Food trends can be slow to reach Charlottesville. Diners in big cities often enjoy (and maybe tire of) the latest fads years before we even get a whiff of them. This is not all bad. For one thing, it gives us some discretion over which trends to embrace.
The city’s deliberate pace allows us to filter out unworthy trends, while welcoming the good ones. The local food movement? Yes. Food trucks? Definitely, yes. Raw food restaurants? Er, no thanks.
One trend that Charlottesville has happily embraced is the concept of the star chef. Diners are showing more interest than ever in the men and women who prepare their food. On the national scale, television has driven the “Top Chef” phenomenon. Here, other media have done the job, including this paper and a plethora of food websites. There’s no doubt about it: Chefs are hot.
Last year I started the website The Charlottesville 29, which poses a relatively simple question: If there were just 29 restaurants in our area, what should they be? One of the site’s more popular features has been Five Finds on Friday, where local chefs name five favorite dishes or drinks that make it into their busy schedules. Readers want to know what chefs eat, and where. More than ever, they want recommendations not from food writers or reviewers, but from the experts in the kitchen.
Travel back in time 20 years and none of this would have made any sense. There were not enough good restaurants in Charlottesville to bother whittling them down to 29. And no one would have cared to read about a local chef’s favorite foods, because most people had no idea who the chefs were.
Our little city is now home to a remarkable food scene. Only three cities in the country had more restaurants accepted to participate in the Taste America Local Dish campaign by the James Beard Foundation, the nation’s most prestigious culinary organization. And, last month, the popular national food website eater.com strayed from its usual focus on big cities to publish its first ever “heat map” of new and trending restaurants in Charlottesville.
Which brings us to C-VILLE’s 2013 Food and Drink Issue, a tribute to the chefs who helped put us on the culinary map. Earlier this year, a conversation emerged on The Charlottesville 29 and turned into a kind of informal survey of chefs in the community. If you had to make a Mount Rushmore of Charlottesville chefs, who would be on it? Though there were many suggestions, a consensus soon emerged: Craig Hartman, Angelo Vangelopoulos, Melissa Close-Hart, and the two-headed monster that is Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne.
Each of these chefs came to Charlottesville from somewhere else, and each of them helped transform the Charlottesville restaurant scene they found from middling to magnificent.
In 1991, Burgess and Derquenne opened Metropolitain, the trailblazing restaurant that would transform Charlottesville diners’ palates while spawning a legacy of food-focused restaurants. Later that year, Hartman arrived in Charlottesville, and soon after, launched a restaurant at Clifton Inn that would become not just an extraordinary dining destination but also the area’s top breeding ground for local chefs. In 1995, Vangelopoulos came to town to take over the historic Ivy Inn, where he has demonstrated that, in today’s era of downscale eats, old-school fine dining restaurants can still thrive. And then finally, in 2000, Close-Hart took over the kitchen of Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards, where she has won more national acclaim than any other area chef.
In celebrating the founding chefs of Charlottesville’s food renaissance, this issue looks not just back, but also at the present and future. Mount Rushmore chefs have shared their secrets for where they like to go for Charlottesville’s best grub—their favorite burger, cocktail, sandwich, and even hangover food. And, as for the future, each Mount Rushmore chef has named a rising star, someone who may belong on the next generation’s Mount Rushmore.
Sit back, pour a local beer, wine, or cider, and behold the bounty of our restaurant scene, in the stories of five of the people who were most instrumental in creating it.