Chef-owned establishments aside, the executive chef position at Clifton Inn may be the peak of Charlottesville’s culinary ladder. In the restaurant’s 24-year history, seven chefs have worn the honor, and several went on to own top eateries such as C&O and Maya. The latest is Yannick Fayolle, a bold young chef who in October took over the kitchen of the luxury inn. Classically trained yet with an international flair, Fayolle once ran his own restaurant in his native Mauritius and has also cooked at luxury hotels such as Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage and Geneva’s Grand Hotel Kempinski.
To see if he is up to the task, I could think of no better judges than the founders of Clifton Inn’s restaurant, chef Craig Hartman and his wife, Donna, who now run the widely acclaimed The Barbeque Exchange. The Hartmans stayed at the inn as guests in late 1991, when their friends, the innkeepers, said they were looking for a change, and asked if the Hartmans wanted to take over. The Hartmans went for it, and on January 2, 1992, opened Clifton Inn’s restaurant. Just two guests came that night, which may sound like an inauspicious beginning until you consider that one of them was so moved by the experience he wept tears of joy.
Since leaving in 1998, the Hartmans have followed Clifton’s evolution. “It’s like watching your baby grow,” says Donna. “The chefs who have been at the helm of the kitchen have been stellar,” says Craig.
But, is that still the case? The Hartmans joined me for a recent meal to find out. We sat somewhere that did not even exist in the Hartmans’ days—the chef’s counter, a white marble bar perched along the kitchen, where Fayolle and his staff serve a tasting menu of their favorite dishes, while interacting with guests. And, though there were no tears, there were exclamations of delight.
From the start, two amuse-bouches showed flashes of innovation and that Fayolle is unafraid to take risks. One was a sous vide beetroot in chicken jus with rose honey, topped with coffee dirt, coffee beans ground with chocolate. Daring, but it worked. In the other dish, a plant with a grassy aroma (chickweed) floated together with pickled turnips in two pale green ponds of aloe vera marmalade. “Wow,” said Donna. “I’ve never had aloe vera, but this is delicious.”
Next came medallions of roasted kabocha squash, with potato ice cream and bacon onion jam. Beautiful golden streaks of apple curry sauce painted the plate, and Craig sopped up every last bit with hunks of bread that Fayolle had made with Devils Backbone Vienna Lager.
Craig’s favorite dish of the night was a pho of braised bison tail, with crispy cubes of pickled butternut squash, foie gras shavings, soy-cured duck egg and black flour noodles, in a salty Japanese broth called dashi, rich in umami. When Fayolle poured the broth, Craig leaned into his bowl to inhale the aroma. “Ahh, that smells good,” he said. The taste was even better. “Outrageously good,” he said. “I could eat it every day.”
Following Craig’s standout was my own favorite dish, pork belly, which perhaps not coincidentally may have been the night’s simplest. Though its preparation was high-tech—cooked for 18 hours at 73 degrees Celsius—its presentation was more straightforward. A cube of pork belly sat beside a heap of grated horseradish with lime, to cut the richness, while a luscious velouté of potato and fennel complemented it.
With the final two dishes came more culinary acrobatics, both in powder form. For sesame powder, Fayolle made black tahini and transformed its fat into powder by adding tapioca maltodextrin. The powder adorned a meaty chunk of rockfish, with charred romaine and chicken saffron jus. And coriander dust was toasted coriander ground fine with honey powder and malt vinegar powder. It dusted a rack of lamb, with shallots, sweet potato “sausage” and mostarda, a condiment of dried cherries blended with mustard.
After the meal, the verdict was unanimous: Fayolle’s food was excellent. Twice during dinner, Hartman leaned over to me and whispered, “This guy’s got skills.” Beyond skills, though, we agreed that, at just 27, Fayolle has managed to steer clear of a fate that can befall young chefs. Some allow ego to get in the way and use their skills to the wrong end: to show off, rather than to provide pleasure to guests. So long as Fayolle continues to heed that the latter is a chef’s true role, he will be more than worthy of the title he now holds. The evening’s most important judge agrees.
“Chef Yannick showed a lot of skill, his dishes were full of flavor, and his platings were clean and beautiful,” Craig said. “He proved to us with his meal that he is ready to carry the torch that has been handed to him.”