Zekes

 

Zekes-Headline

by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by TODD WRIGHT

 

Cheerful lettering on the door extends the artful vibe of Zeke’s Beans and Bowls into the outside world.

“Take care and create stuff!” says the slogan, applied around eye level to ensure the hearty farewell goes noticed.

“I’d like to think the restaurant itself has a soul,” says co-owner Nick Vitale. “It’s more than a place to eat. It’s a creative hub.”

Vitale – he pronounces it Vih-TAHL-ee, and emphasizes that although his whole name looks as if it could rhyme with that of sportscaster Dick Vitale, it doesn’t – crafted that vibe. Zeke’s opened in Shadowlawn in June 2013, behind a purple door crowned with a giant coffee cup. The furniture evokes “your grandmother’s living room,” Vitale says. “It’s vintage, well-kept pieces” like a sturdy couch with a floral pattern in the avocado green of a bygone time. “Not a stinky college-town frat couch.” He added other pieces that lend a feel of anachronism, like a typewriter – “kids have never seen a typewriter!” – a turntable, a rotary dial phone. Then Vitale infused the space with his own personality. Big photographs pay tribute to his father’s career as a photographer. A copy of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Pulp Fiction joins coffee table books, a reflection of Vitale’s love of movies.

“Basically I wanted a space that was comfortable and cozy,” Vitale says, so folks who came to eat at the Beach could “maybe get inspired.” When he was younger, he says, dreaming of one day working as a film director, he never saw a screenplay. Tarantino’s work was a revelation. “Maybe it will inspire someone else,” he says.

Inspiration for the menu came straight from memories shared with co-owner Mike Schirmer. They have known each other since they were kids surfing together at Virginia Beach in the mid-’90s. Surfing took them to other spots with fine waves, and introduced them to the foods other surfers ate for sustenance: in Puerto Rico, fruit salads loaded with acai berries. In Hawaii, poke – raw tuna mixed with rice and fiery seasonings. In the Pacific Northwest, coffee beans ground to order and brewed slowly in single servings.

Zekes-Storefront

At Zeke’s, the beans equal coffee, and the bowls equal hearty portions of nutritious, flavorful victuals to sustain surfers, whether of waves or corporations.

The North Pole acai bowl features a luscious sauce with plenty of cinnamon, mixed with blueberries, bananas and mangos. Almonds and granola contrast with crunch. It’s a bit like eating a yogurt parfait – perhaps a dessert Grandma might have made – but more decadent, more filling.

“And instead of feeling all fat like a bacon, egg and cheese, you feel light,” Schirmer says.

Poke bowls, packed in plastic to-go containers, evoke another touch of retro, bearing resemblance to those ’70s school art projects that filled baby food jars with layers of colored sand. A base of white or brown rice, a vibrant stripe of green seaweed salad and onion, then a glistening coral topper of firm, fresh tuna mixed with sriracha, mayo, panko and searing hot peppers. It, too, offers balance in a bowl. Cool parries spice; chewy, crispy salad plays against creamy tuna; lean, healthy protein earns favored status through tons of flavor.

Organic, fair trade, single-origin coffees from Intelligentsia and the Beach’s Three Ships Coffee provide perk. Juices made from vegetables or fruits – Zeke’s Facebook page touts watermelon juice as “nature’s Viagra” – and lightly sweetened smoothies complete the drink options.

A serendipitous reunion sparked the creation of Zeke’s. Vitale had been in Los Angeles, “in a big pond with a lot of fish,” trying to work in film but supporting himself by tending bar and waiting
tables. He came home to Virginia Beach for a visit last year and bumped into Schirmer, who owns The Boxx near 22nd Street, as well as Beach Cruiser Taxi. In addition to surfing, the two had tended bar together at Virginia Beach restaurants.

On that visit, they talked about starting a place together.

“We came up with the idea on a Tuesday. On Wednesday we had a place,” Schirmer says.

To find its soul, both men turned again to the past. The name of their place, Zeke’s, honors their friend Zeke Sanders, one of Virginia Beach’s best-known and most successful surfers. He died by suicide in 2006, when he was 29.

Sanders had already changed their lives.

“When he was 22 and I was 16 he took me to California for a month and a half,” Schirmer says. “We’d go out every day, walk a couple miles.” Sanders was already well regarded by then, even worked for some of the big surf companies, Schirmer says. He could have been a real jerk to a teenage kid. Instead, he was the most friendly, easy-to-approach person Schirmer had ever met.

To Vitale, too, Sanders offered unconditional support.

“When I told him I wanted to go to New York City, he said ‘Do it!’ ” Vitale says. “We looked up to him.”

Vitale and Schirmer have tried to incorporate Sanders’ goodwill and inspiration into their place. They host artists and showings during First Friday events. Surfboards stand just inside the door. The two planned a kids’ surf competition in Zeke’s memory this summer.

Zekes-Owners

Vitale this year took Zeke’s advice for a second time, and moved to New York City again to pursue his dream of working as a filmmaker. One of his first film projects: a commercial for Zeke’s.

Schirmer lives just a few blocks from Zeke’s, and they trained their chef – born in Hawaii, and creator of the poke recipes – as general manager. Vitale continues to update Zeke’s Facebook page.

And so a partnership from two friends who paid tribute to a third helped Zeke’s establish its own beat.

“I like to think this would be a place he would come to,” Vitale says. “We’re going to do right by the name.”

 

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In The Mix

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

by J. CLAYTON BARBOUR
photography by KEITH LANPHER
The myth is that sailors in the 1600s stumbled across a concoction that forever changed the way people enjoyed alcohol.

Employees of the East India Company, in an effort to kill two birds with one stone – scurvy and boredom – combined brandy with citrus, sugar and spices to create what some believe is the first cocktail.

Bachelorette parties would never be the same.

Fighting off a vitamin C deficiency is no longer the motive, but that same level of creativity is  alive in Hampton Roads. Sure, breweries like Smartmouth and O’Connor have led to a regional craft beer renaissance, but those inclined toward harder spirits can easily find bars catering to a better class of cocktail.

These skilled bartenders believe their zest for fresh ingredients and original recipes will lead to the kind of revolution that has knowledgeable beer drinkers looking down on Budweiser.

