Art and consomme

Art and consomme

The first true restaurant proprietor is believed to have been one Monsieur Boulanger, a soup vendor, who in 1765 opened his business on the Rue Bailleul, in Paris. The sign above his door advertised restoratives, referring to the soups and broths available within…So that what we now know as ‘restaurants’ took their name from the sign that was actually advertising what was sold, not ‘where’ as it is today.—from Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare

Will Richey had never cooked professionally until, in October 2005, he bought Revolutionary Soup, inspired by Escoffier, the legendary French chef who, in the late 19th century, wrote the book on French cuisine. A soup restaurant in a basement was not the perfect fit for his ambitions, but the price was right.

It is a Saturday morning in early January and Will Richey is making breakfast. He arrived at Revolutionary Soup, the restaurant he owns on the Downtown Mall, a little before 8. The rest of the staff won’t show up until half an hour later, and the first customers show up a half hour after that. When Will gets to the quiet and empty kitchen, the first thing he does, passing the long stainless steel table in the center of the room, is put a pot of water on the stove to boil and prepare a French press of ground coffee. Then he spoons out some of the 10 to 15 gallons of soup he sells each week into the 11 metal urns that sit up front. The soups get better as they sit, and accordingly, they have all been prepared earlier in the week. The lamb curry is best after three days. The turnip and bacon, a rarely made house favorite, is perfect after five.

Will chops some beets and covers them with olive oil and the black pepper he has just ground, leaving the knife to rest on the cutting board flecked with red beet juice. He cubes butternut squash and starts talking about John Ruskin. “Ruskin,” he says of the 19th century British art critic, “was what inspired me to think about things.

“[Ruskin] was the first aesthetician,” Will continues, turning to make breakfast for the two customers who have, uncustomarily at this early hour, wandered in. He believes in Art for the sake of Truth. “Baudelaire said you should be an artist, a priest, or a warrior. Everything else is nothing.

“I want to be an artist,” he declares.

Breakfast is a labor of love for Will, but it is not a moneymaker. The griddle hisses and there is a spurt of fire as he paints it with butter to make eggs over easy, bacon and grits, the kind of breakfast he grew up on. Most of the day at Revolutionary Soup you can get your food prepared the way you like, but breakfast is done Will’s way, which for a man who makes art in the kitchen, means grits that are stone ground locally, and are often still soft and warm when they get to the shop. Will makes enough for his staff, too, and everyone gathers in the kitchen to eat the simple, delicious food.

Wilson Richey, born in 1976, is 30 years old. He had never cooked professionally until, in October 2005, he bought Revolutionary Soup with his friend and then business partner Josh Zanoff. The pair were devotees of Escoffier, the legendary French chef who, in the late 19th century, wrote the book on French cuisine, (and to whom Kaiser William II said, “I am the emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs.”) Will was the wine guy and Josh was the food guy, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and, according to Will, the best cook he has ever known. They researched the great, classic dishes and began a dinner club with other local cooks, a la Babette’s Feast (a movie Will calls a “life changer”). The meals were 10, sometimes 12 courses and could last four hours. After holding more than 10 of these dinners over the course of a few years, Will and Josh thought, “Why not open a restaurant?” They would serve fancy, Belle Epoque meals but in a casual, low-cost setting. They’d spend the money on preparation and ingredients, on the food.

Revolutionary Soup, the small, basement restaurant on Second Street that was on its second set of owners in 2005, was not exactly ideal. Will had never even been into the tiny, hidden locale, which at the time had, among many downtowners, something of a mixed reputation. Plus it served soup. No way, Will thought, but they had run out of options and the price was right. His wife convinced him to buy it.

Though he makes his living cooking, at heart Will Richey is a Book Guy. On a perfect day he’s inside at home while the rain comes down outside, reading in his comfortable, brown leather chair, the modern world forgotten. His current read: Moby Dick, again.

