If you haven’t heard of Hill & Holler dinners, you’re not alone. As popular as the roving outdoor dinners have become in the local food community, they continue to elude the attention of much of the general public.
For the uninitiated, every few months Hill & Holler arranges a dinner out in a field at a farm, vineyard, or cidery, bringing together some of the best chefs in Central Virginia with the farmers and producers of their food. The list of acclaimed chefs who have participated includes folks like Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos, Clifton Inn’s Tucker Yoder, Palladio’s Melissa Close-Hart, and Maya’s Christian Kelly.
Having attended several Hill & Holler dinners, I consider them a treasure of the Charlottesville food scene. Yet, whenever I mention them to friends outside the food world, no seems to have heard of them.
The events’ low profile, it turns out, is no accident. Tracey Love, who runs the dinners in her spare time from her job at Blenheim Vineyards, doesn’t do them for profit. Instead, each is a fundraiser for a local cause related to food or agriculture. The dinners have become so beloved and the causes so worthy that word of mouth is typically sufficient to sell them out.
Love began the dinners in 2011 “as a way to connect our farmers, winemakers, brewers, cider makers, chefs, and artisans with each other and also with their surrounding community.” True to their purpose, the dinners are all served family-style at communal tables. A mirror image of the farm-to-table movement, they bring table to farm instead.
So, how do the dinners work? A stellar example was a recent one at Bellair Farm, a beautiful, sprawling, 850-acre property 11 miles south of town. The chefs were Caleb Shriver and Phillip Perrow, the red-hot team behind Richmond’s Dutch & Co. restaurant, whom Food & Wine magazine recently named among the best new chefs in the Mid-Atlantic. When Love called, they leapt at the opportunity.
“It would be hard not to be interested in participating in a Hill & Holler dinner,” said Shriver.
On an idyllic spring evening, for a sellout crowd of 80, Shriver and Perrow prepared a picnic-style meal celebrating produce from Bellair Farm. A portion of the proceeds from each $100 ticket was shared by the Virginia Heritage Project, a consolidated database of more than 11,000 guides that provide historical and cultural information about Virginia, and Twenty Paces, a new sheep dairy located at Bellair Farm, whose founders include veterans of Caromont Farm.
Before dinner, guests mingled outside the barn over hors d’oeuvres, Blenheim wine, and an elderflower cocktail made by Shriver’s wife, Michelle, a skilled mixologist who co-owns Dutch & Co. By the time guests sat down for dinner, the wine and cocktails had transformed courteous greetings and small talk into roaring discussions among farmers, food enthusiasts, and folks just having a good time.
“I think the most natural way to interact with people is through sharing food and eating together,” said Love.
Topics were far-ranging at our table, where I sat with a local butcher, his fiancée, and their infant daughter, but the food was so delicious that it tended to dominate conversation. Standouts included products from the brand new Twenty Paces sheep dairy, whose ricotta has already appeared at tavola, Ivy Inn, and Feast!, among others. A tangy dressing of sheep’s milk yogurt complemented a simple salad of spinach and arugula from Bellair. Merguez sausage made of mutton from the sheep dairy sat atop polenta with a smattering of bright, pickled turnips. And clean, fresh sheep’s milk ricotta played the role of ice cream in a parfait of strawberries, honey, and lavender.
But the showstopper, evoking the most groans from the table, was the grilled chicken, of all things. Bellair’s own chickens were halved and cooked over a massive wood-burning grill, and then served with chili threads, basil, and an irresistible orange confit—slivers of orange rind that had been concentrated to the essence of citrus by being slowly cooked in their own juices. The dish was such a success that Shriver and Perrow plan to serve it at their restaurant.
Despite the dinners’ low profile, it is not difficult to attend one. Regular updates appear on Hill & Holler’s social media sites as well as its email list, which you can sign up for at www.hillandholler.org/contact.
Though new to Hill & Holler, it didn’t take long for Perrow and Shriver to appreciate them for what they are.
“Whenever you are able to do what you love, in an ideal setting, and benefit a great cause, it’s a win-win-win situation,” Perrow said.