The Wonders of Nelson County Revealed

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2016
All photo credit – Jordan Wright

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

Usually a trip through Nelson County has us making a beeline to Charlottesville.  And though Thomas Jefferson’s university town has beauty, history and terrific restaurants, there are tons of other attractions in this bucolic county worthy of a visit – and a few night’s stay.  Let Route 151 be your guiding star.  For our adventure we allowed five days and four nights, and only scratched the surface, vowing to return to the places we discovered and those we’d heard about and missed.  And although this is piece is entirely subjective, feel free to design your own trip by cherry-picking from our favorites.

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Once past the Manassas exit on Route 66, the road opens up to spectacular vistas, rolling countryside and the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Bill Coffee’s family-owned Buckland Farm Market outside of Warrenton on Route 29, is always our first stop.  The large farm store has a dizzying array of homemade cheeses, fresh fruits and veggies, plants and preserves, and more importantly, a wide array of mouth-watering baked goods.  In autumn there are pumpkin turnovers and pumpkin whoopee pies along with Southern pecan and apple pies.  You’ll also find the widest selection of Bob’s Red Mill products.  If you’re on an overnight stay, bring a cooler and stop on the way home for farm-raised beef and eggs.  The haunted corn field will open weekends throughout October and pick-your-own pumpkins are in the field now.

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

After purchasing a few jars of local honey and the prerequisite snacks, we proceeded up the mountains to check in at Wintergreen Resort, heading post haste to the serenity of The Spa for massages.  The full-service spa offers a variety of options and we chose a combination of Swedish, deep tissue and reflexology.  The ‘Green Tea and Lemongrass’ stress-shedder includes a salt scrub, hot stones and Vichy shower for the ultimate in relaxation.  From now till November the treatment switches over to the autumn-inspired ‘Pumpkin Chai’ sugar scrub.  Afterwards don plush terry robes and relax with a cup of herbal tea in the lounge overlooking the woods, or a swim in the indoor pool.  Finish your hydrotherapy in the steam room or sauna before heading off to dinner.

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Wintergreen has several dining options and the Copper Mine Bistro in the heart of Blackrock Village is the homiest of all.  Have breakfast here if you are planning on morning activities at the resort.  Golf, tennis, mountain biking and skiing are the most vigorous activities, but for less of a workout there’s yoga, trail walking and swimming.  Visit the Nature Center to learn about the flora and fauna and archeological history of the area.  Guided walks leave from here or you can venture out on your own using their free trail maps.

Devil’s Grill is the resort’s fine dining restaurant.  And as with the other four restaurants, guests can go casual, though here tables are dressed up with candles, flowers and white linens signaling a fancier repast.  A new chef has arrived since we dined there in late June, but expect locally-sourced seasonal food with a gourmet flair.

The morning brought rain and mist and the fern-bordered path to the Copper Mine Bistro was dense with fog.  Weather in the mountains has a habit of improving after a few hours and by the time breakfast was over the sun had broken through the clouds and we took off for the mountain course to make an early tee time.

Devil's Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob is the most challenging of the two courses (18 holes at Devil’s Knob and 27 holes at Stoney Creek), and I’m afraid in our zeal we didn’t do it justice.  But it was worth every scenic moment.  Sitting at an elevation of 3,800 feet and cooler than its sister course, Stoney Creek (designed by Rees Jones), we found wildflowers and wildlife our chief distractions.  This beautifully laid out Ellis Maples designed course takes advantage of the spectacular mountain views and rushing streams cascading down from the mountain tops.

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

Lunch brought us off the mountain to a small cottage surrounded by a lush perennial garden where we met Kay Pfaltz, an avowed Francophile with a joie de vivre that’s indelibly contagious.

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Kay is the author of the charming memoir Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris and co-owner of Basic Necessities with Sallie Justice and Rosie Gantt.  Together they helm this restaurant and retail store.  The enchanting spot reflects a distinctly French flair drawn from Pfaltz’s years as a writer living out her dream in Paris with her adored beagle, Lauren.

The shop at Basic Necessities

The shop at Basic Necessities

In the front section the shop is filled with a wide array of cheeses, freshly baked baguettes, patés and sausages – perfect for pairing with wines from Pfaltz’s expertly selected collection.

Pfaltz, who pens a local wine column, makes her selections based on taste, style and affordability and I homed in on a few sumptuous, well-priced burgundies and a number of carefully curated Virginia wines from the Commonwealth’s better winemakers.  Her clientele certainly benefits from her discriminating, Gallic-honed palate to guide them.

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

The dining area is in the back and overlooks more gardens.  Provencal patterned tablecloths echo the French theme while floral print china and sprays of wildflowers in stone crocks adorn the tables.  Lunches are served Tuesday through Sunday, with dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights only.

Thanks to Justice and Nelson County cook, Mae Collins Tyree, we were able to partake of a lovely French-inspired luncheon.

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

I was particularly taken by the delicacy of a watermelon + tomato gazpacho, a classic Croque Madame and a lavish charcuterie platter with all the accoutrements.  Pfaltz’s choice of a nice French rosé put us in mind of the French Riviera on a summer’s day.  We capped off our French feast with a slice of richly dense and multi-layered chocolate cake.

Nelson County boasts ten wineries, three craft breweries, two cideries, one meadery and two distilleries.  You will most assuredly not get to visit them all in one trip.  We gave it our best shot and epically failed.  However you choose to approach this tempting dilemma, it is ultimately more satisfying to focus on a few, all the better to savor the experience.  In this way you’ll be able to spend quality time with folks eager to share their passion for the land and their commitment to their products.

