It’s 9:30pm on a Thursday. Mono Loco is finishing up dinner service. But the kitchen crew is just getting ready to start things up. They change into their street clothes and head over to Mas.
It’s 10am the next day. The Hamilton’s staff is walking toward the Downtown Mall spot for lunch service. A few stop by Miller’s to have a smoke or chat before heading into the restaurant.
It’s 4pm that afternoon. The Pasture lunch servers are closing out and making way for the dinner staff. They pocket their tips from the day’s work and pop over to Parallel 38 for a happy hour cocktail.
Charlottesville is a small town, a fact that’s never so obvious as when you sit down to chat with a few of the chefs, managers, and restaurateurs that make this place their home. Everyone on the restaurant scene seems to know everyone, and everyone has a story to tell about everyone else.
Sometimes, that can work against C’Ville’s culinary scene. It means ideas travel fast, and average dish concepts can burn bright and flame out as quickly as a boozy souvlaki. Worse, it can mean in-fighting, backstabbing, and a reluctance to push the community as a whole forward.
But a little scene can also be an uplifting scene. It means most chefs are close enough to a few other decent craftsmen that they can pick up tips and techniques to up their game. Best of all, it means when a patriarch of this food community unexpectedly passes away, the people he leaves behind rally around his memory and celebrate what he meant to them.
Longtime C&O owner Dave SImpson was a unifier. He was the first restaurant owner to join up for the inaugural Restaurant Week, whether he needed the publicity or not. He garnered favorable reviews from national media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Food & Wine magazine. His restaurant has long been the go-to spot for special occasion dinners. He was a success story that even those who didn’t know him could cheer for and draw inspiration from. When he died on April 29, C’Ville citizens came out of the cupboards to talk about him. Everyone all of a sudden had a Simpson story.
And yet Simpson is only the beginning of the story of how the chefs in this community are bound together. Follow along as we unwind a few threads of this giant web of close-knit culinarians.
‘It took that year to gain his trust.’
The new executive chef and owner of C&O has no doubt done his mentor proud. No, Dean Maupin isn’t running the C&O kitchen just the way it was when Dave Simpson died, but the don probably wouldn’t have wanted it that way.
As a restaurateur, Simpson’s bailiwick was more on the business side, according to Maupin. So convinced was he of Simpson’s business savvy that when he went to take over the restaurant, he spent a year working out of Simpson’s office, the two men seated side by side in close quarters.
“I was just absorbing his style and learning the way he dealt with people and his wisdom from doing this for 30 years,” Maupin said. “He brought me in with all intentions of selling me the restaurant, but it took that year to gain his trust.”
When Simpson decided he was ready to retire, his mentee’s impression was that he was a bit down about the direction of C&O. He thought Maupin was just the chef to bring the kitchen back in line with the institution.
“Technique and sense of place mattered to me a lot,” Maupin said. “It was important to me that what we did fit with the vibe. I think that it didn’t for a long time.”
A different level
Downtown Grille and Fry’s Spring Station owner Robert Sawrey’s relationship with Dave Simpson grew even after Simpson passed away.
The two men, both longtime standard bearers of C’Ville’s supper scene, had known each other in passing for years. They ate at one another’s restaurants on occasion and maintained a level of unspoken respect. Then, when both happened to be standing in line at the bank one afternoon, Sawrey mentioned a letter from Mississippi author Larry Brown that he had seen while dining at C&O. Sawrey was also a fan of the writer and had himself corresponded with Brown once upon a time.
“We realized that we liked the very same writers,” Sawrey said. “Sometimes he would call me or I would call him, and he would say, ‘who cleans your hoods?’ or something like that. But generally when Dave and I talked it was about writers and music. It was on a different level.”
Still, it wasn’t until Simpson’s memorial service that Sawrey found out he and his new friend had even more in common. Like him, Simpson was a guitar player.
“I am so sad that I never knew that,” Sawrey said. “We could have played together.”
‘He’s a character.’
Sam Rochester doesn’t say so, but you hear it in his voice. When he told Mas executive chef Tomas Rahal he would also one day be an executive in this town, he didn’t think he believed him.
Cooking on the line at Mas was Rochester’s first job after moving to Charlottesville from Colorado. He had never done tapas before, and he had a lot to learn in his short time working under Rahal.
“He’s a character. He’s a great cook and brings a lot of innovation, a lot of insight,” Rochester said. “And he’s a fun guy to be around. He’s not as hard on the line cooks as he is on the wait staff.”
Rochester said Rahal put a lot of trust in him and the other line cooks, even when he was first starting out. Rahal would be meticulous about instruction, making sure all the cooks knew exactly how to put dishes together, but once his system was in place, he stepped away.
Rochester, along with the sous chef at the time and another up-and-comer named Loren Mendosa, were like the “three amigos” at Mas. They worked in the kitchen during service and hung out together after hours.