Mixed drinks have changed somewhat since those very first ones.

During Prohibition, they served as a way to make homemade – and often dangerous – booze palatable. By the 1960s, thanks in part to James Bond, vodka became the most popular liquor and elegant stiff drinks ruled the day. But in the 1980s, commercialized franchising did to drinks what it did to everything else: replaced freshness with affordability.

In the past decade, however, as people started to look for better food, with fresh, local ingredients, attention turned again to our drinks. Out went the mixes and concentrates. And some people were not happy to simply reproduce old standards; they got creative.

In cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, bartenders specializing in mixology have become so popular that people seek them out.

Now some local bartenders are bringing this practice to life. Check out our picks, along with a signature drink of each.

The New Professional
Joshua Seaburg, 23
Bartender
Twist, Virginia Beach

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

Josh Seaburg uses the word “correct” instead of “yes.” Neat and professional, he has a manner that is almost old-fashioned. But his dedication to precision – a trait that can be irritating to some of his colleagues – has served him well in a profession where his best drinks come from experimentation and regimen.

Seaburg may be young, but he has studied his craft more than most and is passionate about cocktails. His philosophy is to use only fresh ingredients and quality spirits. No concentrates, no sour mixes. He even makes his own syrups.

“Quality shows,” he says.

 The Peace Prize
This tasty cocktail goes down easy – probably too easy. Imagine a hint of chocolate infused with citrus.

Ingredients
1½ ounces Ron Matusalem
(Cuban-style rum)
¾ ounce Fernet-Branca (neutral spirit infused with botanicals like saffron)
½ ounce Carpano Antica (sweet Vermouth)
½ ounce Licor 43
Large lemon twist

The Traditionalist
Maggie Tsouris, 65
Co-owner
Voila, Norfolk

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

If Maggie Tsouris’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she and her husband, John, have also owned and operated The Boulevard Café in Virginia Beach and Enrico’s on Colley in Norfolk.

Two years ago they bought Voila, in Freemason, and there Tsouris has been making delicious cocktails with a twist. Not only does she create her own unique drinks, she also makes traditionals the way you’ve probably never had them – in their original recipe.

Over the years drink recipes change, due to supply and cultural differences. Order a Tequila Sunrise today, for example, and you’ll likely get a simple drink made of tequila, OJ and grenadine. At Voila, it’s made with tequila, lime, crème de cassis and a splash of soda.

“Try them both and see which one you like better,” she says, with a smile.

Napoleon’s Devil

It’s like a cleaner, lighter Manhattan. If you like bourbon, this is your drink. Just make sure you bring a friend to drive you home.

Ingredients

2½ ounces bourbon
¾ ounce Maurin Quina (French aperitif)
¼ ounce Mandarine Napoleon
Maraschino cherry (a real one – soaked in salt brine, then pitted, and soaked in sweetener for about a month)

The Cocktail Chef

Erika Caylor, 39
Cocktaillier
Terrapin, Virginia Beach

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

A Buffalo native, Erika Caylor came to Virginia Beach young and never left. For the past eight years she has worked as head bartender at Terrapin. Making her own sour mixes, grenadine and syrups is just the first step for her. She also experiments with the creation of the drinks and their storage.

At any given time she will have behind the bar a selection of drinks stored in casks, such as Manhattans or Negronis. The wood brings out different flavors in the traditional drinks.

“It’s like being a cocktail chef,” she says. “I feel it takes a little more inspiration than just tending bar.”

Whiskey Goggles

A light, fruity drink that is as colorful as it is tasty. Goes down easy. Perfect for summer.

 Ingredients

1½ ounces Bulleit Rye
½ ounce St.-Germain liqueur
Juice of half an orange
½ ounce house-made raspberry syrup
B&B-rinse the martini glass (optional) and serve with four raspberries.

The Former Sailor 

Stephan Stockwell, 33
GM and co-owner
Chow, Norfolk

Mixology, mixologists, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, bartenders, Norfolk VA, Virginia

The Navy may have brought California native Stephan Stockwell to the area, but affection for Tidewater kept him around. The former sailor (who served on the Enterprise in aviation ordnance) now runs Chow, where he churns out drinks more hip than his ironic facial hair.

Stockwell got into craft cocktails through his love of craft beer. “Being able to create an expression of yourself is an art,” he says.

But don’t call him a mixologist. He is a bartender who enjoys mixology. Like Josh Seaburg at Twist, he uses only fresh ingredients and he loves to experiment. His offering here is proof of that.

The Free and Clear

This summer drink is reminiscent of a Dark and Stormy. Very light, citrusy with a touch of syrup. But strong. Don’t be afraid of the prunes.

Ingredients

2 ounces Salignac (cognac)
½ ounce Aperol (bitter Italian aperitif)
¾ ounce prune syrup
½ ounce lemon juice
Serve with lemon peel.

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Farming Of The Future

vertical acres, hydroponics, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, hydrogreens, Virginia Beach, Virginia, heads up hydrogreens, hunt club farm

by JANINE LATUS
photography by ROBERTO WESTBROOK
Inside an arched and insulated 60-foot-long building down a dirt road behind Hunt Club Farm in southern Virginia Beach, 8,000 heads of lettuce grow in what its owners call a “plant spa.”

John Pierce and Jacob Gold shuffle their feet through a low tray of disinfectant before entering a control room where a computer controls the transformers that manage the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels in the air, and the conductivity and pH of circulating water. This is command central, the nervous system, the electronic butler that caters to every need of every basil and arugula and lettuce plant in the main growing room – the butter head and butter crunch, and the dark green summer crisp that’s popular with juicers because it’s so nutritious. There are black oil sunflower sprouts whose 7 grams of protein per ounce make them perfect for vegans, and herb-quality arugula so peppery it’s used only as a spice. All of it is grown from organic seeds.

Pierce and Gold, lean and health-conscious, are co-founders of Vertical Acres, a high-density hydroponic system they believe will change the way the world grows food.

Gold, 39, and Pierce, 48, spent 15 years as contractors, together and separately building high-end homes, restaurants, boats and horse barns. Gold worked for Pierce and then Pierce worked for Gold, and all the while they talked about starting a business that would matter.