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

At Afton Mountain Vineyards winemakers Tony and Elizabeth Smith are proud owners of their upscale winery whose vines were planted in the 1970’s.  Formerly known as Bacchanal Vineyards, the Charlottesville couple bought the vineyard in 2009, and doubled the acreage under vine.  They expect their annual production of 2,200 bottles to increase to 5,000 in the next few years under the care and watchful eye of winemaker Damien Blanchon who hails from the South of France.

Currently the winery produces 15 varieties – something for everyone’s palate.  Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Petit Verdot recently won gold at the 2016 Monticello Cup Wine Competition and they are exceedingly proud of being the area’s only producer of Pinot Noir.

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

From the elevated tasting room on a drizzly afternoon you might see a group of horseback riders make their way across the vineyard.

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Rebel’s Run at Afton Mountain is a nearby stable providing guided tours of the vineyard and the scenic countryside.  Riders stop in to relax with a glass of wine beside the lake before heading back to the stables.  ‘Sip and Saddle’ packages can be booked through the stables or local B&B’s who pack box lunches for the riders.

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

A stop at the wildly successful upstart Silverback Distillery introduced us to Virginia-born owners Christine and Denver Riggleman.  After years of living the transient military life and raising their three daughters, Denver offered his wife Christine the chance to choose their next path.  To his utter surprise, she told him she wanted to start a distillery.  Their daughters, who are very much hands on in the endeavor, voted on the nickname they had given their father, “Silverback”, after the massive gorilla – their term of endearment in reference to his large build.  (He has since shed the excess pounds and it’s difficult to picture him as inspiration for the simian moniker.)

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

Silverback Distillery opened for business less than two years ago and has already been the recipient of eight international awards.  Combining a blend of Virginia grains with American craftsmanship, they currently offer Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin (winner of Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition), Blackback White Grain Spirit and Blackback Rye Whiskey.  An aged bourbon is coming soon.  Stop in for mini cocktails – the London Mule with gin, ginger beer and lime juice was our favorite quaff.  They have limited distribution and most sales are here at the Tasting Room, so be sure to pick up a bottle or two to take home.

Bold Rock's Tasting Room

Bold Rock’s Tasting Room

Close by you’ll find two local craft cideries – Bold Rock Hard Cider uses 100% apples from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, while Blue Toad Hard Cider gets 100% of their apples from New York state.  No concentrate bases whatsoever like the larger cideries.  Farm to Tap.

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

Bold Rock is a massive operation with three locations in Virginia and one in North Carolina, while Blue Toad is a tiny speck on the map.  Try them both and judge for yourself.

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

If you’re looking for an active bar scene, Devils Backbone Brewing Company is nearby.  This large craft brewery, recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch, is set on 100-acres of farmland with plenty of outdoor seating in its naturalistic gardens.  Families congregate at the covered outdoor bar as children explore the paths.

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

The restaurant features sixteen beers on tap to pair with simple pub food.

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

If you’re lucky enough to be in Nelson County on a Saturday, head for the farmer’s market.  Along with pretty flowers, fresh fruits, cheeses and veggies, you’ll find some unusual vendors like local bladesmith, T. Hipps, whose line of heirloom quality handmade cutlery called Karma Blades, will set you apart from the run-of-the-mill chef or hunter.  Or Lynne Ross of La Sunflower who makes her beauty products with comfrey and other natural home grown herbs.

Purple cauliflower from the season's bounty

Purple cauliflower from the season’s bounty

Stop by Barefoot Bucha’s stand to try their organic kombucha made locally with organic ingredients and served on draft and pick up a homemade lemon meringue pie from The Hungry Fox.

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

Hopefully you brought a cooler to take home John and Jade Sonne’s organic pork, eggs and berries from Spruce Creek Farms and some kimchi and fermented drinks from Farmstead Ferments.

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Where else can you find okra hot dogs and cider brats? Why from The Rock Barn, of course.  Other unique finds are fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads, who offer wide range of products from tsukemono, gingered carrots and apple & juniper sauerkraut.

Essences from Primal Wisdom

Essences from Primal Wisdom

My personal favorite from Virginia Vinegar Works is ‘Blackberry Cabaret’.  Not too sweet, not too tart – it’s the perfect addition to any kind of salad.

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

And, if you want to know why painter and printmaker Sandy Beebe, whose works are reminiscent of Grandma Moses, moved to Nelson County, she’s at the market every Saturday and is delighted to chat about its charms.

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

All this food and no stove to cook it, was making us hungry.  So turning back onto the Brew Ridge Trail we headed for lunch at Wild Wolf Brewing Company to meet owner Mary Wolf whose son Danny Wolf is the Master Brewer.

Wild Wolf's restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

Wild Wolf’s restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

This unique, eco-friendly, family-owned brewery, offers a wide array of beers and a restaurant housed in a former 1910 high school with wrap-around porches.  Stroll around the 10-acre former garden center to enjoy ponds, a water wheel, a biergarten and rustic outbuildings.

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The restaurant has an exceptional Head Chef in Chris Jack, and a talented Pastry Chef and Baker in Higgins Stewart, both of whom create truly memorable food.  According to Mary two years ago she and Danny decided to go farm-to-fork.  Now they send spent grain from their hops to a local farmer to feed his cattle in trade for beef.

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Eggs come from the chickens that live beneath their hops vines, and there’s a vegetable garden for much of the produce and summer herbs tucked into Jack’s dishes.

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

In the kitchen heritage breed Autumn Olive pigs are butchered for sausages and the ground pork is added to burgers.  Grits are prepared using stone ground corn from the nearby Woodson’s Mill in Nelson County.  The craveable, crisp-crusted cornbread brought steaming hot to the table in wire baskets, is made with Ula Tortilla’s organic, locally grown, non-GMO corn flour.  This rustic restaurant retreat is a must stop for excellent, chef-driven local cuisine and hoppy IPAs made with Cascade hops used in their “Primal Instinct” IPA.  We loved knowing Wild Wolf was selected as the Virginia Green Brewery of the Year.

