December 09, 2014 News & Features » Cover Story


Six Stars 

In a city where professional kitchens are a man's world, these women are on fire.

Around this time last year, Time magazine ran a cover story focusing on chefs the editors considered “Gods of Food.” No female chefs were included. Neither Alice Waters nor Julia Child made the cut. Think about that for a moment.

Like most places, in Richmond you won’t find a lot of women at the helms of restaurant kitchens. But they are there. And although the ones on the following pages aren’t the only chefs and restaurant owners in town who happen to sport the double-X chromosome, they demonstrate the diversity of a sometimes under-the-radar group turning out dishes worth noticing, night after night.

They’re tough, confident and they know what they want from everyone around them — and themselves. Because in order to make it behind the line, I hear again and again, they have to be tough — and better than the men around them.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Steady Light: Jen Mindell

If you can name only one female chef in town, it’s probably Jen Mindell of Postbellum. People were impressed with the menu she created when she and Garrett Barry took over Café Gutenberg next to the 17th Street Farmers’ Market in 2009. After the restaurant was forced to close, a lot of Richmonders had their first experience with Kickstarter when they contributed to the campaign to open Mindell’s vegetarian food truck, Rooster Cart.

Postbellum is a huge 300-seater on West Main Street. It has three dining areas, including an upstairs deck with a grill of its own. You can’t categorize what Mindell’s doing there as modern Southern food exactly — it’s too personal for that. But along with the mustard greens kimchi and peppered cashew cheese, you’ll find regional influences across the menu, in such specialties as duck and turnip green nachos or the SausageCraft mixed grill with stone-ground grits.

Before it opens and without customers, Mindell looks small in the vast space. With her dark hair piled on her head and tattoos decorating her arms and hands, she sits on the edge of a bar stool and tells an almost impossible tale for a 34-year-old. The timeline only makes sense if you note that she left home at 15.

Richmond and Postbellum are at the end of long series of stops that took Mindell from Vermont, where she grew up, to Oregon, Boston, New Orleans and back to Vermont, working in restaurants along the way.

The turning point came during a busy moment in a Boston restaurant, Mindell says: “I had that moment of, ‘I know I’m not going to die, but if I don’t figure out how to keep up with this, something terrible is going to happen.’”

The owner of the restaurant told her she was too cautious when she put things on the grill. “She took my hand and said, ‘Go ahead, get it over with and burn yourself, and then you won’t worry about it,’” she recalls. “From that day forward, I didn’t want to be the person that was ever called scared or skittish.”

“There’s a lot more deciding to have to be tough when you’re female,” Mindell says. “And there’s a lot of bullshit. I remember, just as a teenager [in a kitchen], guys making me jump, holding things in the air.”

She landed in Portland, Oregon, at the Paradox Palace Café. “It was where I really got to be creative for the first time,” she says. “I felt like I found my people there.”

The New England Culinary Institute was next, a tough program that Mindell likens to the military. “You learn how to take yourself out of the equation,” she says. “I learned a great sense of humility, and I think you need that if you’re ever going to be great — at anything.”

At the same time, Richmond’s allure was that it was a small city — not a large and crowded place with a multitude of chefs clamoring for attention. “I’d rather go somewhere that needs me rather than where there are [hundreds] of me,” she says.

And Postbellum attracted her for a similar reason. “The competitive part of me said, ‘Nobody can make a 300-seat restaurant work with craft, from-scratch, quality food, and therefore, I must try.’”

1323 W. Main St., 353-7678

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  • Scott Elmquist

The Athlete: Carena Ives

After 20 years as a restaurant owner, people still ask Carena Ives where her husband is: “No, no, no, I want the real owner,” vendors and customers tell her. That’s one reason she partnered with well-known Richmond chef Jimmy Sneed — she wanted to open a second restaurant and says she needed to be taken seriously.

“No one would give me the time of day,” she says. “And I thought, ‘What’s a girl to do? A girl pairs with a boy!’”

She opened her first restaurant, Jamaica House, in 1994. The daughter of a Jamaican mother and Chinese-Jamaican father, Ives moved to Brooklyn when she was 5. Her father owned a bakery, and she starting working in restaurants as soon as she was able. Ives says she learned the most at Glen’s Jerk Chicken. “I asked a ton of questions,” she says. “This guy was really successful — he [ended up with] a restaurant in all five boroughs.”

But a new home was calling. “Back in the ’80s, there was just a horrific crack epidemic,” she says. “I got scared.” She moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, but ended up opening Jamaica House instead. She called her mother and asked her to come from Jamaica and help.

Her mom started cooking before the place opened to help the construction crew, Ives says: “She’d make her curry chicken, and people would stop in and say, ‘Oh, do you have lunch?’

“‘Yeah, we have some curry chicken,’ we’d say.

“And they’d say, “Well, can we buy a plate?’

