Three bowls of soup: Local restaurants using local ingredients affect communities in unforeseen ways
Will Richey began to notice a difference in the Charlottesville Farmers Market in the late ’90s. Besides the usual Charlottesville crowd seeking coffee and muffins or a week’s worth of groceries, he started running into Charlottesville’s best chefs. “I noticed the chefs – and of course sous chefs and other people connected with the city’s restaurant business – and I thought it was great,” he said.
Chefs are fussy – they cut into carrots, thump melons, and pinch the herbs – but the growers who meet their standards do well in market sales and, after establishing a relationship, work directly with the chefs to fill their kitchens’ needs.
Richey had more than a passing curiosity about the direct farmer-chef connection. He was the sommelier for l’etoile in Charlottesville’s Starr Hill neighborhood. “It was wine that first got me interested in the whole idea of regional cuisine,” he said. Richey likes the French notion that what’s grown in the same soil – be it grapes, chicken, raspberries or wheat – has an inherent connection to the people who live there. Seasonal food is the root of traditional food customs and forms a cohesive cuisine. Mark Gresge, l’etoile’s owner, builds his popular soups and entrees around seasonal meats and vegetables.
Richey learned the culinary side of the business over the years and eventually bought Revolutionary Soup. At the time, it was a lackluster venture: “Their idea was to open a few cans of this, a few cans of that, and call it soup,” he said. “I started buying from the local vendors I’d met through l’etoile, and focusing on fresh food.” His determination is reflected in his current menu. “Even in the winter, we’re able to offer a menu that’s 50 percent local,” he said. “During the growing season, it’s more like 85 percent.”
Hungry diners pack Richey’s two Revolutionary Soup locations – one downtown and one on The Corner. He lives in between the two and can walk to both. His profit margin is not high, “not like a chain would expect,” because he buys expensive, locally-raised meat (butchering it himself) and the best seasonal produce, but he’s fine with that. There’s always a chicken soup, a vegetable soup, a chowder and a stew, rotating according to what’s available.
A perennial favorite, the spicy peanut tofu soup, uses tofu made by Twin Oaks outside of Charlottesville; and Richey’s been searching for organic Virginia-grown peanuts. Soup lovers and local growers are not the only ones who benefit: Richey hires full-time staff, pays them well, and is beginning to offer benefits. Charlottesville-area charities also get a share of the profits: “Just about anyone with a good cause who knocks on our door comes away with something,” he said.
When Mary Katharine Froehlich entered the annual Taste of the Town competition in Waynesboro, she tallied up the pounds of Shenandoah Valley vegetables and meat her restaurant had bought in a year from a local farm. She found she’d sliced and simmered almost a ton of chicken, beef, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and other vegetables from JMD Farm at her Stone Soup Books and Café on Waynesboro’s Main Street. “This was important to me,” Froehlich said. “That farm has been in the Driver family for 150 years.” Froelich sees her substantial patronage of local growers as a way to help the next generation of farmers hold on to their land. Froehlich grew up in the Midwest and remembers de-tasselling corn every summer of her childhood. “I always knew I would end up doing something related to agriculture. I just didn’t know what it would be,” she said.
The specialized farming done by JMD and other progressive farms: diverse crops, sustainable practices, protection of waterways; is expensive and time-consuming, but it results in a more flavorful and healthy product, Froehlich says. Her careful monitoring of the quality of the ingredients she puts in her soups, salads, sandwiches and pastries has contributed to the success of her café, which has become a local gathering place. “That’s what I wanted, and why I added the café,” Froehlich said. “It didn’t seem as though Waynesboro had a comfortable place for people to get together.” She originally thought the book lovers who patronized her lovely bookstore would stay and have lunch, but the reverse is also true, she said: “We’re making readers out of eaters.”
Like Richey, Froehlich is an easy touch when it comes to local causes. She has an annual “stew off” for Waynesboro’s soup kitchen and offers her restaurant space free of charge to local book groups and civic organizations.
Jenny Driver, who oversees operations at her family’s JMD Farm near New Hope, said direct sales to customers and restaurants like Stone Soup Books and Café and the Staunton Grocery (which buys nearly all her lamb) has enabled her to farm full-time. “Most farmers farm full-time,” she corrected herself, “but they also have another full-time job. By selling directly, I can afford to make this my only job.” Driver said the typical scenario for her generation of Valley farm sons and daughters – she’s 28 – is to see the toll two full-time jobs has taken on their parents, and leave the area to find work, much as they may love farming. “That’s how farms get sold and turned into subdivisions,” she said.
Katrina Didot will spend next Monday and Tuesday in a rented kitchen making 600 quarts of soup for the Harrisonburg Farmers Market Wednesday. Other markets and stores stock her frozen soups, and she sells them fresh at the Staunton Farmers Market on Saturdays. Her business, “A Bowl of Good,” will have a permanent home in August, when she’ll move in with an expanded “Gift and Thrift” shop in a new, “green” building near Eastern Mennonite University. Didot is from a Mennonite background, and she spent time serving the poor in some miserable places: Haiti, Guatemala, and inner-city Washington, D.C. She worked as an intensive in-home counselor in Harrisonburg before launching her prepared food and catering business. Its evolution had stages. She was the cook for the family collection of senior citizens and deer hunters who boarded at her Pennsylvania home. She was a fearless patron of third-world markets and, more recently, ran the café at Sue’s Super Nutrition on the south side of Harrisonburg.
Lately, Didot has been thinking a lot about tangible nourishment rather than words in her life-long mission to alleviate suffering. While she worked nights as an in-home counselor to families who were falling apart, she raised her children, Luther and Eva, both adopted in Guatemala by her and her husband, Ernie, a videographer for Helps International. “It seems I couldn’t do both,” she said. “The stress was enormous and I was sure it would affect the children.”
She’s convinced that good food in a welcoming atmosphere has repercussions beyond simply satisfying hunger. A patron of her café at Sue’s Nutrition put it into words. “Rachael approached me and thanked me for what I was doing there, providing peace and comfort along with wonderful, healthy food,” Didot recalls. “She told me she would like to help me expand my business if it ever became possible.” Rachael Dorsey is now her business partner in the new venture, also called “A Bowl of Good.” Like Richey and Froehlich, she takes care with her ingredients, buying them from local vendors, sometimes trading back and forth at the farmers markets, sometimes buying in bulk when there’s a bumper crop and freezing for later use. She loves naming her soups, some of which are huge piles of rice, grains or noodles, herbs, vegetables and spices. One of them – a curried spinach citrus lentil soup – is named “O My Darling Clemon-lime.” Others might have an Asian flare.
Although she’ll cheerfully claim she’s not authentic, there are soups with a spicy Central American flavor, or a sunny Caribbean note, from the countries she served as a young woman interested in the struggle for peace and justice. Nor does she believe she’s any less of a force for good these days: “Food is important,” she said. “That’s one thing I’ve always known.”
– Story by Theresa Curry