Credit: Summer Whitford
Southern food is “in.” You can tell because chefs across the country are rediscovering and reinventing old foodways. More importantly, Americans, and not just Southerners, are embracing our own food heritage and preserving, revamping, and reimagining Southern food.
At the forefront of this vanguard are visionary Richmond chefs like Jason Alley of Pasture and Comfort restaurants. His take on traditional Southern staples breathes new life into old dishes Richmonders have cherished for years. His recipe for potlikker noodles with mustard greens transforms simple egg noodles, which are not Southern, into a new classic. Like any good Southerner, he knows cooking a mess of greens is essential if you want to get to the good part — the potlikker that’s left in the bottom of the pot — but it takes a knowledgeable cook to use this delicious, nutritious broth to elevate simple greens and ham hocks into a show-stopping dish.
And he’s not alone. Chefs, bakers, pastry chefs, butchers, pitmasters, and mixologists all over the city are collaborating, in turn making a strong case for Richmond as one of America’s best food cities. These dedicated people are satisfying hungry and thirsty crowds, and creating a food culture that puts Richmond dead-center in the nouveau Southern food movement.
To celebrate all this food fun and to showcase the depth of the culinary scene is in Richmond, Maureen Egan and Susan Winiecki, Associate Publisher of Richmond Magazine, the women behind the popular Real Richmond Food Tours and the Mid-Atlantic Food Writers Symposium, created Fire, Flour & Fork (FFF): a four-day food, drink, and cultural phenomenon that crisscrossed the city’s neighborhoods and restaurants. Egan and Winiecki brought together more than 50 chefs; local, artisanal food and drink producers; food writers; cookbook authors; culinary educators; and restaurateurs for dozens of classes, tastings, lunches, dinners, tours, and after parties prepared by teams of locally and nationally celebrated chefs.
When asked about her vision for Fire, Flour & Fork, Egan said they wanted to bring something different to the national dining event scene, and after partaking, they concluded that it was unique and well worth repeating. Winiecki summed it up by saying, "Our focus was on the sharing of stories and keeping the entire weekend intimate by providing access to chefs and experts in unique settings such as the private Eclectic Electric Museum, St. John's Church, the C.F. Sauer plant, and Monumental Church. No one on stages, and no one in vast, crowded tents.”
Here are the top five bites from the event:
Meat in the Middle Dinner at The Roosevelt
The Meat in the Middle dinner was designed to showcase locally sourced goat, pork, lamb, produce, and Virginia wine (the wine list is composed entirely of Virginia wines). Located in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood, our host was Lee Gregory, chef and co-owner of The Roosevelt, who collaborated with Sarah Simmons from New York’s City Grit and Josh Keeler of Charleston’s Two Boroughs Larder to create a menu that was a carnivore’s dream.
Knowing this would be a hearty dinner, we chose a bottle of King Family Vineyards Merlot 2012 to accompany the large bowl of killer goat posole that was a real palate pleaser. Prepared with Nduja and pumpkin, the posole’s rich, meaty consommé and the Nduja’s lively heat made it impossible to resist the urge to sop up the last drops with some crusty bread.
Cooking Classes Anyone? Baking Tips from a Master
Alice Medrich is a baking industry icon who creates award-winning cookbooks that are visually stunning and technically brilliant; she combines the eye of an artist with the expertise of a scientist and the palate of a gourmand. This trifecta produces books that include images of gorgeous cakes and desserts along with dozens of helpful instructions designed to ensure your baking projects succeed.
Like her books, her baking demo included dozens of helpful tips on measuring ingredients, oven rack placement, using gluten-free alternatives to wheat flour, and selecting the right equipment. Medrich graciously shared many of the secret tricks pastry chefs use to bake moist cornmeal cakes that are light as a feather. From the first bite, her Corn Flour Chiffon Cake, which is featured in her new book, Flavor Flours, was a revelation. There was none of the grittiness usually associated with cornmeal, and the cake’s delicate crumb revealed a mildly sweet taste and structure versatile enough to handle a variety of fillings, toppings, and sauces.