“We wanted to find something with a purpose,” Gold says, “something that would fulfill us and improve the world.”

Then one day Pierce read a copy of Urban Farming magazine, and he called Gold.

“I’ve got the business,” he said.

They would produce food, and do it in a way that used no pesticides, almost no fossil fuel and only 1 percent of the water used in traditional farming. Their food would be nutritionally dense and far more flavorful than that found in a field, and it could be grown anywhere – on a yacht, in a mansion, on the edge of urban blight, in the middle of an African desert, inside a shipping container.

It would be grown in the midst of its consumers, so minimal petrochemicals would be spewed into the atmosphere in the process of planting and harvesting and transport.

Hydroponic growing systems have been around for decades, most with rows of tubes of water carrying the equivalent of soluble multivitamins – everything the plant needs delivered directly to its roots, to create foods that the USDA says are 40 percent to 70 percent more nutritious than those grown on a factory farm.

But Gold and Pierce had an idea that would let them produce eight times as much food in the same space: They would suspend horizontal tubes of plants one above another, 10 high, and hang those racks from a mechanized track that would allow them to push rows together for dense growing and pull them apart when it was time to tend or harvest. Eight hundred plants would grow in each of 10 sliding racks, the walls divided by curtains of LED lights that hang like love beads in a doorway.

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The two took a course in hydroponics led by the Cornell-trained horticulturist Jim Brown, who told them there was no way to make it commercially viable.

“That burned a hole in us,” Gold says.

“He told us we couldn’t do it,” Pierce says, “and we were adamant about proving that we could.”

So they spent $5,000 and four years researching and perfecting a prototype in a garage behind Gold’s house, experimenting with seed varieties, temperature and humidity. They studied lighting and wavelengths and which caused which kind of growth, and they designed two systems – one for seedlings and one for growing plants, the former blue to encourage bulk and root growth, the latter cooler in both temperature and spectrum.

After those four years of intense study, they signed up to provide lettuce for the CSA Coastal Farms, and succeeded. They had done it. Heads Up Hydrogreens was born, and from that grew Vertical Acres.

In 2013 they began production at their new location, where 550 square feet of growing space produces 8,000 plants a month. That’s more than 14 per square foot, eight times as much as in conventional gardening and six times as much as in normal commercial hydroponic production. If they had a second floor they could grow 16,000; a third, 24,000. The water transpired from the plant’s leaves is recycled into circulation, and the trays of their new system are shallower, cutting water needs even further.

They’re working now to incorporate solar panels for places far off the electrical grid, and the electronics can be replaced by human monitoring, onsite by locals or remotely by Gold and Pierce.

“In Africa they have good water but poor soil, and right now we export GMO wheat and corn, which is enough to keep people alive but not healthy,” Gold says. “This would be real food, grown right there. We want to re-green Africa.”

This is not a pipe dream. Decision makers in Abu Dhabi have shown interest, and there are people in Africa trying to pull together investors. The Vertical Acres system has been chosen for a 400,000-square-foot system in Las Vegas, a pilot project of the Eastern Nevada Food Bank that is designed to grow such abundance it will supply food banks, schools and restaurants, and allow graduate students to study optimal growing conditions and return to the planned satellite hubs in food deserts around the country.

“Because of the volume of vegetables it produces, it is a self-sustaining financial operation that won’t have to rely on outside subsidies,” says James Garza, executive director of the food bank and of Southern Nevada Public Farms.

“Hydroponics has become an up-and-coming agricultural technique. It’s been around for a long time, but it hasn’t been cost-effective. With the vertical density they’ve created, they’ve turned the tables,” he says. “We want to revamp the American farmer and help them get into urban areas with a feasible and economic business model that makes sense.”

Clients who buy the Vertical Acres ultra-dense hydroponic growing system will be invited to the building in southern Virginia Beach for a month to train, not just in how to work the system but in how to market and run the business.

vertical acres, hydroponics, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, hydrogreens, Virginia Beach, Virginia, heads up hydrogreens, hunt club farm

This year Pierce and Gold are adding hydroponic asparagus that will produce stems all year, the temperature of the soil and length of day controlled to keep it from going to frond. They’re building a hydroponic greenhouse where they’ll grow tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, all vining vertically. They’re talking with a Texas billionaire who wants to bring the system to Dallas.

“We’re just two country guys from Virginia, wanting to do something for the good of mankind, to help people feed themselves,” Gold says. “You look at your children and the world they’re going to inherit, and either you can stand by, or you can try to make change.”

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Hashi Food Truck


Food Truck, Hashi, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

HASHI – Not your average food on wheels.
 

by JANINE LATUS
photography by KEITH LANPHER
Ross Riddle ladles rice porridge as thick as grits from a stainless steel pot, steam billowing. He adds a dollop of butter, then a bit of Virginia breakfast sausage he has dressed up with cilantro and salt, plus sugar and chilies and vinegar, the flavor a meld of Southern Americana and Southeast Asian. He tops that with an egg that’s been cooked for an hour in an immersion circulator set to 147 degrees Fahrenheit, the egg’s texture that of custard. Over that he drizzles a blend of soy sauce and syrup made of hickory bark and sugar, then tops it all with a sprinkling of crunchy fried shallots.

He leans out the window of his food truck and hands the bowl to a customer, then turns and tweezes a frond of fennel atop wontons that he has tucked full of collard greens and Isle of Wight pork, and seasoned with garlic and ginger. These he has steamed in a bamboo basket and is now serving in a bamboo boat.

All of this from a 2006 Freightliner MT45.

Riddle, 35, is the owner of Hashi food truck, the name Japanese for both “chopsticks” and “bridge,” depending on where you place the accent. His ambition is to fuse food styles from around the world to bring flavor and comfort and surprise to breakfast and lunch.

“Breakfast needs some love,” he says. “And with the truck I’m not confined by people’s expectations that they can get two eggs any style with bacon and grits. I don’t have to compromise and serve pancakes and waffles like I might with a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. I want to get people hooked on the idea that breakfast isn’t going to always be the same way, that it can be a little healthier but still have that good and satisfying feeling we all crave.”