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

Was it the wine or the beer?  But somehow we missed the turnoff to Del Fosse Winery leading us to a scrappy little vineyard that hadn’t been on our radar.  Democracy Vineyards may not be on many people’s list, but we loved its quirky theme and amazing collection of political memorabilia that lines the walls of the ultra-modern tasting room.  Started by Susan Prokop and Jim Turpin on an old apple farm, Democracy now features eleven wines with such startling names as ‘Suffrage’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Velvet Revolution’.  Be sure to taste their ‘Parliament’ 100% Petit Verdot dessert wine, and ‘Freedom’ a ‘Pinotage’ varietal.

A short drive away is the Virginia Distillery Company, where the elegantly furnished Visitor’s Center signals this luxury brand.  This summer the company launched ‘The Virginia Whisky Experience’, a one-of-a-kind guided interactive tour and museum experience for its visitors.  It includes a tour of the state-of-the-art distillery and the Cask House ending in a tasting of their Virginia Highland Malt and a sampling of their craft cocktails either in the Visitors’ Center or on a 2,000-foot patio replete with water and fire features.

Inside the distillery

Inside the distillery

Fed by seven converging springs, the distillery was the dream of George G. Moore, an American visionary who was determined to see Virginia whisky come back to an area once better known for its Prohibition Era stills.  Moore died three years ago and the project was taken up by his son, Gareth Moore and wife, Maggie, who have shown the same pioneering determination.  While VDC’s whisky was aging in used bourbon casks for a minimum of three years, they began distilling and aging their Virginia Scotch Whisky in the Scottish Highlands and shipping it back to Lovingston, finishing here in port-style wine casks where it will age for six to twelve months.  Not all the malted barley will come from Virginia, as there are not enough local farmers able to fulfill their needs, so most will be sourced from Scotland’s famed Boby malt mill.

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Until their on-site product has aged completely, the tasting room offers the Scottish-distilled Virginia Highland Malt in a number of specialty cocktails.  We particularly enjoyed the ‘South of Manhattan’ which we paired with their specialty Gearhart’s Chocolates Whisky Truffle made with their Highland Malt and sold in the gift shop.

Carol mixes the 'South of Manhattan'

Carol mixes the ‘South of Manhattan’

‘South of Manhattan’ Cocktail from Virginia Distillery

  • 4 ounces Virginia Sparkling Cider
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo cherry juice
  • 2 dashes cardamom bitters
  • 2 ounces Virginia Highland Malt Whisky
  • Orange peel
  • Luxardo cherry, for garnish
South of Manhattan

South of Manhattan

In a shaker, mix together cider, cherry juice and bitters. Add two ice cubes and the Virginia Highland Malt Whisky.  Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Rub the rim of the coupe glass with the orange peel and garnish with the Luxardo cherry and the orange peel.

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Jim Saunders is the fourth-generation owner of Saunders Brothers founded in 1915.  The affable farmer took time to drive us in his bright red truck through hundreds of acres of peach, apple and Asian pear orchards plus 36 varieties of boxwoods.  (You’ve probably seen their boxwoods in the White House gardens, planted during the Kennedy administration.)

Bouncing along the rutted farm roads, Jim regaled us with tales of the 1200-acre Nelson County farm.  Jim’s father, Paul Saunders, is the family genealogist and successful author, penning two wonderful books, “Heartbeats of Nelson”, a fascinating 634-page photo-filled anthology on the history of the county and its people, beginning in pre-Civil War times to the present day.  His second book, “Down on the Farm”, tells the history of the Saunders’ family life and the business of running the farm.  You can get pleasantly lost in these emotionally-connected stories of life and times by the Piney River.

Author Paul Saunders - Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

Author Paul Saunders – Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

We finished the tour in the farm store with Homestead Creamery’s delicious homemade peach ice cream from their Farm Market and left toting a basket of early yellow Sentry peaches destined for our cobblers.  Look for Saunders peaches, apples and pears at Whole Foods.  Their Albemarle Pippin was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple and is great for baking as well as cider.

Early season Sentry peaches

Early season Sentry peaches

The Rock-n-Creek Cabin is the most unique accommodation I have ever come across.  A rustic two-level A-frame cabin with wraparound porches, it is set in the woods and encircled by a series of ponds.  And though I was not particularly keen on the unidentifiable insects flitting around the bathroom floor, it’s more luxurious than camping out.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Host and owner Richard Christy is a renaissance man.  He is an accomplished chef, caterer, self-taught decoy and shorebird carver, and basket weaver.  His Buck Island Bay Decoys and Mountain Man Basketry studio is adjacent to the cabin.  I tell you this because you will be interacting with him as he prepares your dinner.  He is a font of information about the area’s wonders and a fascinating conversationalist.  As a former chef to Gerald Ford, he has helmed many restaurant kitchens around the country and continues to consult on new food products for major producers.

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Back to the experience.  When booking your reservation, Christy will ask what style of cuisine you would like him to prepare.  In my case I left it to him, and after he had checked out this website, he decided he would do something un-restaurant-like and totally out of the ordinary, choosing to prepare a “wildcrafted” dinner sourced entirely from wild edibles – with the exception of the vanilla, flour and sugar used in the dessert.

Our dinner was entitled ‘WILD THING – I Think I Love You’ and Christy presented us with a beautifully printed menu of our three-course dinner.

As we sipped our wine from barstools looking through to the open kitchen, the pony-tailed chef tossed freshly foraged salad greens – creek lettuce, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, chicory and cattail hearts – topping them with grated pickled duck egg, toasted pumpkin seeds and buttermilk dressing.  Our palate refresher was “Apple Pie Moonshine”, his signature concoction of homemade moonshine, cinnamon and apple cider.  Strong medicine meant for those who spend the day foraging and hunting in the woods as opposed to tooling around country roads in an air-conditioned SUV.