The idea was that Will would work the front of the house, and Josh the back, and the two of them would come up with the food together. But, even in the midst of a dining renaissance like Charlottesville’s, the realities of owning a small restaurant, especially one that serves soup in a basement, are not pretty. Josh, with a mortgage and a new family to support, needed more time and stability, leaving Will to become a professional cook and restaurant owner on his own. “Will,” Josh says, “got exactly what he wanted. I’ve heard him say, ‘This is all I need for the rest of my life.’”

Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth.—John Ruskin

It is lunchtime now on Saturday, and Will, with great deliberation, is making a sandwich. “The order of the placement is very important. You don’t want cheese against bread, you’ll lose flavor.” Will thinks a great deal about small things, details, what the Greeks called techne, craft or art. There is an exact way to cut, place and season. “The most important thing I learned [from Josh] was how to slice an onion.” Will says. Lunchtime at Rev Soup is high paced, but Will has a perfectionist’s love for pressure and stress, the feeling of being “on the crest of the wave,” not knowing if you will ride it in or go under.

For about three hours in the middle of an average day there is a line to the door at Revolutionary Soup and the kitchen is nuts. Will is stationed at the griddle. “The griddle is your tempo, it calls the dance.” He dips a brush in butter and spreads it onto the black metal and throws two slices of sourdough in the cooler part of the griddle and two pieces of sesame wheat where it’s hot. He grabs some sliced ham and throws it on, and flips the sourdough. He takes the sourdough off and spins to the prep area, throws the bread down and spreads Dijon mustard on thick. “We have great Dijon,” he says. “If you’re a Dijon Guy, you’ll love it.”

Will Richey is the kind of guy who knows Dijon Guys. He himself is a Hot Pepper Guy who grows his own cayenne peppers. Lately he’s been into salts, including a strange black salt that smells like ancient coal and tastes like what you’d imagine the walls in a Colonial kitchen would taste like if you licked them, but in a good way. He is also a Wine Guy, who has around 600 bottles of wine he keeps in cardboard boxes piled in a crazy heap in his father’s basement next to the washer and dryer.

More than anything, however, Will Richey is a Book Guy. He collects illustrated copies of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” His perfect day? It’s raining outside and he’s at home, the light on above his comfortable, brown leather chair, the modern world forgotten. He is currently re-reading Moby Dick, and during the day, while he makes sandwiches, he and I discuss our shared passions for Eliot, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

“You know the short story ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place?” he asks, his burn-scarred hands and knife-kissed fingers chopping carrots for the miso soup.

“I love that story.”

“It’s perfect.” Tak, Tak, Tak. “I want my restaurant to be like that.” Tak, Tak.

“Give us this nada our daily nada,” I say, watching the blade brush his knuckles.

His dream restaurant, he says, would be like the wine shops in Hugo’s Les Miserables—where you buy your wine in the front, sit and drink it in the back. He is a capital “R” romantic, and a capital “O” obsessive, the kind of guy who when he delves into something, he delves. He once researched a career as a slate roofer because, he says,  “it’s a dying art.”

“Have you read any Gerard Manley Hopkins? He talks about having a purpose behind everything you do,” Will says, inspired.

A 19th century Jesuit priest and British poet, Hopkins said everything has an “inscape,” an inner landscape wherein the essence of each thing is made clear. It’s like Aristotle’s concept of Teleology, how the “meaning” of an acorn is the tree it will become. So, the meaning of an egg is a chicken. Or an omelet.

Taste is not only a part and index of morality, it is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is “What do you like?” Tell me what you like, I’ll tell you what you are.—John Ruskin

Will sees poetry in a well-turned egg. He is the kind of guy who has a love for the things humanity has transformed from mere necessities into objects of beauty. He is the kind of guy who thinks about Bartleby the Scrivener while he’s buttering the sourdough and chopping the endive.

Working with food is an intimate business. Like a doctor, a chef touches us, or at least touches what we eat. He keeps us healthy, nourishes us, and like a doctor or a farmer, a chef has a deep knowledge of life’s messy ingredients. Kitchen work is an introduction to the weird side of our senses, to the often-grotesque reality of smell and touch.

