If a Major League Baseball pundit were to assess Charlottesville’s roster of chefs, he might compare it to one of those baseball franchises built on players acquired from other teams. Most of Charlottesville’s top restaurants, it seems, are run by chefs who came here from somewhere else.
Then there is Dean Maupin. A native of Crozet and a longtime area resident, Maupin’s local roots run deep. It is those roots, in my view, that made Maupin the ideal person—perhaps the only person—to take over the C&O, the legendary Charlottesville restaurant he acquired last year.
Sure, Maupin’s culinary credentials are impeccable: executive chef of Fossett’s Restaurant at Keswick Hall, which Condé Nast ranked the best hotel in North America for food; executive chef of Clifton Inn, one of just 50 American restaurants to earn Relais & Chateaux status; and, for a short time, sous chef of the hugely influential but now closed Metropolitain in downtown Charlottesville.
But, culinary talent aside, what made Maupin the perfect torch bearer of the restaurant at the heart of Charlottesville dining is that he is homegrown—just like the man who handed him the torch, the late Dave Simpson, who died earlier this year. Looking back now, it seems hard to imagine the transition occurring any other way. Dave Simpson ran the C&O for nearly three decades. And, to run it for the next several decades, Simpson hand-picked a homegrown chef who first worked there as a line cook in 1995.
A recent dinner at the C&O with my wife confirmed the prudence of Simpson’s decision. We had perfect company: Pat Simpson, who was married to Dave for 25 years, and Adam Frazier, their nephew, who worked at the restaurant for several years before opening The Local in 2008. Maupin and his staff showcased the C&O’s present excellence, while Simpson and Frazier regaled us with stories of its past.
Maupin promised no major changes when he took over the C&O. From his years in Charlottesville, he gained the wisdom to tread carefully with a legend in his hands. Still, like any lifelong chef, Maupin has his own vision, and has allowed himself some tweaks.
So, our dinner blended C&O classics with Maupin’s innovations. Pat Simpson began with C&O’s famous vegetable soup, which for years has fed weary, post-shift Charlottesville chefs seeking refuge at the bar. “As good as ever,” she said. My request that the kitchen order for me was rewarded with a bowl of ricotta gnocchi with tender, braised lamb from Retreat Farm, in a rosemary-laced sauce, topped with shavings of Everona cheese.
For entrées, my wife and Frazier both chose steak Chinoise, a Dave Simpson creation on the menu since the 1970s. “It’s pure C&O,” Maupin said. Steak marinated in ginger, garlic, tamari, oil and black pepper, is seared in a cast iron skillet, and served in a reduced pan sauce of tamari, cream, ginger and scallions. Though originally made with flank steak, Maupin uses tenderloin, elevating the famous dish on even “more of a pedestal,” he said.
My entrée was an intoxicating bouillabaisse. “The key is the broth,” said Maupin of the labor-intensive lobster stock, simmered for hours with fennel, leeks, onion, tarragon, bay leaves, peppercorns and tomato paste. After several more steps (and hours), you have an extraordinary stew of monkfish, scallops and mussels. I was glad to have heeded our server’s advice to stir in the dollop of saffron garlic rouille.
Two common themes ran through the stories of C&O’s past: family and home. “As soon as you enter, it feels like home,” said Simpson, where “familiarity” meets “conviviality.” Maupin later echoed the sentiment. From the first time he worked at the C&O, he said, “it just felt like you were part of a family.” In fact, Maupin credits the staff as the key to the restaurant’s identity. “Interesting, sweet, smart and genuine people make this place what it is,” he said.
The family theme permeated our desserts as well, which all bear the stamp of Maupin’s wife Erin, a brilliant pastry chef who retired to raise their three children. Most notable is the sticky toffee pudding that first won her raves at Clifton Inn, where she once worked with Maupin. Another family standout, and also a Clifton holdover, is the Coupe Ellery—a grown-up sundae named after their 6-year-old daughter, with house-churned vanilla ice cream, whipped white chocolate, toasted almonds, Belgian chocolate sauce and raspberries. Our own 6-year-old daughter would love this, my wife and I agreed, as we cleaned the bowl.
Few restaurants mean more to Charlottesville than the C&O. What a special gift Maupin has given us by sustaining a place that, as Pat Simpson puts it, is the “flagship restaurant of Charlottesville.”
“The C&O has a sense of place in the community and downtown,” said Maupin. “My role in it all is to simply guide it onward, taking care of the cast.”
Thank you, Dean. Thank you, Dave.