Blue catfish entree

Blue catfish entree

We took our seats in candlelight while Christy prepared our next course – blue catfish filets in brown butter on creamed ramps and nettles, finished with preserved fig.  A side of savory sweet potato and caramelized onion puree added sweetness and extra complexity.  It was divine!

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Dessert was a harmonious medley of foraged ingredients.  Dense pound cake served with stewed wild blackberries and enhanced with honeysuckle crema and hand-churned spruce tip ice cream.  I can assert without equivocation that I have never enjoyed a meal more uniquely delectable.

The cabin with its full-sized kitchen has all the amenities you’ll need whether your bringing the whole family or looking for a romantic getaway for two.

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

High atop the Blue Ridge Mountains sits Swannanoa Palace – one of those intriguing places, you never knew existed.

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

Built in 1912 to replicate the style of the Villa Medici in Italy’s famed Borghese Gardens, millionaire philanthropist and railroad magnate James H. Dooley and his wife Sallie May used the 22,000-square foot Italian Renaissance Revival villa as their summer mountaintop retreat.  (You may be more familiar with the Dooleys’ better known Maymont home and gardens set beside the James River in Richmond.)  It is divinely lavish with exquisite frescoes, carvings and massive fireplaces of Sienna and Carrara marble.  Hidden doors and a secret elevator are revealed to the curious visitor, and the incongruous ‘Persian Smoking Room’ features teakwood carvings, mosaics and a mosque fresco above the fireplace.  An exquisite Moorish lantern, bejeweled with sapphires, rubies, amber and opals, hangs above the exotic decor.

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace - A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the 'Persian Smoking Room'

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace – A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the ‘Persian Smoking Room’

The 52-room Afton mansion appears to be haunted and one group claims evidence of the ghost of Sallie May.  A few years ago a team of ghost hunters from the Twisted Paranormal Society set up night beams and recording equipment in the mansion claiming to have recorded spirits within.  One year later they returned under the auspices of another paranormal show called The R. I. P. Files attempting to identify the ghosts who reside there.

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The white marble palace is mostly abandoned, but guided tours of the ground floor and gardens are given seasonally from May through November on Saturdays and Sundays.

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

On our tour Victoria Airisun Wonderli, author of Swannanoa Palace – A Pictorial History of the Past and People, was busy signing her fascinating book on the history of the mansion.  There is currently no website for the property.  For information on visiting hours call 540 942.5201.

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderlii signs her book on Swannanoa

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderli signs her book on Swannanoa

It was high time to shed any notions of ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night.  And what better way to exorcise the demons than a glass of wine and a spot of lunch?

Cardinal Point's grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

Cardinal Point’s grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

When we arrived for lunch on Sunday two musicians were playing mellow tunes on the deck at Cardinal Point Winery.  Overlooking gardens abloom with roses and daylilies, we settled into a spacious sofa feeling carefree and peaceful.

As the duo took requests, we gobbled up a delicious box lunch of salad and sandwich while alternating between Vinho Verde-styled, ‘Green’ and a lively estate-grown Cab Franc rosé.  Ginger and Maya chocolate bars from Gearhart, the Richmond-based artisanal chocolatier, were the sweet finish.

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

During lunch, Sarah Gorman, sister of owner Tim Gorman, spoke with us about the evolution of her brother’s vineyard which currently has 15 acres under vine.

She told us how Tim, one of a smattering of Virginia owners who is also a grower, came to be a winemaker.  Tim is known for his fresh and innovative takes on classic vinifera, and naturally is very passionate about the growing side of things.  Gorman got into winemaking as a result of being frustrated by how the grapes he was growing for other vineyards were not being honored.  A creative winemaker, he prefers to ‘read’ the grapes when they are ready.  This tells him what kind of wine to make as opposed to having to force a grape to become something other than what it should be.

In a small winery such as this, he can come up with innovations, and he does.  His ‘Clay Hill’ Cabernet Franc, made with grapes from a neighboring vineyard, was a 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup Gold Medal winner.  A classic Loire Valley style, it has also done well in international competition.  Be sure to sample some of these unique wines unknown to other Virginia wineries – like the 2014 ‘Quattro’ made from Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier and Traminette grapes for an off-dry wine with notes of candied apple and pear.

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Interpreting how each fruit has evolved in a season allows Tim to inform his winemaking decisions.  For his 2015 ‘Frai Chardonnay’, a wine with peach, pear and tropical notes, he stopped the ferment short of dry, leaving it with only 2% of residual sugar.  Sarah mentioned that the 2015 unoaked ‘Hopped Chardonnay’ is flying out of the tasting room with buyers surprised at how differently a chardonnay grape can be expressed.

The winery also features a five-bedroom 19th century farmhouse for overnight stays.  Check the website for upcoming events.

After doing a bit of shopping at Tuckahoe Antique Mall, we pressed on to Veritas Winery where we would spend our final night.  No, not in a vat of grapes, but at the bespoke Farmhouse at Veritas.

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

What we came upon was a breathtaking winery with vast expanses of green lawns, acres and acres of vines and a production facility that sustains a wine-drinking clientele of over 3,000 club members and boasts a grand ballroom for weddings and large events.

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

Founded by Andrew and Patricia Hodson, a British couple who moved to the county to lead a quieter life, they thought they’d put a few acres under vine.  In a short time, their flight of fancy became one of the most successful, and stunning, wineries in Virginia with many of their family members filling the roles of winemaker and managers.  We took a lengthy tour of the production facilities which are vast.  And though I took reams of notes, most are cryptically abbreviated.  Here’s what I can be sure of.  All their grapes are grown in the Monticello AVA, which consists of four counties including Nelson, and they bottled and sold their first wines, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in 2002.  Their philosophy is to exclusively use estate or local grapes and they are most excited about a merlot they are testing using grape pomace (the skins, pulp and seeds from grapes).

