Jeanette Peabody finds balance in and out of the kitchen

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Restaurateurs Kate and Bill Hamilton enjoy the food of former employee and chef Jeanette Peabody at her Oakhurst Inn Café. Photo: Eze Amos Restaurateurs Kate and Bill Hamilton enjoy the food of former employee and chef Jeanette Peabody at her Oakhurst Inn Café. Photo: Eze Amos

Chef life is grueling. It’s not just the physical toll of long nights in the kitchen. It’s the psychological toll, too, of missing friends’ weddings, graduations and regular evenings at home with family. As chefs grow older and tire of the grind, many look to use their skills in ways that do not prohibit life moments many of us take for granted.

This is almost always a win-win. The chefs enjoy a better quality of life, while the rest of us benefit from new experiences involving products of accomplished chefs. Some cater or offer dinner-at-home services. Others open bakeries, chocolatiers, barbecue joints or even cheese farms. In each case, they bring with them the skills and experience of a seasoned chef.

For more than 12 years, Jeanette Peabody cooked at Hamiltons’ at First & Main, one of Charlottesville’s signature destinations for fine dining, eight of them as chef de cuisine. In 2013, 37 years old and eight months pregnant with her first child, Peabody was ready for a change.

Her husband, Bill Chapman (and a co-owner of C-VILLE), was preparing to open The Oakhurst Inn, a boutique hotel near the University of Virginia. Initially, Chapman planned little more than a continental breakfast for hotel guests, but when Peabody came into the picture, he saw an opportunity for a full café, serving breakfast and lunch not just to inn guests but the public as well. The café opened with the inn in May 2014, with Peabody at the helm.

Again, a win-win. “I can use my talent and contribute to my household monetarily, while still spending time with my family and friends since I have afternoons and evenings free,” says Peabody. Customers meanwhile enjoy a not-your-average café, with the unmistakable stamp of a top chef.

No one recognizes this stamp better than Hamiltons’ owners Bill and Kate Hamilton, regulars at the café, who joined me for lunch there. Peabody, Bill says, has strengths that come from years in a serious kitchen. “She has the maturity and experience to be very flavor-forward, while still respecting the quality of the ingredients,” he says. “That is surprisingly tough to master.”

Case in point, he says, is a side of beet salad we shared. “The light touch with the curry, balanced with yogurt, does not run away with the central ingredient, roasted beets,” says Hamilton. “In other hands, the earthiness of the beets would be lost.”

The Duck Hunt sandwich, the Hamiltons’ favorite and mine, combines duck, bacon, arugula, cherry jam and goat cheese. The fact that Peabody describes its preparation as “simple” shows the gulf between an experienced chef and the rest of us.

First, at a low temperature in a large rondo pot, she renders the fat of a case of duck legs, before increasing the heat to brown the legs. Next, she removes them from the pot and adds onions to the duck fat with butter and salt, cooking the onions until soft and caramelized. Then, the duck goes back to the pot with the onions, where it spends an hour in a 375-degree oven in a pool of rosemary, thyme, orange slices, salt and Rosemont Virginia White wine. Finally, she cools the duck legs, pulls the meat and mixes in the jus and onions.

To build the sandwich, she grills sliced pain de campagne, and tops it first with goat cheese from Caromont Farm, run by Peabody’s mentor at Hamiltons’, Gail Hobbs-Page. Next comes a housemade jam of sour cherries, balsamic vinegar, sugar and lemon. Atop that sits arugula and the duck. Voila. The Duck Hunt. “Each flavor is present and perfectly layered,” says Kate. “Smokey and salty meat, bitter arugula and sweet and sour cherry jam.”

The same was true of a sandwich of house-smoked ham, Irish cheddar, fig jam, watercress and pommerey mustard on an Albemarle Baking Company baguette. “Salty, smoky, sweet, spicy, tart, umami,” says Bill. “The whole gang is there and plays well together.”

The café’s busiest time is brunch, with as many as 200 customers, and breakfast is a special treat, too. At the inn, seven days a week, eggs meurette, a classic French dish of eggs poached in red wine, again signals a serious chef in the kitchen.

“I get to use my fine dining experience to make a spot-on sexy sauce, which is fulfilling,” says Peabody. Perfectly poached eggs bathe in an intense reduction of Rosemont Virginia Red, recalling a wintry stew, with lots of aromatics, sautéed mushrooms and bacon. Grassy asparagus and a slice of tomato offset the richness.

“I can’t work hard nights the way I did in my 20s,” says Peabody. “I worked hard, played hard, made great friends personally and professionally at Hamiltons’ and gained vast knowledge about food,” she says. “All of that goes into my work today at the inn.”

We’re better off for it.

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