Clifton Inn Chefs in the Garden Dinner Series

Last Monday, the Clifton Inn hosted the second dinner of its Chefs in the Garden series where they invite additional chefs to join head Chef Tucker for a multiple-course dinner in the garden.  Each of the chefs dreams up and creates their own courses.  The most recent dinner featured Chef Joe Sparatta from Heritage (Richmond), Tim Bereika from Secco Wine Bar (Richmond), and Jason Alley from Comfort and Pasture (both in Richmond, but we’re getting a Pasture restaurant here in Charlottesville).  I was lucky enough to help behind the scenes with all the chefs in the kitchen and to whip out my camera to capture some of the culinary magic as it happened.

It was a beautiful, clear summer night, and the diners enjoyed an almost three-hour, eight-course meal beneath twinkling lights.  They began with a glorious charcuterie plate, with different meats, pate, chow-chow, herbs, mustard, and pickles.  Then came Chef Tucker’s dish of clams, melon, puffed sorghum, and fennel blossoms.  It was one of the most unique pairings I had ever heard of–clams and melon–but somehow the thinly sliced sweetness of the melon transformed the clam into something light and delectable.

One of the focuses of the night was on pork (from Autumn Olive farms) and on the importance of utilizing the entire animal.  Many dishes featured pork, all from the same farm, in a myriad of ways, but perhaps the most creative was in the use of the pig skin as noodles.  The preparation began as if the chef was making fried pig skin.  He removed the skin and scraped off all the fat from the underside.  Then the skin was folded and sliced lengthwise, almost like a chifonade, so that it became thin noodles.  They were sauteed in pork jus just before serving until they were soft.  It was a rather rich dish because the noodles retained some their texture and remained a little gummy, but in an intriguing way.  You were certainly aware that these were not ordinary noodles, and the pork jus reinforced the meatiness of this meatless dish.  It had all the lip-smacking, savory elements of pork while employing unexpected parts of the animal to evoke those flavors.  I was in awe of the creativity and elegance of such humble ingredients.

The next dish that you’ll find featured in the images below was a refined sausage dish accompanied by blueberries, sliced green olive, frisee lettuce, and pickled red onion.  I cannot even recount the amount of care and meticulous preparation that must have gone into this stunning presentation.  I was lucky enough to get to help with part of it and got to separate the milder, light green frisee leaves from the darker green, more bitter ones.  I was amazed that the chef’s vision for the dish was such that I, along with a few other line cooks, were tasked with almost dissecting giant heads of frisee lettuce because the chef only wanted to include the leaves of a certain color.  It was a task well worth the work, and I was honored to have played a role, albeit a small one, in aiding the stunning plate come to life.

The final main course was a pork-centric dish quite in line with what I would consider to be my culinary style.  It featured a big helping of meat, a few green vegetables, and plenty of flavorful fat.  Despite not having an impressive or artistic presentation, it featured smoked and slow-braised pork picnic, porky green beans in a “red neck” style (as the chef put it), and a mixed green salad with tomatoes and a baconnaise dressing (Richmond-based Duke’s mayonnaise with bacon fat stirred in).

The final two courses were desserts, and Chef Tucker’s was an almost savory fig leaf pudding with reduced vinegar and frozen wine berries.  He takes milk, cream, and buttermilk and simmers them with fig leaves (which I was surprised to learn have the same flavor as figs themselves) to make a pudding with a yogurt-y tanginess and served them in adorable Staub cocottes.  The second dessert was a deconstructed cheesecake made with creme fraiche and vanilla.  It was incredibly creamy and rich, plated as three perfect quenelles (those smooth, football-shaped scoops of ice cream, whipped cream, mousse, pâtés, etc. made by a special movement of spoons).  There was also crumbled bacon fat shortbread cookie, lemon verbena sauce, and berry jam to round out the meal in both a sweet and savory way.

Also, if you make it this far down in my post and have visited my site before, please notice how much my photographs have improved!  It’s all thanks to a great camera (which I have graciously taken off of my sister’s hands for her), wonderful mentors at Beyond the Flavor, and a digital photography class in Italy of all places!

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