We stick our noses into a bubbling pot and breathe in the rich odor of beef stock. “Smell that,” Will says. “That is the essence of cow.”

To do what Will does you have to get used to the raw nature of what you eat, the texture and volume and gooiness of food, be it of the fast or haute variety. Restaurant kitchens are a lesson in abundance and mass quantities: vats of mayonnaise, bowls of slimy red peppers, and cauldrons, big enough to conceal a child, full of simmering bones. You have to get over your basic reluctance to touch ingredients. To not just touch food, but manhandle it, to drip it, and toss it, and fling it around with Jackson Pollack-like abandon. You can’t worry about making a mess. You have to let food go and let go of food.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?” is one of Will’s favorite questions. His answer is a local dish he was offered in the Languedoc region of France called “Veal Face.”

“You won’t like it,” the man said, “Americans never like it.”

“Oh yeah?” Will replied, and tried some. It tasted like a spoonful of unsalted fat. Will, like a good American, did not like it.

“I rarely eat because I’m hungry,” he says, “I always eat because I’m inquisitive.”

“What,” Will thinks as he cooks, “would that taste like with this?”

Someone recently gave him a nice smoked salmon, and so he put a hot smoked salmon and chevre sandwich on the board as a special. It was good, but not perfect.

“It would be great in a quesadilla,” he announces suddenly during the lunch rush. “Let’s make one.” So he does, in about 30 seconds while still working on people’s orders.

Grill the tortilla, add black beans, salmon, cheese, and fold.

Spoon on a generous helping of the butternut squash and beet salsa that was made fresh this morning and a dollop of sour cream.

Eat. Enjoy.

He opens a can of olives stuffed with anchovies floating in Manzanilla sherry. “Have you had these?” He slices off a thin piece of a Basque cheese and hands it to me. “Have you ever tried Gueuze?” Gueuze is a Belgian Lambic beer. Later in the afternoon, when the crowd has gone, we sit at one of the tables and he opens a bottle. The Gueuze has a musty rich smell, and tastes sour like lemons with a salty finish. It is the weirdest thing I’ve ever drunk. Will loves it.

Martina: [after learning Babette spent 10,000 francs on the dinner] Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life.
Babette: An artist is never poor.—From Babette’s Feast (1987)

When he was growing up, Will’s parents used to have what they called a gourmet club, in Maryland in the ’60s and ’70s.

“About every two or three months,” his father, Rives, says over coffee at the end of a recent work day, “we’d meet over at somebody’s house, and the meals were to die for, they were as good as anything you could buy in New York or anywhere else. And we had unbelievable wine, I mean just the top. We did it right all the way down.”

Saturday is almost over, and Will is back in the kitchen, this time at home in the Starr Hill neighborhood where he is making dinner for four, including Lisa, his wife of four months. He is, of course, making it right. The chocolate brown wood table, the table Will grew up with, is set with Wedgewood china, linen tablecloths, and two lighted candles. The wines have been chosen (an Alsace white, two old red burgundies and a Bordeaux dug out from boxes buried under boxes stacked precariously on other boxes) and decanted to breathe.

But first, the consommé. “Consommé,” Will had declared at the restaurant, “is my Everest,” and now he is attempting only his third ever, to be served with a dry Cortado sherry. He seems to be a bit obsessed with consommé, a soup made from a (usually meat) stock that has been strained and purified with egg whites, until it is crystal clear. They have been around since the Middle Ages and consommés are not easy to make well. Two of his young employees think they may want to go into the restaurant business and Will is considering having them work on some consommés for practice. “They’re all going to fail” another employee says, laughing. “I know” Will replies.

For about three hours in the middle of an average day there is a line to the door at Revolutionary Soup and the kitchen is nuts. Will is stationed at the griddle. “The griddle is your tempo,” he declares, “it calls the dance.”

