Chef Mark Gresge missed making soup.
From 1992 to 2014, Gresge ran the beloved local French restaurant L’étoile. “To me,” Gresge says, “French country cooking was the perfect cuisine. Depth of flavor, locally sourced product, a true sense of region in the cooking.”
L’étoile had always run catering alongside its restaurant operations, but the growth of both that catering business and his own family drove Gresge to reluctantly close the restaurant and focus only on catering. Through word of mouth, he found a cozy cottage kitchen just outside downtown Crozet and set up shop there. “I still miss the restaurant,” he says, “and try and capture the feeling through the pop-ups that I hold at the kitchen when time allows.”
But pop-ups and catering still weren’t enough. Making soup was one of the ways Gresge began each day at the restaurant, and far from considering it a lowly haven for leftovers, he took its preparation as seriously as the rest of his courses. “I missed that process, making it every day, and decided that I would make a small batch and see if anyone was interested in taking some home,” he says. So Gresge put a simple sign out front and an honor box and cooler on the porch, and he marketed his soups via social media.
He says he can’t count the number of different flavors he’s cooked up since he began in 2015; he tries to avoid a routine and offer new combinations of flavors each week. Gresge especially loves taking requests from patrons for particular favorite recipes. “People seem to love anything with shrimp, gumbo, chowder and so on,” he says, listing New England clam chowder and chicken and rice as other popular offerings. (Kale-related soups? Not so much.)
In the chilly months ahead, he’s planning to offer cassoulet, a hearty French dish of white beans and assorted meats, and bigos, a Polish “hunter’s stew” traditionally made with meat, cabbage, and sauerkraut. “Bigos is so wonderful,” says Gresge, “I would love to share it with Crozet.”
When Gresge first opened L’étoile, “I imagined a grandmother cooking for her family,” he says. “I wanted to do that.” Serving soup to hungry, happy customers seems to keep him connected to that ideal.
“Honestly,” he says, “if I could make only one dish, and it was only soup, I would be a very happy person.”
Drive past L’étoile’s Crozet headquarters (or drop by its Facebook page) at 5857 Jarmans Gap Rd., and you’ll see a hand-lettered sign announcing the two weekly flavors on offer. Drop $10 in the lockbox on the front porch, and help yourself to a quart from the cooler. New offerings roll out every Wednesday. “If the sign is not out,” says Gresge, “the soup is gone.”—NA