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

As for the technical stuff, they employ a reverse osmosis machine and a state-of-the-art gyro cube for riddling and they are very proud of their gravity-fed vineyard.  I felt myself going into shutdown mode, either from too much technical stuff, or the fact that we had come inside to refrigerated cellars from 98-degree heat.

The tasting went swiftly as I passed over some too young reds to get to the best of the lot.  The 2014 ‘Vinter’s Reserve’ Red is their most promising wine right now, as the 2013 cuvee won the Gold Medal at the Governor’s Cup and I found the 2013 Petit Verdot to be coming along nicely.  I had a particular affinity for the 2015 Viognier which is touted as cellaring well, and a more delicate than expected version of ice wine called ‘Kenmar’.

The Farmhouse at Veritas

The Farmhouse at Veritas

We checked into The Farmhouse at Veritas, more of a bespoke estate home, elegantly appointed with walls of books, an old-fashioned billiard table in the Gathering Room and fine antiques.  High-end decorator touches grace the eight suites that are outfitted with high-quality linens and premium amenities.  Not your typical roadside B&B, the 1839 home was where the Hodson family lived when they first took ownership of the former horse and cattle farm.  Guests can also opt for ‘The Barn Cottage’, a charming two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a fireplace in the living room and a full-size kitchen available for guests.

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

As much as I preferred to luxuriate in such splendor and sneak off with a book to the second-story front porch, we took off down the road for dinner at the Blue Mountain Brewery where we arrived in time to watch the sun set.  The award-winning brewery is proud of its 20 varieties of craft beers made with their own hops, Simcoe, Cascade and Centennial, and using deep well water as well as brewing exclusively in Nelson County since 2007.

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Char-grilled pizzas and burgers including plenty of vegan options are made from scratch and designed to pair well with a myriad of beers. (Local wines and even kombucha are available too.) We sat on the outdoor terrace watching kids run around the lawn while a lively group played cornhole.  Check the website for upcoming Oktoberfest events.

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

Morning at The Farmhouse brought a champagne breakfast of fresh fruits, croissants and omelets prepared to your liking by the estate’s chef.  We eschewed the screened-in porch to enjoy the pleasures of a large brick-floor gazebo.  Surrounded by the raised beds of the kitchen garden and row upon row of Chardonnay vines we whiled away the hour sipping the aforementioned Mousseux while butterflies and honeybees flit about the roses and coneflowers.  A very civilized way to begin the day before returning homeward.  Check the website for upcoming yoga and hiking retreats.

Sneak Peek! and Exclusive Interviews with “Mercy Street” Designers Amy Andrews Harrell, Costume Designer, and Ignatius Creegan, Hat Designer

Jordan Wright
January 10, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

In our October interview with Mercy Street Co-Producer Lisa Wolfinger, we examined the story behind the new PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s Civil War era miniseries.  Set in Alexandria, VA the plot is based on the true story of the Green family of Carlyle House and their hotel, Mansion House, which was commandeered by Union troops to serve as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers.  Part I of six episodes was screened at the Alexandria Film Festival on November 5th and I’m thrilled to report that Alexandria is repeatedly mentioned.  The first installment premieres January 17th.

In exclusive interviews with Mercy Street Costume Designer and Richmond, VA resident Amy Andrews Harrell, and the show’s hat designer and Petersburg, VA resident, Ignatius Creegan, I gleaned some interesting facts about the creation of the show’s beautiful period costumes.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Harrell’s professional career started when she became Set Costumer on Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Soon after she graduated to Costume Supervisor on HBO’s TV miniseries, John Adams, the winner of four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, earning more than any miniseries in history.  In 2012 she was Key Costumer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, winner of two Academy Awards.  By 2013 she was designing costumes for National Geographic Channel’s docudramas, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy.  Most recently she was Costume Designer on the yet-to-be-released thriller Imperium.  Filmed in Richmond, VA the feature film stars Daniel Ratcliffe and Toni Colette.  Harrell has a Master’s Degree in Costume Design from Southern Methodist University.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

What was your primary resource for research on the period?

For inspiration I used the book by John Guntzelman, “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States” as a guide.

Did you use any fabrics from the era?

I discovered a bolt of ten yards of original cotton from 1860 on eBay that I used in Jane Green’s dress.  Also I had good luck with an antiques store in Mechanicsville that had pieces of dresses of the period.  The silks were shattered, as old silk will do, but we were able to use parts of things.  We used a lot of things from there as well as from a vintage store in Richmond called Halcyon, owned by Connie Carroll.  She found some wonderful pieces of embroidery, lace and net that I could add onto Jane Green’s dress.  I loved that it came from an estate in Richmond and is of the period.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

How many multiples did you need to make to hold up to the mud and blood?

Only in one instance.  The first dress that Hannah wears gets ripped, so we had to make two of those.  We had very limited resources to work with, but still it was very exciting.  Whenever I looked out a window I could see one person doing three people’s jobs.  We didn’t have the breathing room I’ve been accustomed to.  We really worked without a net.

How did you keep them clean?

We knew beforehand which characters would get bloody or hurt and we had extra things for them.  While stage blood has detergent built in to it, it can wash out if it’s on too light of a fabric.  It’s unpredictable.  It can turn a garment pink when you least expect it.

What’s a costume disaster from the filming?

We had really good luck, even though at night I would sometimes have dreams that there were things I forgot – – like someone without a costume!

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Milliners Ignatius Creegan and partner Rod Givens who live and work in their 7,000 square foot Civil War era mansion in Petersburg, VA, have worked with Harrell on many of the abovementioned films and were responsible for creating the historically accurate bonnets and caps.  Creegan’s career goes back to 1987 when he started designing and making hats for theatre, movies and private clientele.