He pulls out a sushi rolling mat and a sheet of nori, which he heats by waving it over a gas burner. He presses on a mound of Carolina rice, then layers Windhaven Farm’s red Angus beef quickly seared in soy sauce, then asparagus, turnip greens and shredded carrot and homemade yellow beet pickles, plus miso and mustard, the ingredients changing with the season. He rolls it tightly and slices it into mouth-filling bites, the white of the rice perfectly encircling the center of red and yellow and green. The roll is a play on Korean kimbap, he says, with seasonal Southern twists.

Riddle rode his bike to his first restaurant job, back when he was 14 and working as a dishwasher at Tandoms Pine Tree Inn in Virginia Beach. During his teenage summers he worked under Angelo Serpe at Pasta e Pani, where he caught the from-scratch bug that has him buying his rice from South Carolina, his miso from Asheville, his pork from Surry and his vegetables from down the road. During college he worked at Mizuno’s Japanese Restaurant on Laskin Road under Walter Mizuno, who taught him the secrets of sushi and impressed upon him the practice of doing everything just the right way. From there he cooked at Bobby Huber’s Bobbywood, then served as head chef at Todd Jurich’s Bistro.

“Working with those great people developed in me a taste for great food and exploring different cultures,” he says.

He left Jurich’s to become part owner of the short-lived Italian Galleria, then moved on to serve as head chef at Suffolk’s Riverstone Chophouse under Sam McGann.

Then in 2009, tragedy struck. His parents, married 42 years, died within four days of each other. It is his inheritance from them – in both finance and character – that allowed him to open Hashi.

“I feel like they’ve kind of been speaking to me throughout this whole process,” Riddle says. “Everything they instilled in me, even when I thought they were overly frugal, a lot of their voice is in what I’m doing now.”

Food Truck, Hashi, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

He pickles his own vegetables. He plans to can seasonal, locally grown produce, and has learned from another restaurateur how to make the wakame that he floats in miso soup out of dehydrated collard greens instead of seaweed, a process that will allow him to source even that important ingredient close to home.

He does the prep work in a warehouse space that’s been outfitted like a traditional industrial kitchen, the counters wide, the appliances gleaming. He gets up at 4 a.m. Joel McLendon, 48, whose business card says “Rider of Shotgun,” himself a local chef with experience in Asian-style food, drives up from Elizabeth City, arriving at 5:30 each morning. Together they cut and prep and package, diced tofu here, pickled yellow beets there, the asparagus like pencils in a cup, the shiitakes sprinkled with soy, the daikons sliced and simmered in vinegar. They pack the pans, the plastic packages of prepped food, the knives and ladles and tongs. Each ingredient and implement is placed precisely, for both the drive over and for the later cooking.

Once the truck is in its approved spot – whether in its usual location at the Towne Bank lot at 21st and Cyprus or at another business or festival – Riddle and McLendon’s movements become choreographed within the tight space that grows sauna-like because of burners and steam and the beating of the sun. Still, Riddle smiles. He’s serving fresh, imaginative food made of grass-fed beef and crisp, fresh vegetables from a truck in a Virginia Beach parking lot.

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Check out our video on Hashi!

A River Of Chips




Route 11 Potato Chips, Potato Chips, Mount Jackson Virginia, Made In Virginia, Route 11, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

How potatoes changed the path of a hotelier’s daughter.

by Lanine Latus
photography by Eric Lusher

Mount Jackson, Virginia -

Inside a beige cinderblock building half an hour from Harrisonburg up I-81, 15,000 pounds of potatoes a day thunder down a stainless steel chute and through a chamber where they’re tossed by an auger, knocking off farm soil that is then captured and reused as topsoil for Route 11 Potato Chip employees.

The potatoes tumble into a spinning chamber with sandpaper-like walls that scrape off the skins, the amount of time for a tough-skinned winter crop from upstate New York longer than for thin-skinned spring spuds from the sandy soils of Florida, and different still for the ones that come from the farm of a Mennonite family nearby, the women in bright dresses as they harvest and plant.

The skins are gathered and later fed to a herd of cattle down the road, while the naked potatoes rise up in a custom-made escalator and then drop slickly into the slicer – set thicker or thinner depending on the potato’s provenance. From there they spew like thousands of Frisbees into a vat of 300-degree sunflower oil, where tined paddlewheels churn them into curls and folds, steam billowing as 75 percent of the product disappears into the sky. Fifteen thousand pounds of potatoes in, 3,500 pounds of chips out, up a conveyor, past an inspector and up another escalator to the seasoning table, where they’re sprinkled with throat-tickling habanero or dill or unrefined sea salt. Then they’re shaken onto an electronic scale that drops 2 ounces of chips into each of the bags being formed by the Robag machine below, the making of the bags and dropping of the chips choreographed to the millisecond.

Founder and co-owner Sarah Cohen, 50, grew up in Washington, D.C., which was a much sleepier Southern town back in the 1970s when her parents – unhindered by training or experience in running a business – bought the Tabard Inn, then and still a Washington icon. Cohen’s father was interested in food politics and food philosophy before they were trendy, and in the early ’80s the family started a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley so they could grow organic vegetables for their own restaurant and others’.

Route 11 Potato Chips, Potato Chips, Mount Jackson Virginia, Made In Virginia, Route 11, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

A neighboring farmer had planted potatoes under a contract with a pair of brothers who later were convicted for dealing cocaine.

“They wanted to launder money with organic potatoes,” Cohen says. “Go figure.”

The potatoes were already in the ground, so her father tossed out an idea: Why don’t we make potato chips?

At the time, she was safely in college in Colorado, far from the force field of the family business, and after graduation she returned to D.C. to work as assistant director on a documentary about the history of the White House. For two years she ran around the White House, trying to keep the director and crew happy, but then the film was wrapped, her job was over, and she was once again working at the Tabard Inn.

Then her parents started yet another venture – this one an oyster farm on the other side of the continent, 3½ hours from Seattle – and Cohen drove with her best friend and her younger brother to do reconnaissance. Cohen and the friend stayed, for a year living on a sliver of land in her parents’ new purchase, a cinderblock hotel named the Moby Dick. Her days were determined by the tide tables, under constant threat of tsunamis as she cultivated and gleaned oysters to send back to the other Washington. Each order home included six dozen for one of the restaurant’s dishwashers, a fact that caught in Cohen’s imagination.

