Top Chefs of Virginia: Ma, Milton and Shields

by PEvansHylton | Posted on August 13th, 2014

Virginia is America’s first food region, an early amalgamation of food and foodways from Native Americans, the English colonists, and an Afro-Caribbean influence.

©Robinson Imagery

©Robinson Imagery

Over the years some food traditions have remained, but even those have had a facelift or two, adapting to modern palates and the country getting a true sense of place in the world’s cuisine scene.

At the forefront of flavors are the kitchen artists, the Top Chefs of Virginia. From time-to-time we’ll chat with some of these tall toques about what inspires them, and why they chose to create their craft in the commonwealth.

This is the first of the series. Grab a napkin, you’re going to be drooling soon.

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Chef Tim Ma
Maple Ave Restaurant
147 Maple Ave. W., Vienna
703-319-2177

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Water & Wall Restaurant
3811 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington
703-294-4949

After eight years as an engineer, Tim Ma traded in blueprints for recipe cards and went to culinary school at The French Culinary Institute – now International Culinary Center – in New York.

Chef Tim Ma of Maple Ave Restaurant and Water & Wheel Restaurant. Photo by Rey Lopez / Under a Bushel Photography.

Chef Tim Ma of Maple Ave Restaurant and Water & Wheel Restaurant. Photo by Rey Lopez / Under a Bushel Photography.

Following an externship with the Momofuku restaurant group and other culinary jobs, Tim returned to Virginia, where he had lived since age 10, to pursue his dreams of opening a restaurant.

“I’ve been doing this for about six years now and have loved every minute of it,” he says.

Tim and Joey Hernandez opened Maple Ave Restaurant in 2009. The remodeled donut shop seats 28 folks and offers French-Asian cuisine. Wall & Water opened in 2013 showcasing New American food.

At Maple Ave, a consistent favorite on the changing menu are the Crème Fraiche Wings, a dish of wings in fiery Korean chili paste tempered with cooling Kendall Farms crème fraiche and garnished with scallions.

Maple Ave has is currently ranked Number One in the 50 Best Restaurants by Northern Virginia Magazine and named among the 100 Very Best Restaurants by Washingtonian Magazine.

Tim was a guest chef for the James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour on Aug. 4 and will cook at the James Beard House in New York for the Virginia Rising Stars dinner on Sept. 9.

He was nominated a Rising Culinary Star in 2013 and 2014 for the RAMMY Awards presented by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

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You are on the forefront of food, what trends do you see?

I think that sophisticated cuisine will start to bleed into casual cuisine more often that what we are seeing it now, and make what once was considered fancy food more accessible to more people.

You cook for others all the time; what do you cook for yourself?

I love to make myself soy sauce braised beef noodles.  It can be any kind of noodle, but the beef needs to be super tender though. Add some pickles, and maybe some bok choy and I can eat that every day.

What is a cookbook or food-related books folks should be reading?

Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Daguid

What are five things in your home refrigerator right now?

Adult yogurt, baby yogurt, toddler yogurt, five takeout boxes from five different restaurants, and milk for my cereal.

Maple Ave Restaurant

Courtesy of Maple Ave Restaurant

What’s a favorite Virginia wine? A favorite Virginia beer?

I’m not a big wine drinker, but it’s hard for us to keep any RdV Vineyards wines in stock.

AleWerks Brewing Company’s Shorty Time Session IPA; I couldn’t drink enough of this. We have it on tap now, but it is a very limited edition.

Let’s talk food in Virginia.

To me it’s very important to support local, but also very important to support responsible.  Responsible meaning that processes be it a Virginia peanut or grass-fed beef, it needs to be done with the properly with the current and future generations in mind.

We source a lot from Polyface Farms for both restaurants.  We also like to promote as much Virginia agriculture as we can.

I love Polyface Farms for not only their incredible products (rabbit, pork, beef, chicken, eggs), but for their incredibly sustainable practices.

Virginia does provide such a wide range of products that are just fantastic, apples, peanuts, etc.

What makes Virginia’s cuisine scene special?

There is something special happening right now with Virginia cuisine. Chefs are reconnecting with the agriculture as well as with other fellow Virginia chefs … and [it’s] not just what is happening in the upscale cuisine space, but also the casual eateries are becoming more craft, less commercial.

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Chef Travis Milton
Comfort Restaurant
200 W. Broad St., Richmond
804-780-0004

Chef Travis Milton. Photo by Beth Furgurson Photography.

Chef Travis Milton of Comfort. Photo by Beth Furgurson Photography.

Restauranting is in Travis Milton’s DNA. His great-grandparents owned a small restaurant in Castlewood, Va., where his mother worked both in the kitchen and dining room.

“She would bring me in with her, and I would sit in a highchair in the corner of the kitchen and peel potatoes with a very dull butter knife. I learned quite a bit. I got my first restaurant job at 15,” says Travis.

Over the years he has worked with such notables as Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco, Todd Gray of Equinox and Fabio Trabocchi of Fiola, both in Washington D.C., and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York before settling back in Virginia.

Travis is a native of Russell County in Appalachia.

Comfort opened in downtown Richmond 13 years ago by Jason Alley and Chris Chandler and has since become a stalwart of the capital city’s dining scene. Travis joined the team three years ago.

“Our menu is rooted in the old ‘Meat and Three’ concept with a heavy emphasis on Appalachian foods,” says Travis. “We seat about 60 and try to create a very homey feel in the dining room that lives up to the name: Comfort.”

