It’s been a big year for Keswick Hall, and it’s only February. Within weeks, the inn announced its five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide, and also welcomed a new executive chef to Fossett’s Restaurant.
“The hard work really starts now, in keeping it,” marketing director Janet Kurtz said of the five-star rating. “Now we have a world-class chef, and it’s time to reintroduce Fossett’s and put it back on the map.”
Chef Dwayne Edwards has been in kitchens all over the country, and was most recently at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Florida. In January of this year he resettled in Central Virginia, and he’s already making his way around town to find his place in the food scene.
Last week C-VILLE was invited to a private six-course dinner with wine pairings at Fossett’s, where Edwards said one of his first priorities has been reaching out to local farmers, “asking them questions they don’t usually get,” not only to learn what they have to offer but to let them in on his own plans.
Edwards grew up in Portland, Oregon, and said he wanted to go back to a place that reminded him of home. Not only is Charlottesville practically bursting at the seams with restaurants, from the white linen classics to the hole-in-the-wall favorites, but the abundance of all things homegrown has made Edwards want to dive right in.
“As a chef, that’s really all you can ask for,” he said.
In true Charlottesville form, Edwards gave a nod to Thomas Jefferson for growing crops on his own soil while incorporating flavors from all over the globe. Jefferson wasn’t just an agriculturalist, Edwards said, but also a world traveler and 18th century foodie. Edwards showcased his own ability to cross culinary borders while still keeping it close to home at last week’s dinner. (It’s worth noting that seven hours prior to the meal I was chowing down on a burger while casually interviewing the owner of the new downtown bar, so a place setting with 14 pieces of freshly-polished silverware had me a bit out of my element.) The first two courses featured rockfish caught from the Chesapeake Bay and salad greens plucked from the Keswick garden earlier that day.
Following the salad course, servers poured steaming hot kelp-and-soy-sauce broth over bowls of raw seafood and lion’s mane and velvet pioppini mushrooms. The briny soup gave a surprising balance to the earthiness of the mushrooms, which maintained their texture after only a few minutes soaking in the hot coastal broth.
“It’s Japanese in preparation, but the flavors are close to home,” Edwards said as the bowls were filled.
Next up was a ricotta cavatelli with Virginia-raised pork. Edwards warned the table that pasta dishes, when served as part of a multi-course meal, can be on the heavy side. Most people don’t finish the entire serving in order to save room for the remaining courses, he assured us, so don’t worry about cleaning your plate.
A medley of winter flavors including butternut squash, kale and pine nuts tied the dish together, all in a brown butter demi. Had I not been at a table in a luxury hotel, surrounded by servers who pulled out my chair for me and refilled my glass of sparkling water after every sip, I very well may have licked the bowl clean.
The intermission and mixology course (who knew that was even a thing?) featured a refreshingly floral and mildly sweet cocktail with confit of plum, ras el hanout, Plymouth gin, elderflower and marigold. Turns out Edwards was a bartender in a past life, and he hasn’t lost his mixology chops.
The star of the show (well, aside from that pasta that I could have shamelessly eaten half my weight in) was the filet served over potato puree with a shaved Brussels sprouts salad. Overall, it was a simple dish. The potatoes included just cream, butter and salt, and the filet was prepared exactly the way meat should be: directly over the fire. Ember-cooked beef, made on the coals in a fireplace, is making a comeback, and after slicing into the lightly seasoned, perfectly crisp exterior that locked in the rare juices, I can see why.
Dessert came in the form of hazelnut mousse-filled donut holes with salted caramel sauce and cocoa nibs, plus a glass of Sauternes. I think that speaks for itself.
Edwards addressed the group after the dessert plates had been cleared away, and shared his thoughts on Keswick’s culinary future.
“You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run and run before you can sprint,” he said. “We’re crawling right now, but we’re about to stand up. Just imagine when we’re sprinting.”