“Oysters had the luxurious connotation, an indulgence,” she says, “and here was this dishwasher…”

She came back to D.C. and with a friend filmed her own documentary, a short black-and-white film about that dishwasher called Oyster Guanaca, the latter word Salvadoran slang for “watermelon eater.”

Cohen did not intend to get sucked back into the Tabard gravitational field. She wanted to return to Washington state, to the man she had met there. She wanted to finish cutting and splicing and editing her film. But then her parents bought a tiny potato chip factory in a strip mall in southern Maryland and promised Williams-Sonoma 6,000 tubs of Tabard Farm Yukon Golds. The Cohens asked their daughter to help.

Cohen didn’t know how to run a factory. She didn’t even like potato chips. Her earliest food memory is of biting into a ball of salt in the middle of a potato chip blister, an experience that made her a pretzel person forever. Yet she agreed to put her movie project and her man on hold and give the project a year.

“You almost have to not know what you’re doing to go into something like this,” she says now. “If you understood how consuming it was going to be, how much space it would take up in your life, you’d walk away.”

That was 25 years ago. That first factory made only 60 pounds of chips per hour – “any smaller and you’re doing it in your house” – but it came with a chipper, a man named Chris Miller, who had a recipe and just enough information to get the job done. Together they fulfilled the order, and when Williams-Sonoma promptly re-ordered, Cohen gave up on her Washington state dreams. She liked making something tangible that she could actually see people enjoy, but she wasn’t willing to do it in a suburban strip mall, so in 1992 she and Miller loaded everything onto a Ryder truck and moved to an old feed store in Middletown, Virginia, deep in the Shenandoah Valley, the building long and low and just off Route 11.

“It was a romantic location, totally inappropriate for food production,” she says, “but it had a lot of charm and a history of being the home of successful businesses, so it had good karma.”

It didn’t have a loading dock, though, so the partners created a conveyor system to bring in the 1,300-pound loads of potatoes and the 2,100-pound vats of oil. She worked part time in a pizza place and Miller worked in a restaurant kitchen, and the family business provided a small subsidy.

“We were young,” she says, “and we were going to make great products and do whatever it took to make things work.”

Their feed store had wooden floors. Their chip-making machinery was from the 1960s and ’70s. They used a garden rake to stir the potatoes in the hot oil. At first they didn’t have a packaging machine, so they sold only to restaurants and to people who came to the store for the novelty of watching through a window as their chips were made. Five years later Cohen and Miller built a new building, one with an actual loading dock and a concrete floor. They bought a packaging machine that had been built in 1964, the same year Cohen was born. It looked like an alien space ship from Lost in Space and was the Cadillac of its time, Rube Goldberg-esque in its workings and held together by bungee cords.

“It was all do-it-yourself. There was no capital investment money,” she says. “We were just on this weird little potato chip journey. Most normal business people would never have put up with it – they want their return now – but Chris and I weren’t the most conventional business people, nor is my family, so no one was telling us how to do it. I had no formal business training other than growing up with unconventional family business.”

It took seven years for them to make a profit; by then they had 20 employees. Miller left to start his own company, but Cohen kept churning out the chips. In her spare time she also finally finished her film, which in 2002 won an honorable mention in the Slow Food on Film Festival in Bra, Italy.

That was also the year she added what she calls the company’s secret ingredient – Michael Connelly, an ex-Army intelligence man, musician and Mr. Fix-It she’d met in a bar when he was playing in a band. She showed him her factory with pride.

“Friends who had seen it had always said, ‘This is so neat, this is so cool, this is the cutest little factory ever,’”Cohen says, “but Mike said, ‘Wow, quite frankly, Sarah, you have some issues here you should be addressing.’”

He talked about flow, about moving product in one direction and not making the machines do the extra work of fighting momentum. She hired him and he started rebuilding every piece of equipment in the place. With everything working they were able to start a second shift. After 12 years in business, Cohen could finally start paying herself a livable salary.

Route 11 Potato Chips, Potato Chips, Mount Jackson Virginia, Made In Virginia, Route 11, Virginia, Distinction Magazine

In 2007 Connelly became a partner, and in 2008 they bought 10 acres in Mount Jackson and spent a year designing and building their current facility. It faces south to take advantage of winter sun; its white membrane roof deflects summer heat. It has open-span construction so that there are no posts or pillars to make it harder to mop, because Connelly is fanatical about cleanliness. They worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, pulling wires and assembling equipment themselves, much of it custom-made by Connelly, now 47, who’s been building things since he was a kid and who is teaching his 3-year-old daughter to do the same.

“I came up with uncles and old guys who did everything from floor covering to being electricians, so there was a chain of information,” he says. “Technology has changed, but everything still works the way it used to – physics is still physics – but you get these big knowledge gaps because people don’t have hands-on experience anymore.”

Connelly set up their system in a straight line, a river of chips that starts at one end as a potato and ends 15 minutes later in bags.

“In the old place everything was herky-jerky,” Cohen says. “I’d read manufacturing magazines and they’d talk about flow and I didn’t even know what that was.”

Today they have 32 employees making nine flavors of chips, plus the seasonal Yukon gold Tabard Farm chips, as a nod to Cohen’s family.

Even in the slow season chips go from potato to out-the-door within two weeks, and in the summer demand is so high that the bags are sometimes still warm when they’re loaded onto trucks headed for high-end grocery stores and corner mom-and-pops across the country.

In Tidewater, they’re available at Taste.

“We very much respect Sarah and what she’s done in growing her business and doing it on a values-driven basis,” says Jon Pruden, co-owner and president of Taste Unlimited. “A number of factors went into our decision last year to eliminate other brands and focus solely on Route 11. It’s a superior product that’s Virginia-made, and we’ve had huge success with them.”

Cohen and Connelly are intent on going beyond just making great potato chips to also improving the lives of the people around them.

