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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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Farms

Day 4: A Night with Rappahannock River Oysters

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With Chef Robert Wiedmaier and wild oysters on the grill

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
With Chef Robert Wiedmaier and wild oysters on the grill

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

By late afternoon, after we had gotten a full tour of the Rappahannock River Oysters operation, Travis and Ryan invited us to stay on for a Virginia-style seafood supper.

Come evening wives and girlfriends started rolling in, along with several regional chefs (and RRO customers) that the Croxtons had invited for dinner. I coaxed my friend Jerry Bryan, chef/owner of the Coastal Grill, to drive up from Virginia Beach to join in the festivities.

We set up shop next to the harbor and had some picnic tables, a big charcoal grill, a fryer, a couple of camp stoves, and enough oysters, blue crabs, beers and bourbon to feed an army. Everybody had a job, from putting beers on ice to boiling the blue crabs to handing out hot cups of the chowder that Jerry had brought with him. The weather was cool, windy, and threatening rain, but nobody minded. This was my idea of a good time.

Oysters were the main event, and despite the number of chefs in attendance, the cooking was handled almost entirely by Ryan and Travis. They grilled both wild and cultivated oysters over charcoal, serving them up with garlic butter and grilled bread. Travis fried oysters according to his own recipe, one that he had been talking up all day as "the best in the world" (it was, in the end, pretty darn good). Jason Alley from Comfort in Richmond brought along a jar of excellent pickled watermelon rind, and David Guas had cookies, brownies, and pecan pie (a personal favorite) for dessert. I couldn't have asked for better hospitality, and I'm looking forward to having the Rappahannock River guys up to New York City to do an oyster tasting with my staff.

Farms

Day 4: A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

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A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Our fourth day on the road began with a long drive in the drizzling rain from Chapel Hill to coastal Virginia. Our destination was Rappahannock River Oysters, whose delicious oysters we feature in the raw bar selection at our Craftsteak restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

We arrived around noon at a little marina at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Topping, Virginia. Rappahannock River Oysters founders Travis and Ryan Croxton recently bought the place out of foreclosure and are now living my own personal dream, working from an office just steps away from the docks.

No sooner had we said our hellos to Travis, Ryan, and their director of operations, Anthony Marchetti, than they whisked us on board one of their boats to show us their oyster grounds.

The story behind Rappahannock River Oysters has something in common with Anson Mills: it's the tale of a once-abundant local resource driven almost entirely out of production, and the people who care enough to save it. In the 17th century, wild oysters in the Chesapeake were said to be so plentiful that navigating a ship was treacherous. Over time their numbers gradually declined due to overfishing, and by the 1950s, when foreign oysters were introduced to these waters, the viruses they brought with them served a final blow to the local population.

Enter Travis and Ryan, two native sons of Virginia whose grandfather was an oysterman. Eight years back, Travis was working in finance and Ryan in marketing when they discovered that their grandfather's lease on his oyster grounds was about to expire. Looking for a change of direction, they renewed the lease and set to work growing native oysters sustainably. Their mission was to restore native Chesapeake Bay oyster varieties to their former glory, putting them back on the culinary map. How's that for local pride?

Ryan and Travis grow Rappahannock River, Olde Salt, and Sting Ray oyster varieties, and while out on the water we got a chance to see the Rappahannocks growing on trays about five feet below the surface. All oysters on the East Coast are the same species, so differences in flavor, shape, and quality all come down to what the Croxtons refer to as "merroir": the impact that salt levels, water temperature, tidal flow, and other factors exert on the oyster, much like how terroir effects a grape. That might make it sound like there's little to distinguish one oyster farmer from another, but the guys at Rappahannock have to decide on the exact best location for their oyster beds, protect them against predators, and keep a watchful eye on salinity and temperature levels. Plus, they set themselves apart by sending out only the best specimens to their customers, and shipping the same day the oysters are harvested for maximal freshness.

Heading back to shore, I couldn't wait to try some of the oysters that had been harvested that day.

Farms

Day 3: Dinner at Lantern

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Dinner at Lantern

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Dinner at Lantern

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Once back in Chapel Hill, we headed straight for Lantern to taste Andrea's food for ourselves.

Lantern is widely known for marrying a farm-to-table philosophy to impeccably produced Pacific Rim cuisine, and Cane Creek is just one of many local farms and fisheries that Andrea features on her seasonally-driven menu. Local shrimp, sea trout, soft shell crab, flounder, mackerel, sea scallops, and a wide array of local vegetables all made it onto our table that night.

