Top Chefs of Virginia: Brust, Close-Hart, Evans

by Patrick Evans-Hylton | Posted: Dec 23, 2014

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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.

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 part of a continuing series. Grab a napkin, you’re going to be drooling soon.




Williamsburg Inn: Regency Room, Terrace Room, Restoration Lounge | Williamsburg

Chef Travis Brust has been in the food service industry for more than half his life, and a third of that in Virginia.

“I landed my first restaurant job at the age of 13 and have been in the business for 20 years,” he says.

Chef Travis Brust. Patrick Evans-Hylton photo.

Chef Travis Brust. Patrick Evans-Hylton photo.

Although being a chef wasn’t a goal early on, compliments from family and friends on his cooking encouraged him.

“I seemed to have the knack for this cooking thing, so I pursued it,” says the chef.

That includes a culinary apprenticeship at age 18 at the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in New Hampshire. From there, he worked under master chefs, and traveled to other resort properties across the country to do the same, including a stint in Colonial Williamsburg, returning to Williamsburg in 2004 to mentor under Chef Hans Schadler.

He describes a culinary experience at Williamsburg Inn in six words: “Intimate dining with an unforgettable meal.” The chef has written a menu that’s rich in Virginia ingredients and with a number of classic dishes crafted for a contemporary palate.

“The menu features classic favorites, as well as avant-garde selections that will satisfy the most discerning foodies,” he says.

“Currently, I have been experimenting with a bourbon-pumpkin ice cream garnished with a pumpkin seed brittle that’ll knock your socks off. We [also] have a Bourbon Mustard and Popcorn Crusted Lamb Ribeye; so tender and interesting on the palate. Our menus do change four times a year.”

Among many awards, Chef Travis placed first in the 2012 World’s Chef Challenge in Las Vegas and second place again in 2013 as well as winning Virginia Chefs Association Chef of the Year in 2014.

He has received ink in such publications as American Airlines’ inflight magazine, Wine Spectator and Garden & Gun.

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

The use of spices, not only for flavor, but also for health and wellness; also, more focus on high energy foods, like a high impact breakfast and pick-me-up-snacks.

I think we’ll also see more chefs in the spotlight; our guests want the chef’s attention. We are the rockstars – let’s put on a show!

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

I truly love to create and enjoy a super flavorful, uber-creative, sweet, salty, tangy, spicy, juice-dripping, so big it’s impossible to finish sandwich!

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

I always recommend that every home cook, chef, gourmand and weekend warrior get a copy of “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.

This book will assist you in making your very own creations by giving you flavor profile building examples and suggestions. You can start with one idea and plan an entire dish around one ingredient.

What are five things in your home refrigerator right now?

Bold Rock Hard Cider (from Virginia); fresh limes; Sriracha sauce; heirloom apples; eggnog.

The Goodwin Room dining at the Williamsburg Inn.

The Goodwin Room dining at the Williamsburg Inn.

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

A Virginia Cabernet Franc is my pick for wine; the rich history of Thomas Jefferson’s struggles and successes with this varietal, the fruitiness and soft tannins makes this one of Virginia’s greatest wines.

For beer, I’d pick Williamsburg Alewerks Coffee House Stout. Another chef colleague of mine poured some on ice cream one day and I was sold for life!

Let’s talk food in Virginia.

I love rockfish. The fish has a great meatiness, is super tender, and it takes to many combinations of flavor, especially fennel.

All the restaurants at Williamsburg Inn utilize many local products from North Carolina to Charlottesville, and of course the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding waters. The guests can taste the difference when you have a fresh, local product just harvested and freshly prepared. It speaks for itself.

What makes Virginia’s cuisine scene special?

The cuisine of Virginia has a tendency to be thought of as historic and maybe a little boring from the outside, yet when guests and foodies dive into our food culture and see that we do push the envelope with creativity, local produce and good and excellent techniques they quickly realize that Virginia is a culinary destination, and one that is not to be missed.

How are you celebrating the holidays?

For chefs the most important goal is to cook for thousands of guests; we want nothing more than big smiles and full bellies for all.

I do make a special eggnog every year to celebrate; we call it Brust Nog and it’s hand-whipped egg nog with both bourbon and rum, delicious cream, fresh vanilla beans and fresh farmers eggs.


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Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards | Barboursville

Chef Melissa Close may have started her career at age 16 asking if the restaurant patron would like to have fries with their burger, but she evolved from fast food working at a short order place, a full service restaurant, and then fine dining Italian with Frank Stitt.

“I graduated college with a Masters in Education and started teaching high school and realized I was a better cook than a teacher, so the rest is history,” she says.

Chef Melissa graduated with distinction from the New England Culinary Institute in 1997.

Chef Melissa Close-Hart. Courtesy photo.

Chef Melissa Close-Hart. Courtesy photo.

She says Craig Hartman, owner of BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville and formerly of The Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, has “taught me to be the chef I am today.”

High accolades from someone who is also so highly regarded. At the helm of Palladio, a classic fine dining restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards, Chef Melissa crafts acclaimed Italian classics – but with modern, southern twists.

“We like to offer our guests a comfortable environment to enjoy our local cuisine and wines,” she says. That includes using as much product from the gardens on property as possible, and making everything in-house, from breads, pastas, desserts and charcuterie.

“Our menu changes every two months. We do not repeat many dishes throughout the years, but a few make an appearance every year, usually in the pasta course,” notes the chef.