Thus the broken and imperfect chips are fed to local cows and the 3-inch-thick cardboard boxes that hold the bladders of oil are donated to the booster club of the local high school, which recycles them and uses the money for gear and travel. The used oil from the fryer heats the factory’s maintenance shop, and whatever is left is sold to a man up the road, who turns it into biodiesel. The company’s commitment is so strong that Connelly spot-checks employee wastebaskets to confirm that everyone is participating in the mandatory recycling program. The goal is to create a waste-free facility, and so far they’ve gotten it down to one small Dumpster every two weeks.

As they say on their website, “We also strive to contribute to the quality of life of our families, friends and community, because if we don’t, what’s the point?”

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Hard Pressed

Castle Hill Cider, distinctionhr, distinction magazine, Hard Cider, Virginia Cider, Virginia

In the hills outside Charlottesville, a thriving cidery nurtures seeds from a storied Colonial tradition.
by MIKE GRUSS
photography by TODD WRIGHT
 

KESWICK, VIRGINIA

John Carr is at a crossroads.

He crouches behind the wheel of a John Deere Gator, wearing a gingham shirt, khakis and LL Bean boots. Before him is the best view of seven to 10 acres of Albemarle County that money can buy. Farther out on the horizon sits a house that belonged to one of Thomas Jefferson’s advisers and guardians, Dr. Thomas Walker. In the foreground stands a massive show barn, once home to famous genetically cloned cattle. And just at the bottom of the hill is a gorgeous, completely restored guesthouse, where Carr slept the night before.

The entirety of the property in rural Keswick, near Charlottesville, is named Castle Hill. But in sum, what is atop the hill is a glimpse of Carr’s full vision for a working farm and cidery.

If all goes according to plan, he will soon have 7,000 to 10,000 densely packed apple trees on the property, including as many as 28 varietals. Not just apples but heritage apples, those with a long history, and not for eating but grown for one purpose: drinking.

“We’re going to have some phenomenal apples,” he says.

Cider, specifically fermented alcoholic cider, is the fastest growing drink in the world, and part of Carr’s vision is to take a bite out of America’s burgeoning craft beer market and booming wine industry.

Before he can show off the totality of this vision, though, a running creek, deep enough to soak his boots, has barricaded his path.

He bought the property in 2005 with a hedge fund manager at the urging of community and celebrity activists who feared developers would snatch up the land, erase the pristine Blue Mountain ridge and skyline, and replace it with 85 McMansions and an accompanying country club. Carr swooped in and bought the 1,600 acres for $24 million and donated 400 acres to The Nature Conservancy, for which he received a tax break.

The hedge fund manager kept 600 acres. Carr kept the rest.

If he’s guessed right, this land and these apple trees could lead to some of the most distinctive cider in the world.

Carr kicks the accelerator to the floor. The Gator jostles hard and then splashes through the creek. He emerges on the other side with his vision laid out fully before him.

 Let’s start with the apples.

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The history of apples in Albemarle County – and cider, by proxy – dates back hundreds of years, to Charlottesville’s romanticized Colonial era.

More recently, Queen Victoria waived the import tax on the Albemarle Pippin apple, because they were her favorite. But perhaps more famously, during the Revolutionary War, cider played a role in America’s history. In 1781, the British lieutenant colonel “Bloody Ban” Tarleton schemed to kidnap the commonwealth’s governor, Thomas Jefferson, believing such an act would be a major setback to the colonists. On his way to Charlottesville, Tarleton stopped at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Walker of Castle Hill. The next morning, according to legend – (Apocryphal? Possibly.) – Mrs. Walker was thought to have served a lengthy brunch, allowing enough time for others to alert Jefferson to the plan and allow him and his family to escape. How?

Because, some believe, Tarleton’s men were drunk.

On cider.

Today, the apples on Carr’s land are unlike those you’d find at a Whole Foods or Fresh Market and cut up for an after-school snack.  They require a palate with precision. Trevor Gibson, the chief executive officer of Castle Hill Cider, the company that runs the farm, describes the apples in epicurean terms: They claim a “good acidity,” which helps them pair well with foods, and a “good tartness.” They are “velvety” on the tongue and create certain “crispness.” They have names like Winesap, Black Twig and Golden Hornet.

And of course there is the Royal or Albemarle Pippin apple, one of Jefferson’s favorites.

So is it a stretch to say the apples from this land at Castle Hill saved a young United States? Probably.

But are there more historically significant apples in the United States? Well, probably not.

Carr founded Castle Hill Cider in 2010.

He was born in England in 1957, moved to the United States at 21, and found himself in Norfolk in the mid-1990s as president and chief executive of what was then Tarmac America, a global building supply and materials company. Yet he always knew he wanted a farm. Since buying Castle Hill, he has been bringing his vision to life as a cidery.

Cider still makes up less than 1 percent of alcoholic beverage purchases but nationwide, production is skyrocketing. In recent years, Virginia’s tourism machine has taken to promoting fine cider. The General Assembly let ciders have a higher percentage of alcohol.  In 2012, Virginia started its own Cidery Week. There is a motto – “Rediscover a Virginia tradition” – and statewide maps that make it easy for travelers to find each of the commonwealth’s cideries.

All of this makes sense. Colonial history has been a pillar of the commonwealth’s tourism dollars for years.

When made with the right mix of ingredients and craftsmanship, it also has the artisan element that appeals to a wide swath of young people. And as the gluten-free movement has become en vogue, cider has become a trendier alcoholic drink of choice.

All of this has led to an increased profile for Castle Hill’s own carefully crafted  ciders. For example, Castle Hill is available at Todd Jurich’s Bistro in Norfolk. It has been the subject of a cider-pairing event at Norfolk’s Chartreuse Bistro. And the cidery itself has hosted ever-more popular events, some drawing 2,000 people. Further making the case, Gibson says Castle Hill will turn a profit this year.

All of this is proof, he says, that Virginia has bought in to ciders, following drinkers on the West Coast and the northern Midwest.

In December, Castle Hill signed a distribution deal that means the company’s cider will be available in eight states throughout the South and the East Coast.

But does Castle Hill stand out enough to survive in the rest of the country?

One of the first stops on any tour of Castle Hill starts about 50 yards from the property’s giant barn, in a nondescript patch of land that could pass for a small vegetable garden. There, the lids of eight giant ceramic pots bloom from the dirt.