Over the course of the meal we also got a chance to see Cane Creek pork deployed in many forms. There was a lemongrass barbecued pork dish, a pork chop with a fried farm egg and spicy local cucumber mint salad, pork belly with 5-spice and pickled pumpkin, and lest any part of the pig be excluded, a head-to-tail pork terrine served with hakurei turnips.

Farms

Day 3: Visiting Cane Creek Farm

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Visiting Cane Creek Farm

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Visiting Cane Creek Farm

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Once we had eaten our fill of BBQ we headed an hour west to Snow Camp, NC to pay a visit to Cane Creek Farm. When I knew we were going to be driving through North Carolina I got in touch with Andrea Reusing, the chef/owner of Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill. Andrea is highly regarded for both her skills in the kitchen and her commitment to local sourcing, so I knew she would have great ideas about who was worth a visit. She suggested Cane Creek Farm right off the bat, and offered to meet us there.

Eliza Maclean is the proprietor of Cane Creek, and it's an understatement to say that she's a busy woman. The farm is maybe best know for its pigs (Ossabaws, Old Spot Gloucestershires, Farmers Hybrids, and an Ossabaw/Farmers Hybrid mix that Eliza has named a Crossabaw), but Eliza also raises Black Angus and Red Devon cows, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, and turkeys, as well as two children. The cattle and much of the farm's sprawling 570 acres came as a result of a merger between Cane Creek and Braeburn Farms in 2007.

So what makes Cane Creek exceptional? It's sustainable agriculture at its best. Eliza practices rotational grazing, which any of you who have read a Michael Pollen book know means moving different species of animal through the same parcel of land in succession to mimic a natural ecosystem. The land stays healthy and the animals get what they need from it, which means minimal artificial inputs from we humans. Eliza's sheep, cows, and goats are all entirely grass-fed, and her pigs feast on grain-based food, supplemented by whatever they can root around for in their pasture.

All this means lots of happy animals (you can tell it just by looking at them), but also a lot of work on Eliza's part to bring each food item to market. I wish everyone who complained about the price of organic free-range eggs could see this place in action.

After seeing an operation as thorough and well-run as Cane Creek Farm, as a chef you can't help but feel like you have a responsibility to put as much care into cooking an animal as Eliza put into raising it. "Head to tail" cooking may be trendy right now, but I also think that the best way to truly honor the animal is to leave no part of it unused.

Chefs

Day 3: Lunch at The BBQ Joint

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Lunch at The BBQ Joint

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Lunch at The BBQ Joint

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Day three, and we set out before dawn to hit Chapel Hill by lunchtime. Damon had to part ways to head out to Craft Los Angeles, but we picked up a few new travelers at the Raleigh Durham airport: Katie Grieco, my business partner in Craft Restaurants, as well as Jeffrey Zurofsky and Sisha Ortuzar, my partners in 'wichcraft.

Our first stop of the day was selected by Jeffrey, who went to school at UNC Chapel Hill and worked at the time with a guy named Damon Lapas. Now, Lapas co-owns a restaurant called The BBQ Joint, so we stopped in to get a taste of what Eastern North Carolina Barbecue was all about.

Although we were only about 200 miles as the crow flies from Big T's in Columbia, South Carolina, here the style of barbecue is totally unique from the mustard based sauce we had there. With Eastern North Carolina barbecue the pork is smoked, pulled, and coarsely chopped, and served plain except for a hint of a tangy vinegar sauce. It's unadorned, so the hardwood smoked meat has no sweet sauces to hide behind.

Damon and his partner Jeffrey Childres served up a hearty lunch, highlights of which included smoked blue fish, spare ribs, and of course the signature pulled pork served with slaw, pickles, and cornbread.

Restaurants

Xoco in Chicago

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On a recent visit to Chicago I swung by Xoco, superchef and F&W Best New Chef 1988 Rick Bayless’s new fast-food joint. I enjoyed the tortas (Mexican sandwiches)—especially the braised short ribs with caramelized onions, jack cheese and pickled jalapeños, a kind of Mexican steak-and-cheese. But I was even more impressed by the service. When my husband and I got there at noon on a Saturday, the line was out the door. But no one was grumbling, because you could help yourself to free sparkling or still water on tap. Once we got to the counter, we ordered drinks—Intelligentsia coffee for him, hot chocolate for me (made from Mexican cacao beans ground on-premises)—and waited for the OK to place our food order (you can't order until there is seating available). A host then walked us to our seats, and the tortas were delivered to our table 10 minutes later. The system wasn’t perfect—there were a lot of empty chairs around us as the kitchen scrambled to keep up—but there was no searching for a table while balancing food on a tray, and the vibe was serene. How often can you say that about a fast-food restaurant?

