Whiskey Jar team gears up for downtown spin-off and more local restaurant news

The Pie Chest co-owner Rachel Pennington finds inspiration in baking. Photo: RammelkampFoto. The Pie Chest co-owner Rachel Pennington finds inspiration in baking. Photo: RammelkampFoto.

Sweet and savory

We’re about to get a new pie shop on the Downtown Mall. And in true Charlottesville fashion, for the academic-turned-pastry-chef behind The Pie Chest, it was a circuitous path that led her here. The ever-changing food scene in this island-of-misfit-toys of a town seems to bring restaurateurs via just about every avenue imaginable. We’ve got the Culinary Institute of America guys who have their sights set on New York-esque fine dining, and the bakers with no formal training who started out on a step stool next to Grandma at age 4. There are the basement brewers who on a leap of faith spent every penny on a brewery, and the Darden grads who can run a coffee shop like a well-oiled machine. And then there are members of the food industry who ended up here completely by accident.

“I always liked baking at home, but never thought anything much would come from it,” said 35-year-old Rachel Pennington, who answered a Craigslist ad for a part-time baker on a whim in 2012 and never looked back. “It kind of just happened. I fell in love with it; it worked, and I found a lot of purpose in it.”

Pennington, a West Virginia native with a double master’s degree, never considered a food-related career. She made Charlottesville home after visiting from Harrisonburg, and planned to pursue a Ph.D. in religious studies. It wasn’t until she joined the team at The Whiskey Jar as a part-time baker that she shifted gears and found value in preparing food for strangers.

“When I explain where I came from I get the craziest looks, like why are you here doing this,” she said. “I was in the dining room when I first saw someone eat one of the desserts I’d made, someone I didn’t know. Their response was one of the most awesome moments in my life, and hit something deep inside.”

The Pie Chest, which Pennington and Whiskey Jar owner Will Richey (who also owns Revolutionary Soup and The Alley Light) estimate will open for business in March, will feature classic sweet and savory pies. The sweets will be “rustic,” reminiscent of The Whiskey Jar’s dessert menu, which includes items like fudge brownies, fruit cobblers, pecan pie and pumpkin cake. Pennington said the selection of pies will rotate, and she’ll use seasonal ingredients, like strawberries and rhubarb in the spring.

The shop, located on Fourth Street where Joseph M Mead Antique Oriental used to be (the rug shop moved down a couple of storefronts), will also serve up savory pies, with a particular emphasis on breakfast and pot pies. Pennington said to expect both meat-filled and vegetarian options, and you can either order them at the counter to-go, or stick around for a sit-down meal.

“We feel like this is an opportunity that kind of presented itself to us,” said Pennington.

Cross out

Fossett’s Restaurant at Keswick Hall has had another shake-up in the kitchen, with former executive chef Aaron Cross moving on and new chef Dwayne Edwards taking over. A spokesperson for the Jefferson Hotel group, which runs Keswick along with its other properties, said the split with Cross was amicable.

“We really enjoyed him, but he got a great opportunity to move to Texas,” said Janet Kurtz, Keswick’s director of sales and marketing. “You can’t begrudge anyone who gets an opportunity and takes it. He was looking forward to growth.”

Cross, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America who had previously worked at The Metropolitan Club of Chicago and Lemaire Restaurant in the Jefferson Hotel, couldn’t be reached for comment on his parting. During an interview with C-VILLE Weekly in January 2014, Cross said he was just beginning to find his own style in the kitchen.

Edwards officially took over Cross’ kitchen on January 14. Kurtz said the hotel group hasn’t yet formally introduced the new chef, but the announcement and a small introductory dinner are coming soon. Edwards comes to Charlottesville from Sarasota, Florida, where he had been executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton since October 2012. Kurtz said that while Edwards will bring his own personality to Fossett’s menu, the restaurant’s emphasis on local fare won’t change.

“It will still be heavily focused on food from the region and of course incorporate farm-to-table concepts into the menu,” she said.