The tablecloths are off at the Berkeley for the first time ever. It's a signal that the dark, clubby dining rooms with a history of top chefs (J Frank, Michael Hall, Mike Yavorsky) are moving into a new, more relaxed era. To lead it, chef Carly Herring returns after a stint five years ago. Her gluten-free menus at the Empress were revelatory. That led to secret-cult status for a few seasons at Shockoe wine bar C'est le Vin. Now unveiling a "reconstructed Southern" and approachable, jeans-accepted, fine dining experience, Herring trains her natural wit into a food career "that's not something I can just turn off," she says. "It's always there." She's auditioned for "Top Chef," often is told she'd make great television and acknowledges, "I think I'd be pretty entertaining."
Criticism is inherent to the work: There's a constant push to self-criticize. With the Internet everybody is a food writer — they can love you or they can hate you. It is what it is, people will always find something to complain about and something to adore. I do what I can to be on the adored side.
On building a good dish: Harmonious contrast. I start with one aspect of the dish, usually the protein, unless I'm inspired to do a particular side dish. I then build from that. How do I want to highlight that? What's going to make it really stand out?
Complementary flavors aren't always the answer. Sometimes contrast is a great way to really say what you want to with a particular item. It's like, you don't think you're tan until you stand next to a redhead. You don't realize how sweet red peppers are until you taste them next to Thai chilies. I always try to build the actual plate in my mind as well — not just the taste, but the look. I decide on shapes and colors as well as flavors.
Admiration for another Richmond chef: If I was going to shout out one chef it would be Mike Yavorsky [Belmont Food Shop]. He was sous at the Berkeley when I was in college, and a lot of the time in my first six months there it was just us in the kitchen, talking about food, him coaching me along. He loves it. It's obvious in his cooking and his demeanor, and he doesn't have that screaming, yelling, pots-and-pan thing. He's just an awesome guy, totally into his kids, his food, that's just all of him.
Traits for chef as leader: You have to be able to admit when you're wrong. Otherwise you end up being that pigheaded jackass. You have to be able to recognize your successes with your failures. You have to be able to work with people, especially if you're in a leadership role like a chef, leading a team. You have to actually do the things you're talking about and articulate it to other people.
Heavy lifting, lots of standing, long hours. When I'm on the line, that's all standing — there's no sitting, no leaning, there's always something to do, multitasking. It's physically and mentally draining — and I have rheumatoid arthritis, so that makes it worse. At the end of the day I just want to come home and sit on the couch.
Interviewed by Deveron Timberlake