“We had a lot of great nights,” Rochester said. “I remember staying up at Mas, way past when I should have been in bed, doing shots and hanging out and having fun. But that was before I had kids.”
Rochester’s eventual goal was to be on “another level” from the transient chefs in town. He says he’s seen them all—the cooks that walk up the mall passing out resumés and then back down the other side—and he didn’t want to be one of them.
Rochester made it. He became executive chef at the Downtown Grille in 2007 and hasn’t looked back.
That up-and-comer he used to do shots with after work at Mas has also made a decent name for himself, landing the head chef job at the Belmont Italian spot tavola last year.
“Loren is a lot of fun,” Rochester said. “When I first met him, he was a young 19-year-old-kid and didn’t have a driver’s license. He was wide-eyed. He’s like a sponge—soaked it all up real quick, and pretty much rose to the top.”
Home sweet home
Chef Joe Finazzo of Sal’s Caffe Italia for the most part keeps a low profile. But he and his sister, Jenn Finnazo Schneider, decided they couldn’t stay silent over the past few years as perceptions of the Downtown Mall took hit after hit.
Sal’s has called the Mall home since 1985, when Joe and Jenn’s parents moved their restaurant there from a local shopping center, so helping launch the Charlottesville Downtown Mall Reclamation Project—an activist group that lobbies city officials for Mall improvements—was something the siblings felt strongly about.
“We’re trying to make the Mall a little bit more safe and inviting,” Finnazo said. “It seems like it’s taking steps forward again.”
Finnazzo credits Zocalo chefs Andrew Silver and Ivan Rekosh, as well as his neighbors at Rapture, for helping push the Mall forward.
“I guess I’m a loudmouth,” Rapture owner Mike Rodi said. He said certain areas of the Mall, like the fountains in front of Zocalo and Petit Pois, have been a gathering place for a seedy element. “I was always like, ‘why don’t we put this to the city or come in in the middle of the night to destroy those things?’”
They haven’t pulled out the sledge hammers just yet, and Finazzo admits Mall improvements are an ongoing process, but he’s not giving up on the project anytime soon.
Brooke Fedora said no mentor could have prepared her and her husband, chef Luther Fedora, for what it would be like to own their own restaurant. No one, she said, could have taught her the lessons she has been taught by the Horse & Hound itself.
Still, Fedora and her husband are inspired by and admire chefs outside their gastronomic bubble. When the couple moved to Charlottesville, Luther did stretches at the Boar’s Head Inn and as culinary director for the Doubletree. Brooke joined up with Brian Helleberg at Fleurie to be the French fine dining restaurant’s pastry chef.
“I don’t get to see him a lot since we opened,” Brooke Fedora said of Helleberg. “But we had a great working relationship during the time I was there.”
‘It’s like pillow talk on the road.’
Brice Cunningham, who launched local French standards Fleurie and Petit Pois with Brian Helleberg before striking out on his own with Tempo, eats like a chef. He’s constantly testing recipes out in his restaurant kitchen, even on his days off. But you wouldn’t know it to look at him.
Cunningham combats his cheffy appetite through bicycling, a hobby several area cooks share. For Cunningham, chatting with fellow chefs and cyclists like Maya’s Christian Kelly is a form of therapy, in addition to being exercise.
“It’s like pillow talk on the road,” Cunningham said. “We talk about what we’ve been doing in the restaurant…about where we see the market going. We have been talking about how no one is cooking anymore.”
For Cunningham, who often skips meals to fire up his dish-creating creativity, that’s unacceptable.
‘They do things that inspire me to do my own thing.’
Christian Kelly isn’t into fine dining. But when he came to Charlottesville in 1999, he found himself working alongside the chef who would become one of the top fine dining talents in the area.
“Tucker [Yoder] I have known since I moved here. We’ve had a long friendship,” Kelly said. “We talk shop, but we talk about being a dad mostly.”
Kelly and Yoder initially went in similar directions when they left OXO, the upscale spot that once held down the Water Street space that’s now Escafé. Yoder was actually Kelly’s sous chef for almost two years at Clifton Inn before the two friends’ careers diverged.
Yoder would eventually come back to Clifton and win acclaim for his progressive take on refined food. But Kelly decided he wanted to do something simpler. He wanted to do straightforward food. He wanted to do approachable food.
Kelly has found a home at Maya, where he’s doing his simple food with a focus on making everything in-house. Still, he hasn’t forgotten his fine dining roots and said he respects and admires the guys like Yoder and Angelo Vangelopoulos of the Ivy Inn Restaurant (another close friend of Kelly’s) that raise the bar on what food can be.
“They do things that inspire me to do my own thing, and maybe bring that up to a different level,” Kelly said. “I don’t try to emulate anyone else’s food, but they are inspirational in just how hard they work.”
‘I just liked what he was doing as an individual.’
Kelly may not fancy himself a fine dining chef, but Shebeen owner Walter Slawski remembers when he was.
