After being named one of America's best new chefs by Food & Wine, Acacia's Dale Reitzer is working harder than ever.
Sweating it Out
Don't expect to see Chef Dale Reitzer shmoozing on Acacia's spacious front porch, accepting congratulations from diners on being recently named one of America's Best New Chefs in the July issue of Food & Wine magazine. Instead, Reitzer remains safely ensconced in the restaurant's basement kitchen, sweating it out in front of the stove.
"You can't let a little press delude you into thinking you're great," Reitzer says. "I like to stay downstairs, thinking I suck and pushing myself so I get better and better. If you believe your press, your learning curve stops."
Reitzer may not believe his press, but the hordes of diners clamoring for a reservation at the now-famous restaurant do. Reitzer says business at Acacia has increased 400 percent since word of the Food & Wine award got out. Reservations are a must. The phone rings non-stop with interview requests and invitations to appear at celebrity-chef galas he's already made plans to go to Alabama to visit the test kitchens of Southern Living and Cooking Light magazines. "It has changed my life," he says.
In a town hardly known as a capitol of culinary innovation, Reitzer admits he wasn't sure how his award would be received but that "the reception has been awesome that someone from a smaller city not known as a food town can win an award like this ... people are realizing that, 'Hey, Richmond is becoming a food town now.'"
Reitzer, a military brat who grew up mostly in Virginia Beach, told Food & Wine he got into cooking because "there weren't always waves to surf ... where I grew up, so I needed something else to do."
He trained at Johnson & Wales University in Norfolk then joined Jimmy Sneed at the Frog and the Redneck as the chef de cuisine when the restaurant first opened. After a few years in that job, he moved to Atlanta to work with Chef Guenther Seeger at the Ritz Carlton, then came back to Richmond and the Frog for another year-and-a-half. He and his partners, Aline Reitzer (his wife) and Jim O'Toole opened Acacia about 16 months ago, fulfilling a life-long dream.
"It is what has kept me going during all of these years of paying my dues, " Reitzer says. "You take all the best from everybody you've worked for and incorporate it into what you want to do."
Acacia is a simply decorated bistro located in an old church in Carytown. Although the restaurant shares this quirky space with a tony woman's clothing store, a pricey hair salon and an upscale home decor shop, there is nothing pretentious about Acacia. You're as likely to see patrons wearing jeans as you are to see them wearing sport coats. And the food is just as unpretentious.
"My idea and something I think you're seeing come back right now is to get back to simplicity," Reitzer says, "getting great product, changing it very little and letting it show itself off."
Where other chefs spend hours planning elaborate menus and concocting dishes incorporating ingredients from all seven continents, Reitzer instead devotes his time to seeking out the best local ingredients. "We drive an hour twice a week to pick up the most beautiful soft crabs and the best shiitake mushrooms around," he says. "... we make a little extra work for ourselves but it pays off in the end."
After spending so much time procuring these raw ingredients, the last thing Reitzer wants to do is gussy them up with fancy ingredients. His signature soft shells are sautéed and dressed with grilled asparagus and a yellow tomato sauce. Sweet corn is pureed into a smooth and ethereal soup. Fish is expertly sautéed and served on a ragout of Maine lobster, yellow potatoes and Surry sausage. An apricot mousse perfectly captures the essence of that elusive summer fruit.
It's these simple, pure flavors that got Reitzer noticed by Food & Wine's editors. Reitzer says the magazine begins its search for America's Best New Chefs about six months prior to the awards, getting input from local restaurant critics and past winners of the award. They then eat in about 100 of the nominated restaurants, narrowing the field down to the final 10.
Reitzer found out he had been selected as a finalist in February, about a week after Food & Wine's editors made two unannounced visits to Acacia. "The thing about Food & Wine is they don't care about the wine list, the service or too much about the decor," Reitzer says, "it's all based on the food."
As Acacia's head chef, that means Reitzer has the responsibility of living up to the honor. "All of the old expectations that people had, that we had, are blown away now," he says. "Now, the expectations are huge we have to work harder to meet them if not to exceed them."
Reitzer shares Acacia's kitchen duties with T.J. Endearle, Kevin Roberts and Brian McKee, saying "I couldn't do it without them." A staff of about eight, including his two partners, are his eyes and ears in the dining room. And that's the way he likes it, for Reitzer's place is in the kitchen. "The goal is to refine the restaurant, to make it better and better ... because the customers want that and should get that. It's not cheap to eat out anymore, people should get good value for their