Only about 50 restaurants in the country belong to Relais & Chateaux, the global group of luxury hotels and restaurants famous for its strict standards of admission. One of them is right here in Charlottesville, the Clifton Inn, which has been a member since 2006, alongside culinary giants like The French Laundry and The Inn at Little Washington.
Since opening its doors in 1992, Clifton’s restaurant has gone through a number of incarnations. The Barbecue Exchange’s Craig Hartman, Maya’s Christian Kelly, and the C&O’s Dean Maupin all donned the head chef’s hat in the kitchen, and under each of them, the restaurant took on a different personality, while always remaining one of the area’s premier fine dining destinations.
Current top dog Tucker Yoder is unlike any before him—what sets him apart is his eagerness to take risks in the kitchen. Thanks to Yoder, who this month celebrates his third anniversary as Clifton’s head chef, the food there is as innovative as ever.
Yoder’s ingenuity was impossible not to notice at a recent guest chef dinner held at the inn, when he was joined by three top area chefs: Kelly, Brookville’s Harrison Keevil, and Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos. Both Kelly and Keevil have spent time in Clifton’s kitchen, and Kelly was in Yoder’s shoes back in 2005 when Yoder arrived as a sous chef.
All eight courses, two from each chef, were stellar, but Yoder’s surely were the most progressive. His first was an appetizer of silken house-made smoked tofu, served with sweet potato, Autumn Olive gastrique, mustard greens, and sprouted grains. His second dish was a dessert, a dark chocolate flan with red wine poached pear, mascarpone ice cream, and fresh green peanuts glazed with sorghum.
Yoder’s hors d’oeuvres were also conversation-stoppers—the type of food that makes you pause to appreciate. A slice of smoked sea scallop sat inside the pod of a musica bean, dressed with preserved lemon and a bean blossom from Clifton’s garden. Dollops of duck liver mousse rested on a plate covered with bits of brown butter that had been solidified with milk powder. Each dollop was topped with a nasturtium leaf, which guests used to scoop up the mousse and brown butter.
Yoder first came to Charlottesville in 1997 during a drive to North Carolina for an internship interview. A student at New England Culinary Institute at the time, he stopped to see a classmate who was working at a restaurant called Metropolitain. Yoder was so impressed by his dinner and Charlottesville that he abandoned the rest of his trip and instead found an internship at The Boar’s Head Inn. After culinary school, he eventually returned to the Boar’s Head, followed by stints at Oxo and The X Lounge, both now closed. After helping launch Lexington’s farm-to-table restaurant The Red Hen in 2008, Yoder returned to Charlottesville in 2010 to run Clifton’s kitchen. As the father of four young children, Yoder expects he is now here for good.
So, where does the drive to innovate come from?
“I don’t like to be bored,” he said. Even when not at work, Yoder is immersed in food, reading as many as 20 new cook books each year, along with food blogs and every magazine he can get his hands on. Different chefs get their kicks in different ways, and while many area chefs prefer simple preparations to complex manipulation, Yoder’s passion has always been innovation, in whatever form it may take. While he enjoys farm-to-table cooking as much as the next chef, he also likes to experiment with new techniques. The much-maligned term “molecular gastronomy,” he said, has given experimental cuisine a bad name.
“All gastronomy is molecular,” Yoder said. And, in cooking “everything is manipulated in some way.”
Yoder’s imagination is on display every night of the week at Clifton, where the menu is divided into five sections—delicate, light, full-bodied, robust, and dessert—from which guests can construct their own multicourse menu. Four courses for $62, five for $76. Or, if you really want to see Yoder let loose, reserve a spot at the chef’s counter, and enjoy a parade of tastes of his latest creations.
Of course, innovation is not for everyone here in Charlottesville, where some palates can veer towards the conservative. Mindful of this, Yoder makes sure there is always something for all tastes, including at least one dish in each menu section with broad appeal, such as roasted dry aged rib eye with roma beans and onions.
In a town where straightforward, accessible cuisine has become the norm, Yoder fills an important role. He keeps pushing ahead, always exposing us to something new.