Our small city has hundreds of places to eat, and when Charlottesville Restaurant Week kicks off next Monday, thousands of people will descend on its eateries both to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of Charlottesville and to soak in a culinary culture that’s exploded over the past decade. With just shy of 30 restaurants participating this year, offering $16, $26, and $36 dollars price points for their prix fixe menus, it’s a foodie’s dream, a chance to take a core sample of some of the best food the city has to offer without going broke.
Like any trade week, it’s also a chance to take stock of the people whose blood, sweat, and tears make all the pretty plates happen, to peek behind the curtain that separates the back and front of the houses and look into the guts of the places we love. On the other side of each swinging door, in each forgotten corner of a dining room, across every cluttered serving counter, there’s a world that most diners never get to see, or smell, or hear.
Yeah, the Food Network and Bravo have familiarized the landscape, transforming cooking into our newest spectator sport, but the restaurant industry doesn’t rely on editing or countdown timers (in most cases) or even on polished personalities. It mostly banks on teams of people who work in close quarters under intense pressure and care so much about the intrinsic value of what they do that they turn out plate after plate of good food. It’s a funny world that combines youthful exuberance and hierarchical discipline into a sweaty, noisy, and exhausting ballet that plays outnight after night.
My own culinary story is similar to many of those you’ll find in kitchens across town. I started cleaning greasy stovetops and oven hoods during the after hours of Sunday morning at a small pub when I was 15, eventually working my way up the kitchen ladder to busboy, waiter, and then finally to bar manager. Restaurants are quirky and they get their hooks into your soul once you’ve experienced them. Many of the chefs you find at the head of the table in some of the finest places started washing dishes or making salads.
In my career as a photographer I’ve shot hundreds of restaurants and I’m always drawn to the back of the house. To the ins and outs of buildings with hundred-year-old histories and jury-rigged kitchens. To the way a chef organizes her station. Or the way a young sous chef takes care of his knife. Or the focus a waitress puts into folding a napkin.
I’ve tried to put together a photographic journey that represents what goes into making a week in the restaurant world happen, in the hopes that you’ll be inspired to go try the food, but mostly, so you’ll remember how much work it takes to make it all look so effortless.
Kasey Donnelly, a pastry chef at Maya, told me a fairly typical story about how she got into the business.
“I kind of just fell into it…when I was 15 my brother managed a restaurant and I was his ‘expo.’ Then I kind of moved on to different restaurants, and Mike Yeager, the sous chef at The Glass Haus, got me this job.” I asked her what it was like to work in a small kitchen like Maya’s. “We’re brothers and sisters,” she said. “It’s like family coming in here.”
In many restaurants a type of informal apprenticeship is still the way you get in the door. Anthony Gamma, a student from Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, is doing an internship at Orzo. “I’ve learned about a lot of different recipes I wouldn’t have in a different type of restaurant, and how Chef [Tommy Lasley] changes things one day to the next based on the ingredients he gets.”
The mentoring relationship, where often times a student will work for free or very little money, teaches the essential skills necessary to succeed in the kitchen, but more importantly it fuels the passion and drive that makes the kitchen a home for many.
Kathryn McAtamney, a UVA student who works at Positively 4th Street on the Downtown Mall, is training as a line cook and waiting tables. She said seeing two side of the business is the best way to understand its totality. “I really love the restaurant business because it is an intimately social experience. Anyone can make good food, but the dining experience is what really makes it special.”
The family atmosphere in a fast-paced kitchen is perhaps best exemplified by the tradition of sharing a meal before a shift with fellow employees from both the front and back of the house. “It’s great… it gives us a chance to catch up with one another on a more personal level, eat together… break bread, it’s good,” said Melissa Garner, of Orzo’s shift meal. The head chef or someone appointed by the chef, makes a communal meal for the staff each day from over stocked items, left overs from a recent special, or as a way to try out a recipe prior to sending it out to the general public.
Justin Tilghman, who has worked in Charlottesville restaurants since he was 15, says “it usually consists of what we have left over, like salmon or trout scraps and we’ll go anywhere from tempura frying, to smoking them… you name it we’ve done it, but it’s important to come up with something tasty for the staff.”
C&O chef and owner Dean Maupin says his chefs take turns whipping up the staff meal before the shift begins. “Generally the person with the lighter load, less prep work, cooks up something…We want people to feel nourished before service. Typically it is things that are left over and you are forced to be creative, but to make it tasty.”
For the customer, dinner should be a leisurely experience, but for the staff, it’s as fast and furious as the rest of the job.
Maupin: “Rarely do you have a chance to sit down…sometimes we get 15 minutes to sit at the bar and talk, but generally we’re eating on the run.”
Mise en place
Mise en place, which translates to “set in place,” is a common term used in kitchens to denote the setup of ingredients at a station, but it’s also an overall organizing principle. Each restaurant has its own idea of what makes up its particular mise en place. For Chef Tommy Lasley at Orzo, mise en place is more of an overall concept than a particular set up for each kitchen station. “Mise en place means a lot of different things,” Lasley said. “But on a grand scheme, I would consider mise en place to be pantry staple items… One of the key components in my mise en place is pickled brine. It’s got the acid, got the flavor of what we pickled with, so right now in the walk-in I have picked ramp brine, pickled garlic scape brine, pickled fennel brine and a standard curry brine,” all of which are available to him to use in sauces, vinaigrettes, and as a splash of brightness on any plate.
Another key component to restaurant week, and any good restaurant’s menu, is the produce and proteins purchased from local farmers. During my rounds I ran into a Mennonite farmer from Pleasant Pastures Farm in Charlotte County, Virginia, about 80 miles south of Charlottesville, as he was making a delivery. “I come every Wednesday, and we try to keep everything as fresh as possible,” he said. Slightly hesitant and speaking with a Dutch accent, the farmer declined to be photographed or give me his name, but the pride he took in his produce was crystal clear. “We have committed to raising the produce on our farm completely chemical free, using a lot of compost, compost tea for fertilizer, so that is what is the conviction behind our farm,” he said. Later that day, I crossed paths with Ara and Gayane Avagyan, Armenian immigrants who manage Double H Farm in Nelson County, a purveyor of heirloom pork. “Our goal is to grow healthy food for the people of our community, and to always be number one.” The competition for the best food starts in the fields and pastures.