The new virginia cuisine: Though the local food scene is shifting, quality remains its touchstone

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When Bizou’s Brett Venditti first started, finding local produce required reaching out vendors directly. “Now, we have two or three people come by each week with fresh local products,” he says. Photo: John Robinson When Bizou’s Brett Venditti first started, finding local produce required reaching out vendors directly. “Now, we have two or three people come by each week with fresh local products,” he says. Photo: John Robinson

As the state’s economy invests heavily in animal farming, agriculture and wine and beer production—and as chefs take advantage of the new bounty around them—is a new Virginia cuisine emerging?

Local chefs say yes.

“When I first started here, you’d have to seek out your local produce and go to the vendor to get it,” says Bizou sous chef Brett Venditti. “Now, we have two or three people come by each week with fresh local products. It spurs so much creativity when you have local people bringing you this huge bounty of food all at once. It gets your brain going, and you start thinking about how you might prepare it, even days before it arrives.”

The state’s geography drives a big part of regional culinary identity. In Charlottesville, Bizou owners Vincent Derquenne and Tim Burgess pioneered a push toward local, high-quality ingredients with Metropolitain restaurant (now Bizou) on the Downtown Mall.

“We started working with local ingredients very early at Metropolitain,” says Derquenne. But in the early 1990s, he says, the produce was different. “People are much more organized now, and now they plant more things restaurants need.” There is a new synergy as local farmers and restaurants get on the same page.

What came first?

“Eggs were the first local product to make an impact,” says Derquenne. “Polyface Farm was the pioneer, and then many people moved toward a similar model.”

But chefs and farmers aren’t the only ones driving the change. “People are a lot more concerned about where their food is coming from,” says Rachel Gendreau, general manager and sommelier at Bizou. “Much of that has to do with Michael Pollan’s influence,” and in particular, the impact of his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which denounces industrialized food production and touts locally sourced cuisine.

“People are more savvy than ever before, and they are holding restaurants to a higher ethical standard,” says Gendreau. Locally farmed artisanal products can often cost more than mass-produced imported foods, thus in addition to a new demand for local products, customers are also “more willing to pay a premium for that experience.”

Show your local

The shift Venditti describes—from having to seek out local produce to the grower now bringing them to the restaurant—is mirrored in the wine world, too. Sommelier Elaine Futhey remembers driving to Virginia wineries to bring back bottles for the wine list in the early days at C&O Restaurant. Today, local wines are more easily obtainable through organized distribution.

That’s a good thing, because the savvier diners become as it pertains to the food menu, the more they ask for local wine. At Fleurie, for example, nearly 20 percent of wine bottle sales are local, which is an increase from about 5 percent a decade ago.

And restaurants are proud to feature local food and wine.

“Everybody’s got their chalkboard showing which menu items come from where,” says Venditti. And each chef has their favorite local product to work with.

“Trout from Rag Mountain,” says Derquenne. “We started with them at Metropolitain, and they’ve provided 28 years of a consistent product. And it’s delicious.”

Venditti pays homage to the mushrooms from Bear Dog Farms, and to the okra from Wayside Produce. “At the height of the season, they were bringing us okra, these baby eggplants that grilled up so light, patty pan squash and, of course, heirlooms [tomatoes].”

The Alley Light chef Robin McDaniel points to the unrelenting demand for prime ingredients as what defines Charlottesville’s culinary scene. “Charlottesville cuisine, as a whole, is much like its population: very diverse yet unified by a commitment to quality,” she says.

As this new Virginia cuisine emerges, unique pairings of local food, wine and beer help anchor regional culinary identity that will—hopefully—define this state for decades to come.

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