi was added to the shelves at every Whole Foods in the country. Soon other retailers, including Williams-Sonoma and Costco, were placing orders. And the little company hustled to keep up. “When you’re growing, you have growing pains, and that can be difficult,” Olli says. “But that’s a pretty good problem to have.”

The company is in the process of opening a second processing plant near San Diego. The fully automated West Coast facility will process 100,000 pounds of meat each week, more than four times as much as the little plant in Virginia.

Olli isn’t worried that moving into a larger, more modern facility will damage the artisanal quality of his meats. “The craftsmanship comes from the process you use,” he says. “As long as you stick to your values and buy the right kind of equipment and the right kind of pig – and as long as you don’t rush the natural process – you can grow and maintain your quality. Good meat makes good product.”

That’s one of the lessons he took away from his grandfather, who, after getting over his initial opposition to the business, became Olli’s biggest supporter. Now the 89-year-old checks in daily from Rome.

“Every day he calls and asks ‘How’s it going?’ He wants to know what kind of fat we’re putting into the salami and then tells me what he would do. Some ideas are more useful than others, but I always listen.”

That’s key: The fourth-generation salumi maker understands his success is born out of his connection to the past.

Olli Salumeria Sausage, Olli Salumeria, Mechanicsville va, Richmond, Distinction Magazine, Keith Lanpher, Mike Hixenbaugh, Distinction

God & Gouda

Gouda Cheese, Crozet VA, Nuns Making Cheese, Virginia, Charlottesville VA, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr

photography by NORM SHAFER

At a Virginia monastery, the labors of cheese-making
at times replace hours in prayer and psalm.

The sky is dark and the stars mountainside-bright when the first sisters walk through the disinfectant solution at the doorway of the cheese barn – “crossing the Red Sea,” they sometimes joke – and change into knee-high rubber boots, hairnets and bulbous ear protection.

They switch on lights and open valves to send scalding water rushing into the outer ring of a stainless steel, 8-foot-tall double boiler filled with 6,200 pounds of buttery milk from grass-fed cows. A spigot of steam foams the top as if it were a giant latte, the fierce noise further enforcing the sisters’ silence. After half an hour they replace the hot water with cold, and still it takes an hour to cool the now-pasteurized milk enough to begin its transformation into red-waxed rounds of gouda that will wear the name Monastery Country Cheese.

The monastery sits on 507 acres outside Crozet, 13 miles northwest of Charlottesville. A two-lane road winds past white-fenced farms and a genteel horse track, crossing over streams and through the shadows of sycamores, then up a gravel side road that curves around rocks and past embankments before meeting up with the crushed-rock drive to Our Lady of the Angels.

There, 15 Cistercian sisters live by the Rule of St. Benedict, written nearly 1,500 years ago. It is the same Rule followed by Trappists the world over.

“Seven times in the day I have rendered praise to You,” the Psalms say, and the Rule of St. Benedict dictates which prayers the sisters chant and when: “at the time of the Morning Office, of Prime, of Terce, of Sext, of None, of Vespers and of Compline.” They rise at 3 a.m. and spend a total of five hours singing psalms, reciting Bible passages and chanting prayers, interspersed with five hours of cooking and cleaning and caring for the land, plus reading, studying and private meditative prayer.

But not on cheese days.

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On 32 days a year the sisters sleep in until 4 a.m. to rest up for the laborious work, and adapt their prayer sessions to accommodate the inflexible schedule of the cheese.

