Chefs Gotta Eat 

Who orders what, and where, when the tables are turned.

click to enlarge Chef Greg Johnson of downtown cafe Citizen heads into battleship mode at Black Sheep when he’s not cooking. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Chef Greg Johnson of downtown cafe Citizen heads into battleship mode at Black Sheep when he’s not cooking.

Most chefs wish they could eat out more. They’d like to have the same experiences their customers have, being cooked for and waited on and tasting flavors and foods they haven’t just spent the day preparing. What dishes do they crave the most? We asked a sampling of local chefs where they’re sitting down to dine these days, and it turns out everyone has a different craving.

Mel Oza of Lehja

Favorite: Mekong

Dish: Any very spicy vegetarian dish with Vietnamese sauce.

“I travel all over the country and I’m always looking for a spicy, Asian, down-home kind of place, a place that’s friendly. You can find it at all levels, from a dive to a Michelin three-star. The integrity is always there. My pet peeve with servers is when they dump wine in my glass without asking. They’re just trying to sell another bottle.”

Michael Hall of M Bistro and Wine Bar

Favorite: Acacia

Dish: Duck, or skate when it’s on the menu.

“Dale does an excellent job. He’s a phenomenal chef and finds the most incredible things. I love how his place is set up. As a restaurateur, I notice those kinds of things. Everyone has a vision and everyone’s vision varies. My friends hate to go out with me to eat.” But, he says he never complains out loud: “I’m not looking to tear someone else down.”

Jenna Sneed of Fresca

Favorite: Edo’s Squid

Dish: Polenta, lentils, baked cabbage, broccoletti.

“I’m a vegan, so I try to eat where I know who’s cooking my food. I’m extra-vegan so I want a place where they use a different spoon for the vegetables than the marinara. I would like to see more vegan options in Richmond restaurants and more local produce.”

Nate Gutierrez of Nate’s Taco Truck Stop

Favorite: La Milpa

Dish: Chorizo, whichever one is in their tacos.

“I love my chorizo, but however they do theirs is different and it’s yummy. I do takeout more than anything, probably go out once a week. I go for the friendly factor — nice staff, nice people. I’m probably easier on restaurants just because I’m a nice guy.”

Owen Lane of the Magpie

Favorite: Lemaire

Dish: Pheasant

“I pretty much eat everything. I got a lot of it from my dad, trying everything from paté to caviar. My first time in New Orleans, he took me down a side alley to Felix’s where I had raw oysters. They even put beer in a shot glass for me. Looking back now, I can appreciate that. I was 10.”

Virginia Rowland of Rowland Fine Dining

Favorite: Amici

Dish: Whatever the specials are.

“I think lately restaurants are trying to be too creative. Too many things on a plate. It doesn’t make sense in terms of flavors. They put a lot of different flavors in one dish and it makes your palate confused. If we get time off, we like to go to D.C. They use different vegetables and ingredients that people don’t use here.”

Matt Morand of Ettamae’s Cafe

Favorite: Dot’s Back Inn

Dish: Shad roe, frog’s legs, [soft-shell crabs] and side dishes.

“It’s a good place for chefs to go and the specials are always good. [Chef] Jimmy Tsamouras knows what’s going on. When I do go out, I want something I don’t serve. I like Italian. I have to think about what I want for a while.”

Willard Douglas of Croaker’s Spot

Favorite: Sushi and Buz and Ned’s.

Dish: Smoked eel for sushi and ribs at Buz and Ned’s.

“There’s a guy in Petersburg who does sushi out of a converted freight hauler with a smoker out back. Sushi makes you feel like you nourished your body. I like trying to find hole-in-the-wall places like some of the little ones around Horsepen.”

Carly Herring of the Empress

Favorite: Chipotle

Dish: Burrito bowl with barbacoa.

“It’s freaking delicious — moist, meaty and delicious. Chipotle is simple but high quality. That’s enough to make me very happy. At a normal restaurant, I’m going to be more critical because they’re striving for more than cheap and full, so I try to just sit back and enjoy it.”

Michael Ng of Thai Corner

Favorite: Nate’s Taco Truck Stop

Dish: Enchiladas and soft tacos.

“I’ve been cooking Asian food all my life, so I lean toward pizza, steak, subs. It’s always better when someone else makes it. When I go out, I notice all the details. I tend to favor local restaurants, mom-and-pops. There’s a little bit more love in it.”

Emir Vejzovic of Balkan Restaurant

Favorite: Emilio’s

Dish: Empanadas.

“I was very picky as a child about food, so they were bribing me and spanking me to eat. I was skinny. Now I eat everything, but being in this business, I get tired of food. But those empanadas are really good. I appreciate the craftsmanship in the kitchen, making the empanadas with his hands.”

Laurie Lay of Sprout

Favorite: Cielito Lindo

Dish: Chicken fajita wrap

“It’s fresh, it’s close, it’s consistent and it’s inexpensive. For me, it’s about the freshness of the food, knowing it’s not off a Sysco truck. I can forgive horrible service if the food is good. I don’t make exceptions for food when I feel there’s a laziness quality that’s apparent in the food.”

Greg Johnson of Citizen

Favorite: Black Sheep

Dish: CSS Virginia battleship with fried chicken livers.

“It makes my arm go numb. It’s awesome. I’m an adventurous eater; I eat anything and generally go for weirder stuff. It’s all about quality meats, quality produce and a quality mindset. Restaurants in Richmond could be a better value. We pay D.C. prices for less-than-D.C.-quality food.”

Velma Johnson of Mama J’s

Favorite: Carrabba’s Italian Grill

Dish: Shrimp scampi and garlic mashed potatoes.

“I’m very particular about where I eat out and I know good service when I see it. Cleanliness plays a big part. Service matters, but it’s a combination. My son always says that every time I go out I complain about something. I travel a lot and I’m very hard on restaurants.” S

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