How did you decide what to design?

We worked with Amy’s designs and found a fair number of photographs of hats from the period.  We also had designed historic era hats in the past.  We have an antique straw sewing machine we used for some of the hats.  These “straw machines” were the first commercial machines made for the industry.  Notably the Civil War was the first time sewing machines were used.

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

What was the process like?

It was interesting because I was able to use actual fabrics from the period.  I cut them up to match the dresses.  It was wonderful to be able to take a couple days to hand sew them.  Hats were something that people made by hand then.  It was an education for me to be able to work with those vintage styles and a luxury to incorporate those fabrics and trimmings including some wonderful old velvet ribbons that Amy had collected.

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

What was it like to design hats for a period piece?

It’s interesting to consider what people were wearing in our neighborhood back then.  A lot of the men’s designs are still wearable today and we are now starting a men’s collection based on what we did for Mercy Street.  We plan to expand on those designs of hats and caps for our own clientele.

An Interview with Lisa Wolfinger, Co-Producer of “Mercy Street”

Jordan Wright
October 8, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Mercy Street: Behind the Scenes

Mercy Street: Behind the Scenes

On November 5th the Alexandria Film Festival and Visit Alexandria will host the premiere of PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s new Civil War era miniseries, Mercy Street.  Based on true stories and set historically in Alexandria, the drama tells of love, war and medicine on the home front.  Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was once the melting pot of the region, filled with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, the wounded from both sides, runaway slaves, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The private screening will kick off the city’s ninth annual film festival, which runs from November 5th through the 8th at both the AMC Hoffman 22 Theater and Beatley Central Library.  The festival will also include an advance screening of Love The Coopers and many more.  For information and screening times go to www.AlexandriaFilm.org

Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, who has written, produced and directed a wide range of genres, including drama, historical docudrama, high-end documentaries and reality, is the Co-Producer of the PBS Masterpiece Theatre mini-series, Mercy Street.  Her work includes the critically acclaimed three-hour docudrama special for the History Channel, “Desperate Crossing, The Untold Story of the Mayflower”, nominated for two primetime Emmy Awards; the two-hour special, “Fire on the Mountain”, nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy and awarded the CINE Masters Series award; the 90-minute Salem Witch docudrama titled “Witch Hunt”, nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy; and the docudrama miniseries, “Conquest of America”, nominated for a Primetime Emmy and winner of a gold medal at the New York Film Festival.  Wolfinger will be on hand for the premiere along with some of the cast members to participate in a Q & A.

Interview with Lisa Wolfinger

What initially drew you to focus on American history throughout your career?

That’s an interesting one!  I was educated overseas, but I am American.  I spent most of my school years in France and England so my focus was on European History.  When I married and moved to the States, I realized I knew very little about American History.  So I began working my way up to it through a number of historic documentaries.  For Mercy Street I looked into the Civil War.  It seemed like the next step for me.  I was especially drawn to the medical side.  I wanted to find a fresh window and I discovered a very interesting story about the medical side of the war that had never been told.  It’s a crucible in many ways.  It’s what I like to call the beginning of modern medical science.

Why did you want to tell this particular story? 

What excited me most of all were these very daring female volunteers who were the first nurses coming into this conflict, trying to make a difference.  But there were other elements of the story that also excited me.  By setting it in a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, it also gave me an african american story line.

Audrey Davis, Director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum, gave expert historical background on Alexandria’s early African American experience.  What did she share with your other advisors and what intrigued you the most about the city’s history?

When I settled on the medical side of it, I realized I had to focus on that story rather than the battles.  I started looking into general hospitals behind the front lines.  I stumbled on a story about Mansion House, about a hotel turned Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.  The article was written by the curator at Carlyle House.  It was also  the story of Mr. Green, a local entrepreneur, who built this hotel on his front lawn.  Through that angle I realized that the Green family stayed in town during the war living side by side with the Union occupiers.  It gave me a family saga with the Greens and a medical story as well.  The setting was so rich and rather unique in many ways.

There is an important and fascinating side to the story referencing women’s places in the medical profession.  As a woman, was it important to you to include this?

Absolutely.  That is the story I wanted to tell as a female filmmaker.  It’s important to tell stories of remarkable women and what I loved about this story is that these are not iconic women, nobody has ever heard about them, and yet they are based on real people who did extraordinary things.  Women coming in and conquering prejudices and trying to make a difference.

You have assembled an amazing cast of famous television stars from some of TV’s hottest series.  How much training in nursing care and Civil War era behavior did they get before shooting?

Oodles!  Because I come from a filmmaking history background, the one thing that was going to make this series special was attention to detail.  So we brought in a whole panel of advisors to make the world look real and believable and authentic. The cast was so eager to throw themselves into the Civil War until it became second nature.

Alexandria recently celebrated its Sesquicentennial, but there’s still controversy over a statue at Prince and Washington Streets honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  How are the relationships between the Union soldiers and Confederate sympathizers expressed in Mercy Street?

We worked very hard to create a world where we represent different and points of view.  We have unpleasant characters on both sides of the conflict and we don’t shy away from it.  It was a very complicated time with brothers fighting brothers.  James McPherson is one of our advisors and in one of his notes he was concerned that we were romanticizing some of the Southern characters, so we had to find a balance on both sides of the conflict.  We also have some very strong African American characters with a very strong voice.

Are there still Southern slaves in the city at this time?  And how do they interact with the Union troops or free slaves?

We dealt with that.  Season 1 takes place in the spring of 1862 and the refugee slaves in Alexandria were protected by the Union Army and called contrabands but they are not technically free.  We have many different points of view including from the African American perspective.