Dishes change frequently, but Travis is noted for his Cheerwine Vinegar Pie (Cheerwine is a Southern, cherry-based soft drink) and sour corn, an old Appalachian dish of open-air fermented corn which is drained and sautéed in bacon fat.

Travis has won many awards and accolades, including having his Green Tomato Pie named as a favorite in the Best Dishes of Dixie  August/September 2014 issue of Garden and Gun magazine.

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You cook for others all the time; what do you cook for yourself?

A pot of soup beans and a pan of cornbread.

What is a cookbook or food-related books folks should be reading?

Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchen by Ronni Lundy

Comfort. Photo by Sarah Hauser.

Comfort. Photo by Sarah Hauser.

What are five things in your home refrigerator right now?

Sour corn, rhubarb preserves, some old-style Pennsylvania hooch called Spoodie, many cans of PBR and some bagels

What’s a favorite Virginia wine? A favorite Virginia beer?

For wine, it’s a tie between Boxwood Winery’s rose’ and Barboursville Vineyards’s Octagon. For beer, it’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Gingerbread Stout.

Let’s talk food in Virginia.

Where I grew up, the concept of ‘farm to table’ is just a normal part of life; the bulk of what you ate was grown or killed by you, someone in your family, or a neighbor.

[Incorporating Virginia foods and foodways] is about honoring and preserving. I try to do what I can to preserve them and showcase them for the many that aren’t aware.

[I have many favorite Virginia ingredients], Sam Edwards’ ham is the first thing that comes to mind. I am a sucker for the indigenous beans of Appalachia, my favorites being Greasy Beans and Turkey Craws. Craig Rodgers of Border Springs has some outstanding lamb, Adam Musick has some excellent pork, there is Autumn Olive Farms, and Lockhart Family Farm … I could go on and on.

What makes Virginia’s cuisine scene special?

Its diversity. You have a rich culture of foodways that are ages old in the mountains, as well as the amazing heritage of the Eastern Shore and everywhere in between.

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Chef John Shields
Riverstead
454 Loves Mill Rd., Chilhowie

John and Karen Urie Shields of Riverstead. Photo by David Hungate.

John and Karen Urie Shields of Riverstead. Photo by David Hungate.

Like so many chefs, inspiration for John Shields came early in life; his from from his father. After attending culinary school in St. Louis, John made his way to Chicago. He began work at the famed Charlie Trotters restaurant there, where he would meet Karen, his pastry chef wife.

John cooked at Alinea, also in Chicago, where he worked with his mentor, Grant Achatz, who is noted as a leader in progressive cuisine.

Then John and Karen left the city for the country, and found a home in western Virginia, running the acclaimed Town House from 2008 to 2012 in the Appalachian hamlet of Chilhowie.

Now the couple operate Riverstead, an inn and private dining restaurant set in the same charming Smyth County locale.

From a charming renovated Victorian house overlooking the beautiful bucolic countryside, the Shields host a culinary adventure in the intimate 14-seat dining room. Meals are booked in advance on Riverstead’s website.

“I’ve been in the highest level kitchen in North America and Europe, but I’ve never experienced the adventure that we will offer in this natural setting,” John writes on the site. “I’m pushing my creativity beyond anything I’ve ever done. We have great relationships with the local farmers, but also look for amazing seafood from unique waters and sounds.”

Although the menu is constantly changing, look for dishes like duck hearts that are brined and grilled over the yakitori, with licorice-like flavors of dried beets, bronze fennel crowns, tarragon and black olives along with swiss chard leaves, cured egg yolk and a sauce of dried tomatoes, fermented blackberry, duck jus and brown butter.

Riverstead. Photo by David Hungate.

Riverstead. Photo by David Hungate.

Over the years, John’s creative cuisine has garnered many accolade from publications like the Washington Post and Garden & Gun magazine. He’s a James Beard Foundation Awards semi-finalist, and a Star Chefs Rising Star.

In 2010, Food & Wine magazine named him Best New Chef.

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You are on the forefront of food, what trends do you see?

I think we’ll start to see more chefs banding together to do collaborative dinners and food conferences around the country.

You cook for others all the time; what do you cook for yourself?

I tend to cook a lot of eggs. I love eating them, but cooking eggs properly, no matter which style you decide, takes a tremendous amount of technical skill and knowledge.

What is a cookbook or food-related books folks should be reading?

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

What are five things in your home refrigerator right now?

Eggs, lots of vegetables, lots of fruit, yogurt and beer.

What’s a favorite Virginia wine? A favorite Virginia beer?

I love Fabbioli Cellars’ Tannant 2011; I also love Foggy Ridge Cider. I enjoy Devils Backbone and Blue Mountain breweries.

Let’s talk food in Virginia.

I think any smart cook embraces the ingredients and product that are close to them. Obviously the product will be fresher, but it also evokes a story. When I’m using sour quince juice from the guy down the road to make curd, it’s special because you can’t taste or experience it anywhere else.

Local food benefits the environment and wildlife. Well-managed farms provide ecosystem services: they conserve fertile soil, protect water sources, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

I love [the ramp]; it’s versatility … charring, caramelized, fermented in goats milk whey … the list goes on and on.

What makes Virginia’s cuisine scene special?

Virginia just feels so fertile, and the products are so diverse.

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Patrick Evans-HyltonPatrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.

 

 

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