by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by KEITH LANPHER
When the quests of three innovators converged, a haven of comfort food with quirky twists came together in Hampton.
Problem solving keeps Christina Bauhof going. For years, she fueled her computer-science trained brain with this puzzle: What makes a restaurant comfortable, welcoming, the kind of place where you wish you could eat every night of the week?
Bauhof pursued the answer with determination and data procured with her key-chain measuring tape, a gift from her dad in high school. When she ate at a restaurant, she measured the distance between tables to gauge the proper ratio for maximum capacity with minimum eavesdropping. She assessed the depth of tables and booths for relaxed seating and dining. She checked and rechecked the height of bars and bar stools, calculating the room needed to sit with crossed legs without cracking a knee. She noted that the bar rail had to be unobtrusive to encourage folks to lean and linger.
She knew, without a doubt, what kind of restaurant she would open if she could.
“I had always wanted to do a pizza place that’s not just a pizza place,” she says.
Bauhof’s husband, Carlyle Bland, had long believed that success in his former profession, economic development, depended on a surprising tenet: Stay serious about whimsy. He sought ways to draw people to downtown Hampton: Boat parades on dry land. A New Orleans, Mardi Gras-style “beading” event that required tossing hundreds of strands of shiny beads into the trees. Modeled after the running of the bulls in Pamplona, a “Rolling of the Bulls” that substituted roller derby divas for livestock.
“Non sequiturs are a great marketing tool,” Bland says.
Together, the pair knew, they could create a restaurant that would offer comfort and fun. But they needed a chef who would fit. They found a man who uses process and analysis to make fun, whimsical food: John Ledbetter, who spent 10 years perfecting his recipe for tater tots.
His affinity for crispy potatoes – not of the french fry variety – dated to when he was a kid, learning to cook by watching Julia Child on television. She taught him to make salmon with a potato crust. Later, he went to culinary school but abandoned it when he realized he was learning more by working two restaurant jobs – a Greek place in the morning, an Italian place in the evening – and getting paid for his education to boot.
His first night on the line at the Italian place, ridiculed by the other cooks while sloshing through a long shift at the pasta station, sealed his determination.
“I just decided I’m gonna get really good at this,” Ledbetter says.
That meant, among many other things, figuring out what to do with leftover mashed potatoes. They’re always around. They wind up in soup, in gnocchi, in potato pancakes. But he envisioned the world’s most perfect tater tots, the pinnacle of comfort food: golden and crisp outside, creamy and lush inside, kissed with enough salt to make eating one a mere gateway to eating a dozen.
His meeting with Bauhof and Bland was part familiarity, part serendipity. Bland knows Ledbetter’s parents; both Bland and Bauhof knew him from stints as a cook at restaurants on East Queens Way in Hampton. And it so happened that Ledbetter needed a job when his folks told him to go talk to Bland and Bauhof. They met one day in the winter of 2012 to discuss opening a restaurant in a recently vacated spot on that strip, one Bauhof had coveted for a decade: a long building with exposed brick walls and an open kitchen. Bland brought experience from 10 years in his first restaurant adventure, Marker 20, a locals-style pub on East Queens Way. Bauhof brought her pizza-place-that’s-not-just-a-pizza-place concept, along with a yen for a cocktails menu that offered both classics and modern spirits.
Ledbetter added suggestions for tapas and a few entrees that elevate and honor comfort staples – meatballs made with ground pork and bathed in butter, chicken stock and Thai pepper sauce; sausage smoked in-house; pork belly with sauteed apples. And he added a few dishes with quirky flavor combinations: asparagus salad with popcorn, a “Beet-za” pizza with roasted beets and arugula.
Those, and his hard-won tater tots, square and superb.
“I’ve had tater tots all my life,” Bland says, running his hands through his hair. “I’ve never had them like he made them.”
And so, in May 2013, 52½ days after taking possession of the building at 9 East Queens Way in Hampton, Bauhof and Bland opened Venture Kitchen and Bar, with Ledbetter as head chef.
On a busy Saturday night, Venture’s line cooks churn out orders for salads and pizzas and tater tots and one of the night’s specials, a “corn dog Parmesan” with a house-made chicken and duck sausage in place of a hot dog. In a quieter space at the back of the kitchen, Ledbetter kneads, cuts, pulls and rolls his way through a slab of pizza dough bigger than a bed pillow in preparation for Sunday brunch. “I stay two days ahead of pizza dough,” he says.