At 8 a.m. – after two sessions in their too-small chapel – a second shift of sisters sends the milk gushing from the tank to the 720-gallon stainless steel settling vat, where today’s cheese cook, Sister Maria Gonzalo Garcia, 35, adds a bacterial culture and starts a pair of orbiting paddles that are nearly as big as she is, while other sisters fan out to clean the now-empty holding tank, insert heavy stainless steel parts into the pre-press vat and prepare the white plastic bowls that will give the cheese its shape. Around them are crucifixes and racks of rubber gloves, wrenches as big as a woman’s forearm and a pump valve so heavy it’s chained to a foot-long bar from a body-building machine so that two sisters can work together to lift it into the sink full of scalding water. The sound is of plastic clattering against metal, of high-pressure water hoses and of the occasional quiet banter between sisters, the accents from New York and Spain, India and Nigeria and South Carolina. Theirs is the youngest Trappist monastery in the United States, founded in 1987 and originally peopled by six nuns sent down from the only women’s monastery in the country at the time, Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts.  [Read more...]

Beet Salad

Beets, Beet Recipe, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Recipes using beets, Amanda Lucier,  Chef Rodney Einhorn

by Selene D. Guerrero
photography by Amanda Lucier

Terrapin owner and chef Rodney Einhorn says he himself isn’t much of a beet lover; he created the restaurant’s heirloom baby beet salad a few years ago at the request of his wife. It’s a popular dish, offering up a colorful display of roasted baby red, gold and Chioggia beets assembled over a dash of pureed red beet. The salad is garnished with raw beets, orange segments, goat cheese, shaved fennel and a rosemary yuzu vinaigrette – made with the juice of that Japanese citrus – that gives it a punch of tartness.

“I’m not a farmer,” Einhorn says with a laugh, “but I do know what I’m talking about.” He buys his tubers – about six to eight hours out of the ground – from a local farmer when they’re in season here. Beet season runs long, in Virginia from May through November, because this hardy crop can survive frost and temperatures near freezing. And if you’re growing your own, he suggests planting the beets close together to keep them small: The smaller they are, the sweeter. If you’re shopping for them, look for firmness and wrinkle-free skin. “You want everything taut,” he says. When the beets arrive fresh at Terrapin, they are rinsed, their tops are cut off and they are stored wrapped in a damp cloth to keep in the humidity and freshness.

This salad hits the palate with a refreshing earthy taste from the roasted beets, orange segments and goat cheese. Textures include the crunch of the raw beet and fennel, which intermingle with the roasted beets, and the soft cheese that almost melts in your mouth and leaves only a mild lingering taste after the salad is finished.

The sweet baby beets, Einhorn says, are a “game changer” – and his salad will indeed make a convert of the disdainful.



Rodney Einhorn’s recipe is true to the one served at Terrapin, but he has been gracious enough to offer substitutions, in case you can’t find the more obscure ingredients.

He roasts the beets separately by color to avoid affecting the varieties’ flavors. He lets them cool to room temperature before peeling them – but if left to cool too long, they’ll be hard to peel.  [Read more...]

Duck Donuts

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by Selene D. Guerrero
photography by Julie Dreelin

Patrons at Duck Donuts on the Outer Banks watch as their order is made in less than two minutes.

Behind a glass partition, employees masterfully top freshly fried doughnuts with velvety icing and pile on items such as peanuts, bacon bits or coconut shavings, then plant the box of made-to-order fried cakes at the end of the counter.

The idea for custom doughnuts while you wait came to owner Russ DiGilio while at his vacation home in the Outer Banks with his friends and family. For him the trip was incomplete without freshly made doughnuts, the kind he used to enjoy when he vacationed in Ocean City, New Jersey, as a child.

“I remember people waking up early and lining up for these doughnuts,” he says.

Duck Donuts, OBX, Duck NC, Hampton Roads, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr

Fast-forward to 2005. DiGilio was determined to open a doughnut shop that would be both “cool and family-oriented.” He enlisted his friend Robin Griffith, a foodie with 40 years of culinary experience. In 2007, the pair opened two stores, in Duck and Kitty Hawk – with more on the way. And now two locations are set to open in Virginia Beach and Williamsburg come early fall.

Griffith laughs about the early days, when the two started off using “one of those little home doughnut fryers” for three to six months, to test recipes and mix flavors for that perfect doughnut.  [Read more...]

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