One clear sign a city is getting its act together in the kitchen is when it can host a food festival where everyone leaves with wide smiles and full bellies. Richmond, the Virginia capital of about 200,000 residents, cooked up its first major epicurean gathering this past Halloween weekend, Fire, Flour & Fork. The four-day extravaganza was such a hit with locals and regional dining dignitaries that the event’s 2015 dates (October 29 through November 1) have already been announced.
Another sign a city is ready for its culinary close-up? When folks outside the immediate area want to be a part of the movement. Tucker Yoder is the executive chef at The Dining Room at Clifton Inn, the signature eatery at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Clifton Inn in Charlottesville; needless to say, the man’s plate is full most days of the week. But there the chef was at Fire, Flour & Fork, chatting with visitors while simultaneously teasing them with samples from his Four-Star menu.
When we caught up with chef Yoder a few days after the event, he had plenty to say about the region’s budding dining scene, his cooking offspring and Clifton Inn’s holiday plans.
You’ve cooked in places like Idaho and New England. Why did you decide to make your permanent kitchen in Charlottesville?
It’s got that small-town feel but it still has the big-city amenities. It’s nothing like D.C. or Philadelphia or anything like that but I like the community. We live out in the country. We live near farms. We’ve got friends that raise their own beef and chickens and things like that. It’s a good mix of slightly urban and country.
A lot of great Richmond restaurants like Rappahannock and Amuse participated in Fire, Flour and Fork. How much longer can the city go under the national dining radar?
There are some really great restaurants there. There are a lot of people doing some great food. I love going to Richmond. It’s 45 minutes away from [Charlottesville], so I can go down there, have dinner and come back.
When you’re able to step away from your own kitchen, where do you go in Charlottesville or Richmond for a good meal?
In Charlottesville, I go to my wife’s (Colleen) house. She’s a fantastic cook. We have four kids. If I’m home, we usually just eat at home. We used to go on dates to Fleurie. They do really nice fresh food, really great service and wine selection. That’s one of our go-to’s here. Maya is a little Southern place. The old executive chef at Clifton (Christian Kelly) opened it and I helped him get it running. He gets local trout and oysters. He gets as much local product as possible. It’s a restaurant that would fit right in in Richmond. It’s very down home and comfort food-y. It’s a place I can take my kids. They’ll eat 15 racks of ribs while my wife and I eat something nice.
What about in Richmond?
I like what [chef] Joe Sparatta is doing over there at Heritage. We just did a dinner not too long ago with [chef] Lee Gregory over at The Roosevelt. Those are two of our favorites when we go there.
For the folks who haven’t experienced The Dining Room at Clifton Inn, what have they been missing?
We have 100 beautiful acres. We have a pretty large vegetable garden. Of course, this time of year, my gardener and I talk about what we’re going to save through the winter and what will have to go to cover crop this time of year — which is always a sad time of year. We’re using as much local product as possible in all our dishes. We have a four-course meal, five-course meal, and we do a tasting menu. [Guests] can get the soup and then get something a little more adventurous for their second course because they still have two more courses where they can order “safely.” That’s a phrase I don’t really care for. It’s just a fun experience. We have a chef’s counter, where you can sit seven people comfortably and you get to see what we do in the kitchen. You sit in the kitchen and talk to the cooks and ask tons of questions. You may see me lose my temper but I doubt it.
In what instances would you lose your temper?
It takes a lot. It would take multiple events, I imagine.
Which crops do you look forward to using most in late fall and winter?
Most of the fall crops take a 120 days or so. We generally plant greens and stuff this time of year because they’re kind of quick. The fall squashes and root vegetables take so long, they take up so much space, that we say we’ll let other people grow that stuff. Other people are doing a great job of it, so we’ll just let them do it and buy it from them. So, this time of year in the garden, you have kale, chard, baby turnips and salad greens. You have the fall squashes and beets. Call me in two months and I’ll tell you how sick I am of everything. But right now, we’re still excited about it.
What makes Clifton Inn special around Christmas?
It’s a great time of year to come here. We do a great feast on Christmas Day. It’s a pretty special dinner on Christmas Eve, [too]. On Christmas Eve, we’ll take our à la carte menu and trim it down a little because we’re going to do a lot more folks. On Christmas Day, we’ll do a fairly traditional dinner with roast steak, turkey and things like that. On New Year’s Eve, we’re going to do some kind of event but we’re not sure yet.
You enjoy bike riding. Do you get to do it much these days?
I have a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old, so the amount of time I get on a bike is less and less. A lot of the chefs in town here cycle, so we like to get out together and ride. I don’t do it as much as I used to, but I do it when I can. My big thing now is soccer. My two oldest are really into it. My 8-year-old is sort of into it. I played all through high school and a little in college.
Have any of your children taken to the kitchen like their dad?
Yeah, definitely my 12-year-old daughter, Ella. She’s into it. She loves doing the pastry stuff. We got snowed in here last Valentine’s Day. We put ourselves up in one of the suites. I had to get [to the Dining Room] at 6 a.m. to make sure everything was ready for breakfast. She showed up at 7 in the morning, putting on an apron and asking what she could do. She’ll come up once every other week and hang out with our pastry chef and help her. All of my kids like to cook, but she’s definitely the one I can see being in the kitchen in a couple of years.