Tavola’s Michael Keaveny guides young talent in honing their skills

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Pappardelle bolognese, grilled swordfish and chitarra-cut spaghetti with jumbo lump crab at Tavola. Photos by Tom McGovern Pappardelle bolognese, grilled swordfish and chitarra-cut spaghetti with jumbo lump crab at Tavola. Photos by Tom McGovern

“Cooking is a young person’s game.” I’ve heard it more than once. As chefs grow older, the daily grind leaves many looking to continue their careers outside a restaurant kitchen. Never easy, the transition can be especially tough for chef-owners, who must entrust someone else at the helm.

Consider Michael Keaveny of the Belmont Italian restaurant, Tavola. When Keaveny opened Tavola in 2009 with his wife, Tami (C-VILLE’s arts editor), the lifelong chef ran the kitchen. His food was outstanding. In 2011 though, the father of two was ready to step back. “Pushing 50, it would’ve been tough to continue in that role for much longer,” says Keaveny. But Tavola after 2011 has been every bit as good as Tavola before 2011. So, how has Keaveny pulled it off?

“I try to make it advantageous for young chefs to come in, learn and better themselves,” says Tavola owner Michael Keaveny. Photo by Eze Amos

Initially, preparation eased the transition. Keaveny had been grooming his sous chef, Loren Mendosa, for the role. With Mendosa’s talent and training, regulars barely noticed a difference.

But, when Mendosa left in 2014 to help launch Lampo, Keaveny found himself with a new challenge: hiring and retaining a talented head chef from outside Tavola who would be willing to cook someone else’s food. Tavola’s dishes are largely Keaveny’s recipes, and their consistent execution has been key to the restaurant’s success. “An established chef who wants to come in and do his own menu is never going to work out at Tavola,” admits Keaveny.

The ones Keaveny has hired sure have worked out. Most recently, Caleb Warr was named the area’s Best Chef by C-VILLE Weekly readers. When Warr left town this summer, Keaveny hired C&O chef de cuisine Dylan Allwood, who took over in July. And, as Mendosa and I learned during a recent dinner at Tavola, the kitchen hasn’t missed a beat under Allwood, continuing the restaurant’s success from one chef to the next.

Vital to this, says Mendosa, is excellent training. “Tavola has done a great job of bringing staff along at their own pace and training properly,” he says. “Not every kitchen has that in mind or the luxury of the time to train.” Allwood has noticed this already. In just three months, “Michael’s experience and knowledge have helped me improve as a chef,” he says. Keaveny does much of the training himself, still spending more than 15 hours a week in the kitchen. “I try to make it advantageous for young chefs to come in, learn and better themselves,” Keaveny says.

That shows in Tavola’s classics, which Allwood’s kitchen already has down. Case in point is the cozzi ai ferri e pane that began our meal. Mussels are skillet-roasted in butter and garlic, and then served in the skillet with slices of Albemarle Baking Company baguette to soak up the briny sauce. Like many of Tavola’s dishes, Mendosa says, the mussels dish resonates because it’s simply prepared but boasts a bold flavor profile.

Allwood’s go-to among the Tavola classics is linguine alla carbonara. “Comfort food,” he says of the pasta tossed with housemade sausage, Olli pancetta, egg, Pecorino Romano, onion and black pepper. For purists who quibble that sausage does not belong in true carbonara, I have advice: Taste it. This is the way Keaveny learned it at the legendary Connecticut restaurant Carbone’s, and there’s a reason chefs and regulars swoon over it. “I love the way the salty pork and sausage work with the egg sauce and a healthy dose of black pepper,” Allwood says.

Dylan Allwood joined Tavola as executive chef in July. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

Mendosa meanwhile is partial to the bucatini all’amatriciana, which we polished off quickly. Like spaghetti but thicker and hollowed out, bucatini is tossed with marinara, Calabrian chili, onion, Olli pancetta and Grana Padano cheese. “Again, simple, so it has to hit on all the little details,” Mendosa says.

Another key to retaining good chefs is providing an outlet beyond rote replication of recipes: the blackboard menu of specials. “That’s the chef’s playground,” Keaveny says, dating back to Mendosa’s days. “The freedom to create within the realm of the specials gives plenty of creative outlet for most chefs,” Mendosa says. And, it also rewards Tavola’s guests. Among all of the dishes Mendosa and I shared, Allwood’s special entrata was our favorite: chitarra-cut spaghetti with jumbo lump crab, Calabrian chilies, basil and lobster brodo. The squared shape and texture of chitarra pasta enabled the luscious sauce to adhere to it, all the better to savor it. “Fantastic,” Mendosa said. “Rich and buttery, but still light enough to leave you feeling satisfied but not overwhelmed.”

Tavola is one of Charlottesville’s most beloved restaurants. The main reasons for that, Mendosa says, are the quality of ingredients and consistency in preparing them. For the latter, since stepping down as head chef six years ago, Keaveny has relied upon a series of excellent young chefs to fill that role. He’s found another one in Allwood.

“Dylan is doing an incredible job,” Keaveny says. “His food has fit in perfectly with what Tavola does/is.”

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