These include: Ravioli di Zucca, housemade ravioli filled with roasted estate-grown squash, amaretti and parmesan in a sage butter sauce with roasted pumpkin seeds, as well as Sweet Pea and House Made Ricotta Ravioli with a Sauteed Shrimp and Fresh Chives Tagliatelle with Fresh Black Truffles.

Among the many accolades for Chef Melissa are cooking at the famed James Beard House in New York City four times, with another scheduled in Feb. 2015, and being a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic award four times.

In 2012, Chef Melissa was inducted into the Best Chefs of America. She and her cooking have been reported on extensively, including in the New York Times.

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

I see a variety of unusual produce coming from farmers – different, unique and rare vegetables. That will be the new trend. 

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

We cook very simple food at home: homemade mac-and-cheese, seared steaks, fresh salads. Nothing fancy, just quick, wholesome eats for the family.

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

I just started “Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen” by Charlotte Drunkman.

What are five things in your home refrigerator right now?

Bold Rock Hard Cider (from Virginia); hummus, a variety of cheese, lots of condiments, and leftover Dr. Ho’s pizza.

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

For wine, Barboursville Vineyards Petit Verdot 2010 or Octagon 2010; it’s obvious why I picked a Barboursville wine, but these two are particularly tasty.

I really love just about any beer from Blue Mountain Brewery (in Afton) or Champion Brewing (in Charlottesville).

Let’s talk food in Virginia.

I love all Virginia products, especially the cheeses made here: Caromont, Everona, Meadowcreek.

I also love my farmers from all the local places: Spring Lake, Spring Gate Farm, Timbercreek Organics, Planet Earth, Jim’s Greens, Manakintowne Specialty Growers, Border Springs Farm, Double-H Farm and The Rock Barn.

If I can find local, I use it. It is better for our health and economy.

What makes Virginia’s cuisine scene special?

I think there is a great push for good food in Virginia. It is one of the fastest growing food scenes in the country. There is also a big push in cheese makers, brewers, distillers, and wine makers that help mold the food scene.

How are you celebrating the holidays?

I get lucky and have holiday dinners cooked by my father-in-law on Christmas Eve and my mother-in-law on Christmas day!


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Can being a chef be genetic?

“I grew up in a food and cooking obsessed family,” says Chef Pete Evans. “I got my first job washing dishes at age 15. I was so fascinated and enamored with what the cooks were doing and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Fast forward 23 years, and the chef has worked under some of the state’s great in honing his skills: Todd Jurich (Todd Jurich’s Bistro, Norfolk), Sam McGann (The Blue Point, Duck, N.C. – formerly River Stone Chophouse and Vintage Tavern in Suffolk) and most recently, Jason Alley (Comfort and Pasture, Richmond).

“All have made a huge impact on me,” he says.

It’s at Jason Alley’s PastureQ where Evans is chef de cuisine.

Chef Pete Evans. Patrick Evans-Hylton photo.

Chef Pete Evans. Patrick Evans-Hylton photo.

“We focus on regional American barbecue with an emphasis on the south. We do pork shoulder, beef brisket, pork ribs, chicken and fried catfish. All of our meats are rubbed and rotisserie smoked using oak and/or hickory,” Chef Pete says.

From that from-scratch kitchen comes five sauces, many different vegetable sides, salads and snacks. There is also an extensive pickling program, house-cured meats and desserts.

“Our ribs are quickly becoming our signature,” he says. “They are real meaty … and simply rubbed with our dry rub, smoked for seven hours, brushed with our Virginia sauce, and charred over live fire to caramelize the sugars.They are spicy, complex, sweet, fatty and crazy delicious.”

In 2013, Chef Pete was inducted in the Best Chefs of America.

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

I think vegetable-heavy menus will be a trend. I think you’ll start to see more and more non-vegetarians eating vegetable main courses.

People continue to be concerned with their health and the environment and its up to chefs to keep developing new and interesting ways to showcase vegetables and make them center-of-the-plate items.

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

I really crave intense, bright flavors, so I’m usually cooking a lot of Indian or Southeast Asia-inspired dishes.

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

“Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi; I constantly use it. Everything I’ve ever cooked out of there has been wildly delicious.

What are five things in your home refrigerator right now?

Eggs; broccoli; homemade sambal (a spicy Southeast Asian chile pepper-based sauce/condiment); beer; pizza.

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

Barboursville Vineyards’ wines are on par with just about any in the country. I also like Veritas wines a lot.

For beer, I really like Champion in Charlottesville; their Killer Kolsch is awesome.

Let’s talk food in Virginia.

We are blessed in Virginia with rockfish, softshell crabs, country ham and Hayman sweet potatoes; those are just a few of my favorites. They are super versatile and I grew up eating and cooking those things.

Our barbecue and vegetable sides are inspired by Virginia and southern culture; it’s just what we do.

For me as a chef, it’s all about flavor, and nine times out of 10, local just tastes better. It goes without saying that properly raised, harvested and handled locally grown food is fresher and tastes better.

What makes Virginia’s cuisine scene special?

The Virginia food scene has exploded in the past 10 years. There have always been a handful of Virginia chefs that have promoted and celebrated Virginia food, wine and beer, but now more than ever it’s become the norm. Virginia is one of the best food states in the country.

How are you celebrating the holidays?

I help my dad make Christmas breakfast. We always make scrambled eggs, buttermilk biscuits, pork tenderloin and gravy and potato pancakes. It’s the best meal of the year.


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


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