A Cuban Chef with a New Orleans Accent Shares a Beloved Recipe
David Guas is the kind of chef who shares his food, his friendship, and his recipes with equal parts humor, generosity, and a twinkle in his eye. The fans of the beloved Arlington, Virginia chef adore him, some for his restaurant, Bayou Bakery, others for his Travel Channel program, American Grilled, and still others for his cookbook, DamGoodSweet. During his cooking seminar he described his upbringing in New Orleans, the culinary influences of his Havana-born father, and the cooking traditions of his mother’s family from the bayous of Louisiana.
While he talked, Guas showed guests how to easily prepare his take on the classic New Orleans brunch favorite biscuits and crawfish gravy. As he sautéed the holy trinity of onions, celery, and bell peppers with crawfish and gravy, he entertained the audience with stories about his Aunt Boo’s Louisiana cooking and doled out Southern food lore and cooking tips. The minute guests took their first bite, the room grew hushed as people silently savored the buttery, flaky biscuit and its silky gravy made with sweet, briny crawfish, aromatic onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers, and touch of cayenne for some heat. Want to see what the fuss was about? Here’s the recipe — find out why the chef has such a loyal following.
There’s Nothing Quite Like Lunch at Pasture
Lunch at Pasture was a walk down memory lane in many ways. First, the restaurant is a mod, mid-century spot that has become a popular dining spot featuring new Southern, locavore cuisine. For our lunch, we had a choice of two sandwiches on homemade white bread: pimento cheese, or thinly sliced Virginia smoked ham topped with homemade multicolored, creamy coleslaw.
While the pimento cheese was the real thing and included tangy bits of red pimento in a mayo-based cheddar cheese spread, the ham sandwich won the taste test. The salty, meaty Virginia ham was the perfect contrast to the crunchy coleslaw’s hints of zesty vinegar, celery salt, and creamy mayonnaise (was that Duke’s we tasted?). And on the side? The thinnest, lightest homemade potato chips we had ever tasted.
Honoring the Forbidden City with a Ying and Yang Menu
In homage to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ (VMFA) incredible new exhibit, Forbidden City, Fire, Flour & Fork guests were fêted at the museum’s fine dining restaurant, Amuse. Course by course, two chefs, Peter Chang, chef and owner of Peter Chang China Café, and Greg Haley, executive chef at Amuse, led guests through a stylized, seven-course menu that highlighted the yin of Chinese cuisine in the East, and the yang of Asian-influenced American cuisine in the West.
For this meal, Chang turned the temperature gauge down several notches and kept the “ma la” index to a tolerable level. He wowed diners with his inventive visual presentation and evocative, flavor vignette with his now-famous appetizer, pan-fried lotus root stuffed with sticky rice. This dish looks deceptively simple but is a nuanced balance of spice, texture, body, sweetness, saltiness, and heat - Chang’s signature approach. He sliced the lotus root into large coins which were then stuffed with sticky rice, pan-fried, and garnished with an artistic toss of Sichuan peppercorns, chilies, garlic, and cilantro. The mild earthiness of the lotus root and its soft, silky texture juxtaposed nicely against the delicately perfumed sticky rice.
Donuts. A whole box of them, but we were just trying to fit in with the locals. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Richmonders are doughnut connoisseurs, which is why in a city with roughly 200,000 people there are more than 20 or so shops in and round Richmond. Donut masters like Dixie Donuts and Country Style Donuts have wonderful donuts, but it was the donuts from Sugar Shack, that got our hearts racing. Their imaginative fried tastes of heaven were glazed, dipped, decorated, filled, or stuffed with everything from preserves, to maple syrup, to bacon, to candies. We will always remember them fondly.
Looks like next Halloween, we’ll be back in Richmond to see what else they have in store. So mark October 29 through November 1 on your 2015 calendar and join us in Richmond for the Next Fire, Flour & Fork.
Summer Whitford is the Washington, D.C. City Guide Editor for The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @FoodandWineDiva.