RVA’s top chefs talk shop

The men nominated for this year’s Best Chef Elby Award talk community, family, and Cook-Out milkshakes.

When Joe Sparatta arrives at Lamplighter, joining Owen Lane and Lee Gregory at a picnic table out front, he’s holding a book. It’s an old, hard-back cookbook whose faded dust jacket says, Chef Paul’s La Petite France in dramatic, sweeping cursive over an image of a pan sauce, with some oddly-staged tomatoes, parsley, and garlic. Joe tells them this particular artifact comes from one of his regular trips to the used book store. “I go once a week or so. I go to all of them,” he explains, as he plops the book in front of them and leans in to observe the impact.

The chefs pour over the 38-year-old cookbook, taking on an air of archaeologists unearthing something peculiarly relevant to their own lives. Lee stops on a recipe.

“What are those, green beans?”

“Yeah, he’s got the haricot vert there, and then what’s this on top of it? Some sort of egg?” “This takes me back…”

“This looks like a twisted Jean-Louis!”

“You should get it signed at the Elby’s! He’ll be there…”

They’re all talking at once, absorbed for a moment in a shared flashback to a culinary philosophy that has radically changed in the last few decades.

Each of these three chefs, along with Rappahannock’s Dylan Fultineer, is nominated in the Best Chef category at this year’s Elby Awards, named for Chef Paul Elbling, a pioneer in Richmond fine dining, whose restaurant La Petite France was the “bastion of French classic cuisine in Richmond,” according to this precious “It List” from Style Weekly from years gone by.

To James Beard award semi-finalist Lee Gregory, being nominated for an Elby is rewarding because, “it comes from peers or past winners. It’s nice to be included in that community, and it gives you the feeling you’re doing something right, anyway.” Joe echoes the idea, saying, “It feels like a big honor…[It] definitely means a lot to me. I haven’t even been here that long, and I don’t think I even deserve this. There’s a lot of other people out there, too, who are doing great work, who have been out there a lot longer.”

When I sit down with Dylan a few days later, his thoughts are similar: “It was a shock to me. There are a lot of great chefs in this town that are antiquated into the town, that are staples…It’s an amazing thing to be thought of in that class of guys.”

This group of chefs describe themselves as part of a unique generation, one that values transparency and collaboration over competition. Lee points to blogging and social media as causes: “Just barely the generation before us, everything was guarded. It was every man for himself. I know it’s a little different or special in Richmond because we’re a close-knit community, but we also grew up in the age of blogging and sharing, and if you can create a community through that, that only makes you closer.” He adds that he and many of the critically beloved chefs in Richmond “came up” together and faced the same struggles. “What’s good for one of us is kinda good for all of us.”

Joe and Owen point out that the cuddly feelings in Richmond mark a departure from the prevailing attitudes other places they’ve worked. Joe describes the scene: “Up north, everybody fucking hated each other. Nobody wanted to hang out, nobody was trying to support each other.” “It was the same out west for me,” adds Owen, “there were a few restaurants that got along, but for the majority of the others it was smile, nod, shake hands, maybe have a drink, turn your back, say something shitty.” Now, Owen relies on the feedback from his peers to stay on track: “If something’s not working for me, I can pick up the phone and call these guys and say, what the hell am I doing wrong?”

Joe and Owen, at least, have someone else close by to keep them on track–their wives–Emilia Sparatta (nominated for an Elby in the FOH category) and Tiffany Gellner (a nominee last year) both work alongside their husbands, and the two women have distinguished themselves by providing quality service in a town where the running cliche is something along the lines of ‘The food is great, but the service is awful.’ Joe and Owen joke that the close working relationships keep them from getting out of line. Joe says of Emilia, “she’s the one person that I trust completely. She keeps me in check, when I need to be in check.” Owen explains, “When my mouth isn’t working the way it’s supposed to that day, Tiff can pull me aside and say, ‘Hey you sound really bad. You should apologize.’ It’s important to have that person in your corner,” he adds. Joe and Owen turn to Lee and suggest that, without a co-worker-wife to keep him focused, he’s a ‘rogue chef.’ “I’m the original rogue gentleman,” he laughs.

The genuine fondness and admiration these chefs have for each other has been obvious over the past year, which found some of RVA’s best chefs busy kicking ass on their days off in order to bring shindigs, feasts, relief benefits, and Dinners with a capital “D” to what appears to be an insatiably hungry eating public. The motto here seems to be ‘More cooks in the kitchen is fine.’

Dylan, the most recent transplant to Richmond, points to the counsel of his peers as one of the reasons for Rappahannock’s early attention and success, crediting Jason Alley and Joe Sparatta for helping him hone in on everything from a location to the best locally-sourced food available. “I was coming here blind. Everyone gave me really helpful information. Joe was hugely helpful with his contacts, from big purveyors to small farmers.”

Owen notes that all of the chefs have eaten at each other’s restaurants at least once, “except Lee here,” he says, giving him an accusatory raised eyebrow. “And now I never will, after that comment,” Lee jokes. But they’re quick to point out that its a rare, slightly uncomfortable experience to enjoy a meal prepared by their peers, especially with the expectation that they should sit down for 5 courses. “I’ve eaten more meals over trash cans than not,” explains Joe. “When I go out for a great meal, I’ll be the one who’s done with every course first and sitting there like an asshole.” Owen agrees: “It’s almost uncomfortable. I’d rather stand up, holding my plate in the kitchen, and actually talk to these guys.”

The chef lifestyle often means eating ‘well’ isn’t an option, and the image of a fridge containing little more than condiments and booze is a recurring one in these circles. I ask them about what they like to eat when no one’s looking. From a family of chefs himself, Joe says new parenthood has made him step up his home cooking game, and he offers homemade pizza as a “guilty pleasure.” It’s not. But he quickly adds that he’ll order pizza sometimes too, but he’s talking about Belmont Pizzeria, and that doesn’t really count either, but I don’t press the issue.

Owen’s and Lee’s guilty pleasures get closer to the heart of it. “I really love grilled cheese sandwiches. I eat about 3 a week. Also, Cook-Out is a big one for me,” says Lee, who likes to try as many milkshakes as possible and get chicken nuggets for a side because, you know, you can. “You can even get your bible verses. It’s a spiritual thing.” Owen offers up Arby’s and Chipotle as other guilty pleasures and admits to keeping a bag of Totino’s Pizza Rolls in the freezer at the Magpie, “We’ll drop some of them in the fryer sometimes.”

Despite the long hours and being the father of a two-year-old, Dylan says he manages to avoid the chef stereotype, eating very well, thanks to his wife. “Fortunately my wife is an amazing cook, too. She’s from a Sicilian family, and her mother and grandmother taught her.” Dylan craves hearty stews like posole and cioppino when he’s looking for a “bowl of comfort.” He’s not into fast food but loves a good burger, and now that he’s 3000 miles from his beloved In and Out Burger, he’ll settle for Five Guys.

It’s clear that these chefs are both honored and humbled by being nominated for what has become, in just three years, Richmond’s most prestigious culinary award. Dylan, who doesn’t typically go in for the whole awards scene, says, “People have already come in wanting to talk about it, congratulating me. It’s a big deal for the restaurant.”

When Owen reminds Joe and Lee that the theme for this year’s awards show is Old Hollywood, plans begin to form about coordinating costumes, “oh dude, Reservoir Dogs!” and everyone agrees Lee would have to be Mr. Brown, which seems bad for Lee, but we all laugh anyway.

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Stephanie Ganz

Stephanie Ganz thought there would be pizza.

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