Mercy Street has one of the best slots in television – – following Downton Abbey.  Can this miniseries hold its own against one of the most beloved series on “Masterpiece”?

Yes, but it’s like comparing apples and watermelons.  They both have strong ensemble casts.  But Mercy Street but this is a big, epic story.  Downton Abbey audience will very much enjoy this story about the North and South.  There’s humor, romance and intrigue whether you’re a Civil War history buff or romance buff.

Who designed the costumes? 

Amy Andrews Harrell who lives in Richmond designed and constructed many of them.  With one dress she incorporated a fabric she found on eBay that came from somebody’s attic that dated back to 1860.  She was able to build upon the costumes with authentic period lace and accessories and other fabrics.  Amy is known for her work on Lincoln and On Cold Mountain and many other period shows.

Is there anything you would like to say about the premiere in the city that it takes place?

We are very excited to show the film here in the city where it is set.  It seems so fitting.  The actors are looking forward to coming down for it because they ingested the period by osmosis.

Chef to Chef with Chris Lusk

Jordan Wright
February 2, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts 

Chef Chris Lusk

Chef Chris Lusk

At forty-one, East Texas native and Johnson & Wales grad, Chris Lusk has seen the ins and outs of a few restaurant kitchens and learned a wide variety of international cuisines.  After an externship in an Irish hotel he cooked Tex-Mex at Stephen PylesStar Canyon in Dallas, Asian cuisine at an unnamed restaurant in Florida, and Italian at Otto Enoteca under Mario Batali.  Later he worked with the iconic Brennan family’s Foodie’s Kitchen in Metairie and more recently at Commander’s Palace and Café Adelaide where he honed his Creole and Southern-style cooking.  He is now Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans.

At DC’s Acadiana in a room filled with shuckers, chefs, industry lobbyists and oyster lovers at the Gulf Oyster Industry Council’s Washington, DC event last month, I met Lusk over a platter of his incredible Crispy Oysters Rockefeller.

Jordan Wright – Can you describe the twist you put on the classic dish?

Chris Lusk – Traditionally it would be served on the half shell with a puree of purslane, chives, capers and other greens, then spiked with absinthe.  Though it’s often spiked with Herbsaint, it really hadn’t been invented yet.  So absinthe is used.  Then it would be finished with breadcrumbs.  My version has a crust made from dehydrated spinach, chives, green onions, breadcrumbs and Parmesan.  Then it’s garnished with more Parmesan and a pesto made of green onions, chives and olive oil then spiked with absinthe.  To prepare the oysters we drained the liquor off and marinated them the pesto then rolled in the breadcrumb mix.  The crust really adheres to it.  Then we flash fry them till oyster begins to plump and it’s still moist inside and crispy on the outside.

What we’re getting at this time of year is a smaller oyster.  They go through phases during the year.  I prefer to use a medium-sized oyster.  At this time of year they are thriving in the cool water and they’re the perfect size and salinity.

You’ve been named one of Esquire magazine’s “Four Breakout Chefs to Watch”, cooked at the James Beard House and won the Louisiana Seafood Cookoff.  What’s next?  

I don’t know.  I have a larger operation and bigger kitchen here with Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, and have a lot going on right now. They just opened their second restaurant, Seafood R’evolution outside of Jackson, MS in Ridgeland. It’s similar in concept but with more seafood.

Can you tell us about the dessert you prepared which prompted Esquire’s John Mariani’s to award you the “Best Dessert of 2011”?

It was a white chocolate biscuit pudding, a play on a dish my grandmother made when I was growing up.  New Orleans is famous for bread pudding so my spin on it was what I was exposed to as a child where my grandmother used the leftover biscuits from breakfast.  I took that inspiration and added white chocolate and a bit of Barq’s Root Beer Syrup on top, it’s an iconic soft drink that once was made here.  Then I fried some pecans, which are from around here, as a garnish and I serve it with white chocolate ice cream.

I was very fortunate growing up to be exposed to farming.  Growing up I spent summers with my grandparents who were farmers and I learned about canning and pickling using ingredients from the farm.  My other grandparents were ranchers and raised cattle and hogs so we made sausage and used different cuts of meat.  I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about farming and ranching growing up.

I understand you are continuing your study of both Cajun and Creole cuisines.  Can you talk about the differences between these two venerable cuisines?

Creole is more of the refined version of the French, Italian, German, and even African influences and Cajun reflects the more rustic, spicier and bolder flavors.  Most Cajun is one-pot meals like jambalaya, gumbos, chicken fricasee and etoufées.  What you see in New Orleans are the French dishes indicative of Creole.  The use of Pernod, Herbsaint and absinthe lean more towards the Creole side.  Although a lot of the lines have become blurred now – – and you can see the Creole and Cajun coming together.

Would you say you’re a fan of Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse or Justin Wilson?

That’s a hard question because I’m a fan of all of them for different reasons.  Justin Wilson gave the first glimpse of what Cajun regional cuisine is.  Prudhomme went to the next level with blackened fish, K-Paul’s and Commander’s Palace.  He really put it out there on a larger scale.  Then Emeril took it one step further.  Those three guys have enabled me and my generation and the generation after mine to do what we do in New Orleans.  Those guys are the ones that gave the younger chefs the opportunity to push the boundaries.

What are your favorite cookbooks? 

I have Lafcadio Hearn and many others.  My cookbook collection is all over the place – – Paul Prudhomme, Wilson’s books, Harold McGee and many others have influenced me in my style of cooking, including a lot of ethnic cookbooks that I use in different techniques of frying or pickling – like Japanese for instance.  I learn from everyone including my dishwashers and sous chefs.  You can never become too educated to learn from someone.  Some of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had have been staff meals.  The thing about New Orleans is everybody can cook here!