Here, Castle Hill’s staff is counting not just on its apples to stand apart but on how the farm turns those apples into cider. Cider is fermented like wine, not brewed like beer.

Carr and Gibson are relying on a fermenting system called kvevri – or qvevri – that dates back thousands of years. The process, developed in the Republic of Georgia, is more commonly used for wine and has most recently made a resurgence in France. Using the kvevri, proponents say, is the difference between making a craft brew and making a Bud.

The process entails filling large ceramic vats with yeast and cider and then burying them about 2 feet underground, where the earth provides enough insulation to keep them from frost and regulates the temperature as the cider ferments.

But there’s also another benefit: “You get some introduction of the wild yeast,” Gibson says. “Some of the earthiness from the terra cotta. It’s got a little more complexity.”

This approach takes time, requiring weekly stirs and an underground stay of months.

Castle Hill is using the process for its flagship brand of ciders known as Levity, a drink almost exclusive to its tasting room. Gibson says they’re the only cidery in the United States trying the method.

A glass costs $7. A bottle, $25.

It is a risky proposition. “You really have to succumb to what nature gives you,” Gibson says.

For Castle Hill’s other varieties of ciders, the apples follow a more traditional path: They are pressed in a back room of the barn, that old home for cattle and now, refurbished, a hotspot for the wedding circuit.

Here, about 30 cardboard boxes, each about the size of a washing machine, have been filled with totes in which Castle Hill’s ciders are aging.

Behind those boxes is a basic assembly-line approach in which the apples are washed, then pulverized into an applesauce. From that, the juice is extracted, filtered and pressed, then put into large steel vats. There the juice is inoculated with Champagne yeast to feed on the sugar, creating alcohol. The cider sits in the vats for six to eight months, then is bottled and rests for another month. In the end, the ciders are about 7 to 8 percent alcohol.

If the process is rushed or done incorrectly, the cider may be too tart or too acidic.

If the process is done just right, Gibson believes, Castle Hill’s ciders can win over fans up and down the East Coast.

In the tasting room on a Sunday in April, the atmosphere is classy casual. Inoffensive acoustic guitar plays through the speakers. A fireplace blazes. In the attached barn, workers are cleaning up after a wedding that required an elaborate lighting display.

And placed on the bar is a German crystal, titanium-reinforced tasting glass.

Gibson works through each sampling, with a sommelier’s flourish:

The Terrestrial is like a Champagne with a refreshing finish.

The Levity has layers of complexity, a robust body and good minerality.

The Celestial Merret features finer bubbles and a subtle nose.

The room begins to fill, with women in sundresses, men in dress shirts and boat shoes. Several hundred people wander into this room each week. Foot traffic is up 60 percent year over year. Overall cider sales have almost doubled in the past year.

Castle Hill is producing 3,500 to 4,000 cases of cider this year. And, Carr and Gibson add, this happens with the caveat that the drinks are not mass marketed.

What comes next?

To do things right, Carr says, the farm needs more apples planted in high density; it’s among the first in the country to experiment with the technique.

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Gibson ticks off the work that remains. Reworking the brand. Learning how Castle Hill’s ciders will perform in other regions, especially foodie-heavy areas such as Charleston, S.C., Northern Virginia, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. And then there is Florida, where the ciders will be marketed as a mixer to capitalize on the booming mixology movement.

“We really want to be a cider from the South, of the South, and that’s pushed in the South,” he says.

We have worked our way through the ciders on the tasting menu, but one is left to taste.

The men who want to create the most distinctive ciders hand me a glass of a new blend that’s exclusive to the tasting room. The product is 90 days or so from a limited production, but for this test batch, Gibson describes the flavor as “masculine.”

The name is Black Twig, for the Tennessee varietal of apple it is made from – one that dates back more than 175 years and was once Andrew Jackson’s favorite.

If Gibson wants to create a cider of the South, for this he has played right into the archetype. The farm fermented this batch in the most Southern receptacle possible: a once-used Jack Daniel’s barrel, to pick up hints of oak, charcoal and whiskey.

He smiles as I raise the glass to sip.

“This product,” he says, “is as American as apple pie.”

Maybe even more so.

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Spare Me

Wendy Jo Peterson

by ALISON F. JOHNSON   photography by  ROBERTO WESTBROOK

Ancient Greeks and Romans believed it could help prevent bee stings and ease ailments. In modern times, it often lands on top-10 lists of aphrodisiac foods. So why do so many people avoid asparagus, even at its peak in late spring and early summer?

One reason: Cooking it too long, especially if the stalks are already limp, results in a mushy mess.

“That’s the only way a lot of people have had it, and it’s disgusting,” says Wendy Jo Peterson, a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist and author. “They need to try it al dente, with that great crunch.”

At the grocery store, don’t concentrate on color (asparagus can be green, purple or white) but look for firm stalks with bottoms that don’t appear dried out or ashy, says Peterson, who is based in San Diego and has a residence in Virginia Beach. At home, trim the bottoms and place them in an inch of water, then cover the spears with a plastic bag.

And rather than boiling, blanch: Cook asparagus in boiling water for about two minutes, followed by a 30-second soak in ice water. Or wrap baby stalks in prosciutto or bacon and bake for 10 or 15 minutes at

400 degrees (often a picky-kid favorite).

Growing asparagus takes patience, as seeds or year-old crowns planted in early spring likely won’t be ready for two or three years. The reward is a hardy perennial that can tolerate cold and dry spells and produce for 15-plus years, especially in plots with full sun and good drainage, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

So shoot, asparagus haters – give it another chance?

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POTATO-CRUSTED ASPARAGUS AND PROSCIUTTO QUICHE
by Wendy Jo Peterson

 Makes: 8 wedges.

Note: Grate the potatoes into cold water to keep them from browning, or use grated potatoes from the refrigerator/freezer section of the grocery. We made our quiche with a 10-inch springform pan, 9 eggs,   1/3 cup half-and-half, and a 1-pound bag of prepared grated potatoes. Serving suggestion: Mimosas and salad tossed with Champagne vinaigrette.