“Christian has been an inspiration to me” since before he was at Maya, Slawski said. “When he was at Clifton prior to that, I just liked what he was doing as an individual…and the quality of attention he puts into his food.”
More than just his culinary chops, Slawski said he appreciates what Kelly has been able to do in the grub business while balancing it all with a family life.
Standing in his kitchen on a Thursday afternoon while shucking oysters for a weekend catering gig, Slawski thought of one other local restaurant man who’s been an inspiration to him.
“Dave Simpson.” he said. “He was just an incredible guy. I didn’t know him well personally, but he was a UVA guy and took over a business, came up, and ran it. He was a big inspiration. We were really sad to lose him.”
‘He had this international style.’
Rapture owner Mike Rodi said it took a long time to “shake” the imprint left on the restaurant’s menu by its first chef. Not that it was an imprint that really needed shaking.
Rodi hired Tomas Rahal when he was brought in to manage the new restaurant on the Downtown Mall in 1998.
“I learned a lot from Tomas. He had this international style,” Rodi said. “I still consider him a dear friend, but he definitely was large and in charge in the kitchen. I felt bad for people who didn’t do the right thing by him. They heard about it. We all did. That is what makes him Tomas.”
Rodi said Rahal initiated the restaurant’s emphasis on sourcing, an emphasis that new chef Chris Humphrey fully embraces, albeit with a style that is all his own.
It took about a decade for Rodi to get Humphrey to come to work for him at Rapture. He first offered Humphrey the gig in 1999, while the young Southern-inspired chef was working on the line for Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne at Metropolitain (now The Space, a private dining facility catering to high-end parties). But Burgess and Derquenne countered with an offer for Humphrey to move into the sous chef position at Bizou, with the promise that he would be able to move into the chef de cuisine role at their other downtown spot, Bang!.
Finally, in 2010, Rodi landed his chef, drawing Humphrey away from Bang!, and the two picked up right where they left off.
“We had a vision for Rapture back then of doing cool, high-end Southern cuisine,” Rodi said. “That has now caught up to him and is officially hip. I think he is sad about that. He wasn’t trying to be hip. He was just trying to be good.”
Humphrey is far more humble about his roots and his cuisine. While Rodi points up his chef’s French training under the likes of Burgess and Derquenne, Humphrey is more likely to point to his family to explain his inspiration.
“I like to cook the way I like to eat, and the way I like to eat is the way my grandma used to cook,” Humphrey said. “She used to raise vegetables, and my grandpa raised pigs. It’s Southern food, home cookin’.”
in addition to the Burgess-Derquenne empire, Humphrey has also honed his family’s recipes at Jarman’s Gap in Crozet, Fellini’s #9, and Maya, where he worked with current chef Christian Kelly.
“I think Chris’s foundation has really carried him through, not just in his food but in the work ethic and standard [others] instilled in him,” Rodi said.
‘I would have stayed with Dave forever.’
Stacey Libitz isn’t a chef, but she had the chance to learn about the restaurant business from one of C’ville’s best while working as a server at Bizou. It was there that she got a firsthand look at Vincent Derquenne’s demanding style.
“I learned the most I have ever learned in food and beverage from him,” she said. “He can be intense at times, but it’s because he is so passionate about what he does. At first it was tough to hack, but at the end, I wouldn’t have taken back that experience at all.”
Libitz said the most important lesson she learned from Derquenne was that servers should have enough knowledge of their restaurants food and wine list that they can act as consultants for their diners, rather than just being order-takers.
Recently promoted to general manager at Blue Light, Libitz is now working to instill those values in her servers. When chef John Meiklejohn rolled out a new menu in early July, for example, she wanted her wait staff to be ready to explain the dishes right from the start.
“The servers are under the understanding they will be tested,” Libitz said. “The culinary team uses some fancy words the patrons might not know.”
Blue Light Grill chef John Meiklejohn has no problem citing the C’Ville restaurateur who’s had the greatest effect on him.
“Dave Simpson more than anyone else,” he said. “I only worked for him for a short time, but out of everyone, he made the greatest impression on me. He was just a wonderful guy.”
Meiklejohn’s association with Simpson came during what was not the brightest spot in Simpson’s career. He spent several months working at Simpson’s Belmont misstep Bel Rio, leaving because he felt something just wasn’t right at the restaurant. It was through no fault of SImpson’s, though.
“I would have stayed with Dave forever,” Meiklejohn said.
Meiklejohn echoes the words that come up time and again about Simpson. His work ethic was second to none. He treated his employees like no one else. He was a great listener, kind but firm.
They are the kinds of cliches you might pass off as meaningless, a former employee seeing his boss through rose colored glasses in the wake of his death. But after hearing the same sentiments from so many in the Charlottesville restaurant community, it’s hard not to take stock in them.
Feast your eyes, then feast.
Here’s just a small sampling of the dishes these chefs are preparing for Restaurant Week. So pick a restaurant and make your reservation before it’s too late.