He perfected his dough recipe in the weeks between signing on with Bland and Bauhof and Venture’s opening. “I had a pizza stone and a pizza peel and two months of spare time,” he says. Now he’s made it a routine, 25 pounds of flour and a cup of yeast and plenty of experience into the bowl of an industrial-size mixer with a skull for a gear shift.
Finding the rhythm of the restaurant took time. Those days between signing the lease and opening the place sped like lightning for all three of Venture’s head honchos. Bauhof and Bland built boxes to raise the booths and constructed table stands from pipe. Bauhof pulled some decor ideas from the Internet; the trio used gas pipe to suspend wood shelves to hold liquor bottles at the bar, boosting the industrial-chic, loft feel of the space. Bland added lab beakers and a science set with crucibles and glass bulbs. Bauhof had trouble choosing a single stain for some cedar planks they mounted on the wall, so Ledbetter applied all six shades. The mottled effect evokes natural weathering rather than indecision.
Bland introduces his wife as a rocket scientist; he’s only half joking. Bauhof holds degrees in aerospace engineering and computer science. She began her career working on airplane engines in Cincinnati. “I saw people whose whole life depended on the No. 5 bearing,” she says, one steel orb in a series of steel orbs inside a plane engine. “I decided that was not me.”
She shifted to computer programming, work that suited the analytical, problem-solving bent of her brain. But too often, the work was isolating. She craved social interaction. “I was by myself,” she says. “Nobody to bounce ideas off of.”
Bland had moved to Hampton to work in economic development and served as the deputy director of the nonprofit Downtown Hampton Development Partnership. His efforts to draw people to downtown leaned on his particular perception of fun. “I don’t want to appeal to everyone,” he says. “I want to appeal to people who like things a little strange, a little odd.”
But he, too, came to a turning point in his career, a moment when he would have to move up or move on to another city. He didn’t want to leave Hampton.
Opening a restaurant seemed to provide the answer for both of them.
Marker 20 came first, on New Year’s Eve of 2002. Bauhof kept working at home, but they both watched and waited for the space Venture now occupies to come open. On the 10th anniversary of opening Marker 20, they got word: The spot would soon be available for lease. They signed papers within days.
Bland calls their places, within a couple doors of each other, “his and hers restaurants.” They plan to host block parties again this summer.
For Ledbetter, Bland’s offer to work as head chef at Venture also solved a problem. When he returned to Hampton after spending time in Atlanta, Ledbetter hunted for a job for five months before his parents sent him over to talk to Bland. Bland knew his work; he had even employed him for a while at Marker 20.
Ledbetter impressed them both with his resourcefulness, his willingness to try new dishes, and his drive to perfect recipes. When Ledbetter decided he’d like to try cold-smoking salmon, Bland said, he rigged up his own smoker using a cardboard beer box and some dryer vent tubing. Then there’s the pastrami quest. For five years, Ledbetter said, he’s tried to make pastrami. “I’ve tried 300 different recipes,” he says. “When I put it in my mouth, it doesn’t taste like pastrami.”
He has a slender frame, unruly hair and a rumbly bass voice. Despite his love of cooking he sometimes gets a bit claustrophobic in the kitchen; the line cooks have learned to read the signs and give him more room. It’s born of friendship and respect, and Ledbetter runs a harmonious kitchen. He and his staff get along so well that they spent a bleary post-Christmas party Sunday morning getting identical tattoos of a bacon strip on their hands.
“Sometimes it’s fun to do something stupid,” he says.
Little stupidity shows up in his food. Sam Garrity, one of the line cooks at Venture, can fire a half a dozen dishes at once: cheddar fondue with port wine, tots in the fryer, apples sauteeing in butter to top crispy pork belly, meatballs warming in a saucepan with the rich, spicy sauce Ledbetter created.
“John’s particular about what comes out of the kitchen,” Garrity says. “He wants it to be right.” From the open kitchen, the two can both see customers’ reaction to the food. It’s part of the equation that cannot be analyzed with a measuring tape on a key chain.