INGREDIENTS
Potato crust
2 russet potatoes or prepared frozen grated potatoes
¼ red onion
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

Quiche filling
6 eggs
¼ cup half-and-half
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped, or more if desired
1½ cups asparagus, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1½ ounces goat cheese, crumbled, or more if desired

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Grate potatoes and onion, then squeeze dry on paper towels.

In a bowl, toss potatoes, onion, paprika, and the first portions of salt and pepper.

Rub olive oil across the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan and press the potato mixture in and up along the sides.

Bake crust for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the same bowl, gently whisk eggs and half-and-half for 1 minute. Stir in prosciutto, asparagus, thyme, and the remaining salt and pepper. Pour mixture over potato crust and top with goat cheese. (The crust need not be cool.)

Reduce oven temperature to 375 and bake quiche for 35 to 40 minutes or until completely set in the center. (Gently shake the pan to see if the center is set.)

Ol’ Softy

by KIM O’BRIEN ROOT
photography by KEITH LANPHER

Usually considered restaurant-only fare, soft-shell crabs really aren’t that difficult to prepare at home.

The key is making sure they’re fresh, says Jerry Bryan, one of the owners of Virginia Beach’s Coastal Grill, where fried soft-shell crabs are popular.

That means practically right off the boat. Soft-shell crabs – sometimes referred to as shedders – are blue crabs plucked from the water right after they molt their hard shell but before a second, replacement shell has time to harden. Coastal Grill gets them fresh from its preferred Suffolk watermen three times a week.

Bryan prefers using the whales – a more mature soft-shell crab that’s about 5 inches across and has more meat. After being cleaned, soaked in milk and dredged in flour, the crabs are deep-fried, drizzled with scallion butter and served with homemade tartar sauce. The soft-shells are so tender, the delicate claws are easily pulled apart. They practically melt in your mouth.

“There’s no real mystery to it,” says Bryan, who’s been a chef for some 35 years and this winter opened Metropolitan Oyster Exchange in Virginia Beach. “A lot of people think we do something special.”

He advises cleaning the crabs as close to cooking time as possible. Care should be taken when frying: The crabs can hold the milk they’re dipped in, which bubbles up and causes the oil to splatter. For easier frying, Bryan suggests cutting the crabs in half, front to back, and then the remaining halves into thirds before frying. They can also be cooked on a grill.

DEEP-FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRABS WITH SCALLION BUTTER
from Coastal Grill

INGREDIENTS

Crabs, allowing 2 per person
Milk
Flour to dredge
Canola oil, enough to fill bottom of a steep-sided pot or frittata pan
Scallion butter (recipe follows)

PREPARATION

Clean soft-shells by lifting the corners of the top shell back and removing the gills (dead man) on both ends. On the belly of the crab, lift and pull off the apron, being careful not to rip the top shell. Rinse the crab in a bowl, then drain the water and add milk to cover.

Heat 1½ to 2 inches of canola oil to 350 degrees in a steep-sided pot or frittata pan; the crab may pop and splatter while cooking. You should have just enough oil that crabs will not touch each other or the bottom of fryer.

Lift crabs out of the milk and place in the flour, shaking the container so that the crab is covered with flour. Shake off any excess.

Place the crab in hot oil, allowing 2 minutes per side. Remove crabs to paper towels to absorb excess oil. Place on platter and spoon on scallion butter.

SCALLION BUTTER

INGREDIENTS
2 sticks unsalted butter
½ cup sliced green onions
1 teaspoon kosher salt

PREPARATION

Melt butter, along with other ingredients, on low, low heat until the butter is just melted. Take care not to heat the butter so long that it separates and becomes greasy, Bryan warns. Add more salt to taste. Pour over crabs.

Strawberry Jam

Recipe, Strawberry Preserves, Preserves, Strawberry, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Magazine, Virginia

by LORRAINE EATON
photography by  ROBERTO WESTBROOK

For local farmers, strawberry fields really are forever.

May marks the season’s peak in Pungo, when fields fill with pickers plunking fat red berries into baskets and buckets.

But for the state’s largest strawberry producers, the season starts in August, when refrigerated rigs arrive bearing hundreds of thousands of “tips” – spindly, pinkie-length stalks with a serrated leaf or two on top and a few hairs of root at the base.

It doesn’t end until June when the last picker exits the rows and it’s time to prep for the August delivery from Prince Edward Island, the Canadian province where most local plants are propagated.

In between September plantings and spring picking, farmers fight deluge and fungus.

When temperatures drop in winter, farmers tuck rows under blankets as big as whole fields and haul out miles of irrigation pipe and begin all-night vigils, knowing that as the water freezes on the plants, the heat that’s released can keep them alive.

Mike Cullipher, a fourth-generation Virginia Beach grower who tends more than 5 acres of certified organic and conventional berries, has seen it all. His advice for pickers: Make sure the berries are red through and through, and start picking at the far end of the rows.

 “It seems like everybody goes to the first plant on the first row,” he says, “regardless of what we tell them.”

Cullipher figures he eats about 2 pounds of berries a day, standing right in the rows, checking for ripeness. But he grew up with a pantry stocked with strawberry preserves, made with this century-old recipe that passed to his mother, Becky Malbon Cullipher, from her grandmother to her mother. Truly a Tidewater tradition.

STRAWBERRY PRESERVES
Makes: 4 half-pint jars. Sealed properly, they keep for up to six months.

INGREDIENTS
6 cups strawberries – about 2 quarts. Select firm, ripe ones.
4½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter

PREPARATION

Wash, drain and cap berries. Leave them whole or chop them, but do not crush (jam is made from crushed fruit; preserves are made from larger pieces).

Combine the fruit and sugar in alternating layers and let stand for 8 to 10 hours or overnight in the refrigerator or a cool place.

Heat the mixture to boiling, stirring gently. Boil rapidly, stirring as needed to prevent sticking.

Add butter to reduce foaming. Cook until syrup is somewhat thick, about 15 or 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Ladle into hot, clean jars; seal.

Venture Out

Restaurant, Hampton Roads, Pizza, Tater Tots, Distinction Magazine, Virginia, Virginia Restaurant, Gourmet, Gastropub

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.

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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.

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