Three cooks serving the taste of home

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Stephanie Murray of Ula Tortilla. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason Stephanie Murray of Ula Tortilla. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Can’t find the food that feeds your soul? These women took the tongs into their own hands.

Stephanie Murray of Ula Tortilla

People often ask what is the meaning of “Ula,” and for Stephanie Murray and her husband, James Price, it’s part of what inspired the family’s business to begin with: their children, Uriah, Lovissa and Asarum.

“We were basically homesteading—living off of our garden, hunting, raising sheep—and we needed a staple,” says Murray. They settled on corn, but weren’t satisfied with tortillas made from commercial masa (corn flour) stripped of nutrients by high-heat drying. A little research led Murray and Price to learn for themselves the ancient process of “nixtalamization,” which bathes the GMO-free field corn in a calcium hydroxide (limestone) water mixture to loosen the hulls and soften the corn. Using the fresh masa results in a more nutritious, whole-grain tortilla with an earthy flavor and toasty aroma.

“We made the tortillas just for us at first, with a hand grinder, a single press and a griddle,” says Murray. When they brought a few dozen to the City Market in 2014 and sold out instantly, word spread via local news outlets about the project and within six months, Ula Tortillas were being carried in Charlottesville’s Whole Foods Market as well as at Feast!, Greenwood Grocery and other stores farther afield.

Ula Tortillas are now available as far away as Wisconsin, though still made in small batches in Waynesboro by Price and two employees. “We never could have anticipated this,” says Murray, “but people really seem to love them.” Next off the press for Ula: natural corn chips.

Julie Vu Whitaker. Photo: Amanda Maglione

Julie Vu Whitaker of Vu Noodles

Transplanted from Vietnam to Waynesboro when she was a young girl, Julie Vu Whitaker grew up isolated from kids her age for being “different,” and family and food were her solace. She cared for others as a social worker for more than 20 years in Charlottesville before turning to her own dreams five years ago. “I decided I needed to conquer my fears and make a change, but I didn’t know how,” says Whitaker.

She happened upon The Farm, a tiny grocery in the building where Lampo is now, and was enchanted. “It was this little, adorable place, and I realized how much I wanted to do something like that,” says Whitaker. “So I asked them, can I make noodles for you?” What began as a handful of noodle boxes sold at The Farm soon turned into a larger operation based out of her newly certified home kitchen, serving 13 vendors in town including Whole Foods Market and Martha Jefferson Hospital’s café.

“The idea was that, as an ethnic person, if I wanted to just grab something and go, I could never find vegetarian or vegan Vietnamese food,” says Whitaker. “I wanted to make it and to share it.” When The Spot (as it’s known now) on Second Street opened up, she jumped at the tiny space. “I had always walked by and kept my eye on that place. I love downtown, and it was perfect.”

There, Whitaker expanded her offerings to include a bahn mi, a Vietnamese sandwich she makes with tofu, along with the noodle bowls. The Spot has no kitchen, so she rents kitchen space at the nearby Jefferson School and ferries the food downtown. That arrangement has led to her newest venture, a sit-down place at the Jefferson School Café, where she’s added a vegetarian pho to the menu. “I really believe in growing organically, and it’s worked so far,” she says.

Barbie Brannock. Photo: Amy Jackson

Barbie Brannock of Barbie’s Burrito Barn

“The food I cook is just like the Friday night meal at my house growing up,” says Barbie Brannock of her California-Mexican fare. In Redlands, California, a small orange grove town east of Los Angeles, neighbors would gather at Brannock’s adobe house to drink wine while the kids ate pomegranates and avocados from trees in the yard, and homemade tacos, tostadas and burritos were the ubiquitous main course. Young Barbie was in charge of frying up the chips and taco shells, which are a signature feature at her restaurant on Avon Street.

A local artist and teacher, Brannock finally heeded the encouragement of her friends to take the plunge and “open the Barn” as her own daughter prepared to head off to UVA. “I love doing this,” she says. “It makes me so happy when people eat fresh, delicious food.” Her menu includes all of her childhood mainstays (paired with pork, beef, chicken or simply vegetarian) plus a chopped bowl that blends the best of everything.

Though taco joints have gained in popularity in the past few years, Brannock believes her emphasis on crispy shells and lots of bright, contrasting ingredients makes hers stand out. “The California difference is that it’s not overly ‘saucy,’” she says. “I use lots of vegetables—jicama, radishes, cucumbers—along with guacamole, salsa and beans made fresh every day, so it’s not only about the meat and cheese. It’s a complete meal in your hand.”

With no plans to expand (beyond perhaps a delivery bike), Brannock is happy in Belmont. “I have my regulars, plus new people come in all the time, and we’re catering now, too,” she says. “I get to cook the food I love for everyone.”

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