Revolutionary Soup’s charm is also its greatest challenge. When Will took over he began to add strange things to the menu, things like crab salad made with back-fin crab meat, turtle soup, with, yes, real turtles, and duck confit. He brought in nice French wine and offered Sherry by the glass. These more gourmet items have their supporters, but he still makes about 60 grilled cheese sandwiches a day. The Senegalese peanut tofu soup, on the menu since the place opened in 1998, is still the top seller, not Will’s beloved French onion. Nobody buys the wine or Sherry. Will buys local, fresh produce, and all the meat used in his soups comes from nearby Polyface Farm, an icon in the sustainable local food movement. But his attention to quality and desire to keep prices low mean, despite the heavy crowds, that margins are slim at best. He knows that a lot of people would look at his business and tell him to either raise his prices, or compromise his ingredients. And it is a constant struggle for him, balancing his aesthetics with the reality of business, balancing art and commerce. “The better the food is,” his former partner says, “the less you get paid, the more hours you put in.” Will spends 60 hours a week at the restaurant, and tastes every pot of soup that goes up front, knowing that at best only one or two people will love the Dijon or the stock the way he does, and even fewer will get the connection to Ruskin. Will acknowledges that he’s not a businessman. He just loves to cook, he tries to tell people. He is simply trying “to put a little bit of something fine in everything.”

But he may have no choice but to become a businessman, because the restaurant is succeeding. Katherine Romans, a UVA senior who has worked at Rev Soup for six months, jokes that the good feedback is getting boring: “Will, you got another compliment to the chef.” Lunchtime is now at full capacity, 150-200 people a day, but Will hopes that the food will be so good, and such a good value, that people will be willing to put up with the line and the wait. He does not want to move from his cozy little hole in the wall near the movie theater, despite the small size. Instead he would like to open another location. But is he ready for that? Has he mastered the art of running a restaurant?

“Real life has always scared me,” he says. “Doing my taxes, anything that has to do with the administrative parts…I just want to cook.”

Will’s father, Rives, a successful businessman (his Richey & Co. shoe stores number six locations and growing) is more cautious: “When you’ve got one place like that you can put your arms around it, you can run it kind of slipshod, from an administrative point of view, and it doesn’t show, but you start having more stores and it shows a whole lot. He is not nearly aware enough of that. But he will be.”

The first test of a truly great man is his humility. By humility I don’t mean doubt of his powers or hesitation in speaking his opinion, but merely an understanding of the relationship of what he can say and what he can do.—John Ruskin

But first, the consommé. While Lisa makes dessert, Will stands in his bright kitchen with its clean white tiles, cutting celery and carrots into cubes only a little bigger than a BB. He then spoons the bright orange and green vegetables into two piles at the bottom of shallow bowls, and adds a third pile of small pea-shaped pieces of beef. Into each bowl he pours a beef broth. The broth in a consommé should be colored, but clear, like a perfect piece of stained glass. Will’s is a bit cloudy. He claims to be pretty happy with it, but I sense that it bothers him. Will wants things to be right. Onions are frying on the stove and the corners of our eyes prick and sting.

Will sees poetry in a well-turned egg. He is the kind of guy who thinks about Bartleby the Scrivener while he’s buttering the sourdough and chopping the endive.

“It is the hour to be drunken! Be drunken, if you would not be the martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.”—Charles Baudelaire

The meal tonight will be seven courses and take about two hours to prepare. It will last from 10pm to sometime past 1:30 in the morning, when, after a final, impromptu bottle of Beaujolais has been consumed, and many records played (vinyl, of course, Rachmaninoff, Django Reinhardt, the Grateful Dead…), and all manner of things discussed at great volume, and with much laughing and a bit of reading aloud from books, our words will begin to melt like the candles, and become fluid, and our eyes will begin to close, and it will be time to call it a night.

Earlier, in the kitchen, I asked Will and Lisa how the restaurant was doing. Lisa laughed.
“Well, um…” Will said.

“I never have any money in the bank, but I can live now how I want. I’ve had a great year, I’ve treated the staff to a lot of parties on the store, and we have enough money to cover emergencies. It’s a big success as far as I’m concerned.”

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