Opened in 1880 Commander’s Palace is one of the great American restaurants of all time.  What did you learn while you were there?

That’s when I really started my education apart from culinary school.  It really opened my eyes to Southern food.  I learned a lot.

What signature dishes are you preparing at Restaurant R’evolution, the French Quarter spot where you are cooking now?

One of the dishes I recently put on was inspired by Vietnamese cuisine.  It’s a Hoisin Glazed Grouper tied in with a blue crab pho broth and served with lightly pickled vegetables and rice noodles.

What new ingredients or techniques are on your radar these days? 

I’m using lot of Asian ingredients like four different types of soy sauce such as Japanese and Filipino for curing eggs and making marinades, also different types of fish sauce and Indian spices.  Sometimes just for myself I make sushi rice with marinated cobia and fresh wasabi.  I’m inspired by the Vietnamese fishermen we have here.

Who was your first inspiration in the kitchen? 

My grandparents were farmers and raised cattle and grandpa made sausage, things that are very popular now, so I was really fortunate as a child.  I lived in a small city but spent summers with my grandparents who had a lot of land.  We’d sit around and shuck corn, pick peas and can together.  We do a lot of that at the restaurant pickles, jams etc.  My grandpa used to clean out Coke bottles and make his own tomato juice and put the caps back on them.  Man, that was the best tomato juice I’ve ever had!

What was the first dish you learned to cook and who did you serve it to?

I learned to make scrambled eggs as a child that I served to my mom and dad.  I’m sure they were pretty rubbery and overcooked, but they were pretty nice about it.

What famous person would you like to prepare dinner for?

Thomas Keller.

Wow! No stress there.

Ha! No stress in that! I’m a big fan!

No Longer the Runaway Chef Peter Chang – To Appear at Sips & Suppers

Jordan Wright
January 14, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

Chef Peter Chang

Chef Peter Chang

One of the featured chefs for the Sips & Suppers dinners coming up next week is Peter Chang – an elusive chef known for ditching restaurant kitchens like a discardable cell phone.  At last he has found in another accomplished chef, Gen Lee, the perfect partner to build an empire.  The duo has already opened six successful restaurants around Virginia, with Arlington scheduled to open early February and another outpost in Rockville in March.

I’ve been a lucky duck to sample his cuisine twice in my life – once at a sumptuous banquet when he was the executive chef at DC’s Chinese Embassy in the 90’s, though I wasn’t aware he was the chef that oversaw the dozens of dishes offered at that lavish banquet.  Years later on a hot tip I sought out his cooking at an obscure Chinese restaurant in a strip mall at the corner of Duke and Van Dorn in Alexandria.

Chang doesn’t dumb down his food for American palates.  And it’s not for the faint of heart.  As I recall the dish was the hottest, saltiest and most addictive chili pepper chicken I’d ever experienced.  I have never forgotten it.  By the time I planned on a return visit, he had scampered off for parts unknown leaving a trail of desperate fanatics in his wake.

Chang, who speaks no English, allows Gen Lee to act as his spokesperson.  The two have cooked together for many years.

Whisk and Quill – Do you see everything in a yin/yang balance? 

Gen Lee – Yes.  It’s always going to be like that for us.  In Sichuan Province it is very hot and wet and filled with trees.  People who live there have to eat a lot of spicy food that’s why they use the Sichuan peppers.  

Does Peter cook in one of the VA restaurants now?  

Not on a daily basis.  He cooks for parties and special events, but he also checks on every restaurant on a weekly basis.  He’s very strict about that.  I can’t tell you which restaurant he is cooking in at any given time, but he’s always cooking and he’s always training his cooks to get it right.  We’re happy if its 90% right, because our recipes are very, very difficult.  We don’t use sauce.  For ten years when Peter and I worked as corporate chefs on a riverboat on the Yangtze River, we did the real, real Sichuan there.

How young was Peter when he first started cooking?  

He was in high school.  He always knew he wanted to cook and he went to cooking school at 18.  He always watched his grandma cooking and helped her make lots of vegetarian dishes.  You know, we don’t use much meat, but lots of vegetables mushrooms and such.

Does Peter listen to music when he’s cooking? 

 No, it’s very difficult.  Everything is very quick.  There are 20 different spices – different ones for different dishes – and it all happens fast.

What are some of the restaurants’ signature dishes?

The cumin lamb chops and bamboo fish, and everyone orders the dry-fried eggplant cut like steak fries.

Would you say your dishes are classic Sichuan?

Yes, it’s his specialty.  But, for example, they don’t use lamb chops in China and the difference is the ingredients are better quality here.

Lately American chefs are using Asian ingredients in fusion cuisine and mixing things up.  Where do you see this going?

A lot of chefs try it using French techniques.  They are not using the real Chinese techniques and that worries me.  These chefs are not Chinese.  They are Hispanic or Korean.  There are only a handful of real Chinese chefs here in America.

Chinese food has been losing favor to Thai and Korean in the past decade or so.  Do you hope to bring back Chinese food to its earlier popularity?

Our dream is to bring back the real Chinese food, not just to make money.  In a few years we know we can retire, but it’s not about that.  Right now we have six restaurants.  Already in our Richmond restaurant we are doing 500-600 a day.  It’s like a war zone with like 100 people in line every day.

Will you be opening in the Northern Virginia area soon?

Yes, we will have two more restaurants – – one in Arlington and soon after in Rockville.

This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright. 

Dozens of prestigious local, national and world-renowned chefs will prepare the Sips & Suppers dinners on Sunday, January 25th.  A separate evening of chef’s treats and cocktails takes place on Saturday, January 24th.  Expect appearances by Joan Nathan, Jose Andres and Alice Waters.  For further information and to purchase tickets to the fundraiser for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen visit www.sips2015.eventbrite.com and www.suppers2015.eventbrite.com.