Lemaire, the elegant restaurant in Richmond’s The Jefferson Hotel, started out as a formal fine-dining establishment. But the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel evolved the contemporary American restaurant to a less formal spot that focuses on local ingredients, and executive chef Walter Bundy is leading the charge.
Chef Bundy shared some insight about Lemaire’s most recent changes, his efforts to create dishes around Richmond’s resources and his overall food philosophy.
Lemaire remains an upscale restaurant, yet has been slightly modified to be more relaxed. Why was this an important consideration?
Lemaire was renovated in 2009. When we did that, it was for many different reasons. Primarily, we were considered “fine dining” and we were only seeing guests on special occasions, sometime as little as once a year. We needed to change that perception. We also were responding to what our community was telling us. They wanted great food that was seasonal, regional and fresh but without the pretense and stuffy service. We listened by making our dining experience more approachable and welcoming. An example of this is in our dynamic bar that offers amenities, such as free valet parking.
Lemaire continues to convey the upscale [ambiance] our guests enjoy because of the beautiful renovation and the luxurious hotel in which it is located. The décor makes one think that he or she is in a restaurant in New York City. However, quick and attentive service, wonderful food and reasonable prices keep them coming back. People still get a great meal but, perhaps, one or two less steps plating the food, more personable service, shorter dining times and a more upbeat, exciting atmosphere.
How did the outdoor garden and rooftop beehive come about and how have they influenced the culinary experience at Lemaire?
The garden — or “Bundy Farms,” as it has become known — first started off with my food and beverage director, Pat Manning, suggesting I start a rooftop garden. The rooftop did not actually lend itself for that purpose. However, the courtyard and the old brick building next to it was the florist area for the hotel many years ago and was ideal. After extensive removal of overgrown weeds, bushes and vines, and with the help of some of my staff, we were able to quickly get it into shape enough to plant a small garden.
We chose items that we wanted to grow based on the amount of space that we had as well as items that would produce the most yield. Cherry tomatoes are a good example because they produce lots and lots. We can highlight “parking lot tomatoes” on the menu and serve them most of the summer and fall. The term “parking lot” opens the door for the discussion of Bundy Farms and our efforts.
We further enhanced the local and regional experience by partnering with beekeeper David Stover and initiating the process of raising bees and producing honey on the rooftop of The Jefferson Hotel. The benefits are bountiful, including assisting the honeybees that are having a very difficult time surviving these days (due to colony collapse disorder), producing honey for cocktails (Bees Knees) and menu items (rooftop honey-glazed duck breast), and increase yields in our garden with more pollinators in the area.
The respect for the product is passed onto the customer with a sense of pride and accomplishment. The message to each guest with the dishes I prepare for them is, “Here is what I grew or raised for you, and I am so excited by this product that I know it will give you just as much pleasure.’”
What is your culinary philosophy?
Having grown up in Virginia, I have realized that we have some of the most incredible ingredients at our fingertips here in the Commonwealth. From gardening with my father as a young boy and learning to fish on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, I developed a very fond appreciation of the bounty of Virginia. Early in my career, while working in the Outer Banks with Sam McGann at The Blue Point Restaurant, I was exposed to wonderful seafood, exceptional produce and a very seasonal and regionally focused menu. I saw a man working with the freshest ingredients possible and serving them to his guests as simply as possible. He wanted to show off the quality of the ingredients. It was then that I realized that becoming a chef and being able to translate just what Virginia had to offer to the guests seemed like a wonderful pursuit.
While in Santa Fe, New Mexico, chef Mark Miller exposed me to wonderful chilies, squashes, beans and a variety of Southwestern produce that farmers were bringing to our back door. Down the road, at the Five-Star rated The French Laundry, Thomas Keller again impressed upon me that the local products tend to be the best because they are grown and raised by people who truly care about what they are doing. They have a deep respect and love for the vegetables and animals that they produce.
These experiences have helped mold me and, in turn, have created Lemaire as it is today. We are a restaurant that focuses on regional and seasonal cuisine. We always try to use local products and purveyors when possible. We take it a step further by having our own garden and rooftop bees. These pursuits keep us closely tied to what is fresh and truly local. They give us inspiration on a daily basis and provide us with that needed push to keep us focused.
Photos Courtesy of The Jefferson Hotel