Farms

Day 2: Shrimp & Dinner at The Wreck

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Shrimp & Dinner at The Wreck

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Shrimp & Dinner at The Wreck

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

We left the banks of the Stono River and crossed Charleston to reach Shem Creek just in time to see Captain Magwood and his crew finish sifting through the day's catch on board his hulking shrimp trawler.

The domestic shrimp industry has really suffered in recent years as cheap imports from Asia make it hard for local fisherman to make ends meet. Whether you know it or not, much of the shrimp you've eaten in your life has been foreign, frozen and transported thousands of miles before it reaches your plate. But try eating a shrimp fresh off the boat like this and you'll taste the difference.

Matt and Ted couldn't let us leave Charleston without trying The Wreck Of The Richard and Charlene, a quirky dive of a restaurant that they view as one of the best places to sample some of the very shrimp that we saw coming off of Captain Magwood's boat. The Wreck (named in honor of an old shrimp trawler that Hurricane Hugo put ashore on the restaurant's current site) looks like the classic fried seafood shack that you find just about anywhere up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to Nova Scotia. It serves up fresh-caught shrimp, oysters, scallops and crab, as well as well-executed hush puppies and "hominy squares," which are sort of like a croquette made of grits.

Travel

Dulce de Leche Dreams

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© Ross Todd
Dulce de leche ice cream at Freddo

My body might be back from my trip to Argentina, but my stomach is still firmly in South America. My friends and I had the requisite beef and Malbec (more on that later), but we also regularly indulged in dulce de leche, which I am still craving. In Buenos Aires we got our fix at the heladerías (ice cream shops), the best of which was Freddo. The shop has locations throughout the city, and their menu has a separate section just for dulce de leche flavors. (My kind of place.) But my favorite vehicle for the milky caramel was alfajores, a traditional South American sandwich cookie with dulce de leche filling. The best ones we had came from our hotel in Patagonia, Edenia. Opened in 2007, the modern, minimalist hotel is located away from the touristy bustle of downtown Calafate and has panoramic views of Lago Argentino. Its alfajores were crispier and less cakey than the ones in Buenos Aires, and I only wish I had packed some to bring home.  

Farms

Day 2: Crabbing with Fred Dockery

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Crabbing with Fred Dockery

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Crabbing with Fred Dockery

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

After bidding the Seans and their pigs goodbye, we followed Matt and Ted out to a dock on the Stono River. That's where we met up with Fred Dockery, a local crab fisherman who offered to take us out for a couple of hours while he pulled pots. The blue crab is a staple of the coastal diet, which makes crab fishing a traditional industry in these parts. Matt and Ted thought that one of the best ways to experience Charleston's food culture was to see a local waterman at work.

I grew up pulling hands lines for crabs on Barnegat Bay, so this was a return to familiar territory for me. As a commercial fisherman, Fred Dockery is out on the water almost every day, year round, catching crabs which he sells by the bushel to a mix of local families, distributors, and restaurants. His boat is small, just big enough to carry four or five people (and several baskets of crabs) and perfect for maneuvering from buoy to buoy as he checks his pots.

The process is straightforward: hoist the trap, dump the crabs out, toss the live ones into a bushel basket and the dead ones back into the water, bait the trap, push it into the water, move on, and repeat.

Dockery is licensed to set 400 pots at a time, but is sensitive enough to conservation and good stewardship of these waters to tailor the number of traps he sets to the market's demand. He is currently running 300 of them scattered throughout local waterways, and on any given day he catches only what he knows that he can sell.

Chefs

London's New Princi Bakery

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Princi

© Princi
Princi bakery and cafe in London.

 

I’m a compulsive researcher when I travel, so about two weeks before I flew to London I e-mailed my plugged-in chef, design and wine friends there to find out where I absolutely had to eat. Princi was at the top of everyone’s list. This chic Milanese bakery chain from prolific restaurateur Alan Yau and baker Rocco Princi (often called the Armani of bread) recently opened its first international branch on Wardour Street. Princi is like the Italian version of Belgium's Le Pain Quotidien, with a minimalist-chic interior designed by Claudio Silvestrin (the creative mind behind the design of Georgio Armani stores and the Museum of contemporary art in Turin). Like LPQ, the focus in on insanely delicious baked goods, like buttery brioches and slightly chewy, olive-studded breadsticks. Thick squares of focaccia-style pizzas, such as zucchini with parmesan and egg, get warmed up in the wood-fired oven. There's also a full bar. I'm a firm believer that a city can never have too many fantastic bakeries, so I'm hoping Princi starts to pop up around the world, just like LPQ has.

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