Following Food Fashions

Dec 11, 2013

Pine smoked local mushrooms with bourbon and herbs over rosemary grits at Pasture, Charlottesville.

With cooler weather here, many people look forward to new fashions – designs that often come from Paris, New York or Rome.  But fashions are also changing in the kitchens of Virginia, with new dishes and ingredients popping up on menus.

Jason Alley and his business partner Michelle Jones are known for southern comfort food, with down home restaurants in Richmond and a new place – Pasture – in Charlottesville.  They read cookbooks and magazines religiously, looking for ways to innovate while appealing to popular tastes.  Jones, who runs the dining room, sometimes issues a challenge to Alley in the kitchen.

“I will say something crazy to Jason like, ‘I love hummus,’ and he’ll say, ‘We’re Southern.  We don’t do hummus, and then he’ll come back to me five minutes later and say, ‘Butter bean hummus!’ And the same thing with black-eyed pea falafels.”

The menu changes with the seasons – as new fruits, vegetables and herbs arrive from area farms. Alley and Jones often travel and visit popular little places, like Two Borroughs Larder – a family owned eatery in Charleston.

“It’s a husband and wife team + and they’re putting out food that’s baffling!  +  Rabbit fried rice was pretty incredible.  Everything they do with bone marrow is like Jesus himself made it, and they do a ramen of the day that’s fantastic.”

And they’re not above borrowing from the big guys.

“Our hamburger’s a Big Mac.”

Of course Alley uses pickles and sauce made in his own kitchen and grass fed, local beef – but the end result is familiar. “It’s just a medium rare Big Mac.”

Alley also looks back to childhood – his own and that of his team in the kitchen. “I grew up in Dublin, Virginia – riding around in trucks and eating pork rinds out of a sack, but it’s a real traditional thing in Mexico too, and what a lot of the guys do in Mexico is serve them with guacamole or some sort of a dip.”

They even watch the Food Channel and talk with other chefs about new ingredients.

“All heirloom seed varietals.  I think in the south right now, all my friends who are southern chefs are very concerned about things you don’t think about – like beans – pole beans we call them, squashes and pumpkins that are edible, because unfortunately our seed stock right now is pretty genetically modified.”

They’re also mindful of fashions in restaurant décor.  Pasture is bright and airy, with a large communal table where singles and couples can be seated with others if they like. Jones says that’s not as weird as it sounds.

“Because people will sit right up on top of someone at a bar, and of course in Europe they seat you where there’s a chair!  Yeah –strangers are friends you haven’t met yet.  It’s a bullsh—thing that people say all the time, but it’s true!”

And, finally, there are trends in cooking techniques. Sous vide, for example, involves dropping raw food, in a sealed pouch, into gently boiling water for up to 72 hours.  Jones says such methods are rarely new. They’re just rediscovered. This one, for example, was developed more than 200 years ago, and – she adds -- her dad has been eating Salisbury steak from a boil-in bag for years.