“We said, “I guess?’”

News spread by word of mouth, and Jamaica House was doing a brisk business before it opened its doors. It used all of her mother’s recipes. Ives and her mother stood side by side in the kitchen, turning out plates as fast as they could. “From there, it just grew,” she says. “We never, never stopped.”

In 2007, Carena’s Jamaican Grille opened on the South Side. Ives had moved from the kitchen to front of the house and was ready to expand her business.

“It was a gamble — a huge gamble, not knowing back then what would happen to that intersection” of Chippenham Parkway and Midlothian Turnpike, Ives says of the redevelopment around the former Cloverleaf Mall. “But I thought, this part of Richmond is way too important to ignore.”

The partnership with Sneed ended in 2009. “I just had to walk away,” she says. “To make it work, I had to have full control.” The property was under new ownership and the entire retail area was getting a makeover. She moved into a new building next door four years later. But just a few months after opening, a fire started in the kitchen and Ives had to start from scratch. Fortunately, the building still stood.

“When all things are said and done,” she says, “it could have been a lot worse.” Today, between the two restaurants, Ives’ production is enormous. After reopening the South Side restaurant last August, she says, business picked up more or less where it left off. From her two restaurants, she sells a ton and a half of chicken, 600 pounds of oxtails and seven goats each week.

“Our customers are so loyal,” Ives says. “They come in day-in, day-out.”

Carena’s Jamaican Grille
7102 Midlothian Turnpike, 422-5375

Jamaica House
1215 W. Broad St., 358-5793

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The Career Changer: Velma Johnson

Mama J’s Kitchen on First Street looks like it’s been there forever. There’s a long bar, a lot of dark wood and warm yellow walls. The only indication that this place opened its doors only five years ago is the hip red, black and white sign outside. Customers wait in the morning for the door to be unlocked so they can order such Southern comfort as fried catfish and mac ’n’ cheese before the rush.

Velma Johnson is tall, wearing an “I heart black women” T-shirt, looking younger than her 60-plus years. A Richmond native, she was one of 14 children. “Growing up, I used to watch my mom and grandma cook,” she says, “and I’ve just felt like cooking all my life.”

But she didn’t go into the restaurant business. After her children were born, she went to work for the city of Richmond as a deputy sheriff. The job took its toll.

“I was seeing kids that I’d still see 17 years later,” Johnson says. “I’d had enough.” So she began to think about doing something new. “I decided to pursue my catering,” she says. “I was doing some little small stuff on the side.”

She handed in her resignation and bought a van that weekend. It was a risky financial move, but it paid off.

“When I got home, the superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools had left a message on my answering machine,” she says. “He told me he had a three-day conference and light lunch would be served at the Richmond Technical Center for a back-to-school workshop. He said $10,000 had already been allocated for it. … That was the sign from God I asked for.”

The building that became Mama J’s was intended to be her catering kitchen. “My son saw it and said, ‘Well, mom, it’s got a small restaurant attached to it, too,’” she says. “And that’s how I got into the restaurant business.”

“It’s the food I’ve been cooking all my life — mac ’n’ cheese, fried chicken, greens, yams,” Johnson says of her menu. “It’s mostly what we had on Sundays.”

The restaurant holds 49 people and there are 30 people on staff. “We could almost go one-to-one with the customers if we had to,” she says.

Her son, Lester Johnson Jr., handles the business side of things, and she’s reached the point of not needing to be in the kitchen as much as she used to be.

“It’s about training people, good people,” she says. “The kitchen staff, the managers — they feel like they’re invested in Mama J’s.”

The only difficulty she’s discovered is making people understand that the food has to be made her way. Those that don’t understand don’t last. But she’s found the right people, she says: “My assistant can cook me under the table.”

Mama J’s Kitchen
415 N. First St., 225-7449

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Rising Star: Brittanny Anderson

Sometimes success can be mystifying — restaurants come and go. But occasionally a place opens that hits all the right marks. Metzger Bar & Butchery in Union Hill did it this year. From its row of tough, 19th-century, aproned and mustachioed butchers staring out at you from the photo on its website, to the floor-to-ceiling white subway tile and open wooden shelving, Metzger brings enough of Brooklyn to Richmond without becoming too twee.

The backbone of this success is a carefully composed menu of German food crafted by co-owner and chef Brittanny Anderson. Although her long blond hair makes her look the part, Anderson didn’t come up with the idea for German food because of family ancestry — even though Metzger, an old German word for butcher, also is a last name.

“Our designer came up with the name, and we thought that informed the restaurant a little more. I wanted something different,” she says. “I knew we would be the only [German restaurant] in town and I thought, well, maybe that would bring some people in.”

Anderson, who grew up in Richmond, attended VCU, bartending along the way. “I was really into food at the time,” she says — “food magazines, taking classes at Sur la Table — and I asked [Patina owner Brian] Mumford if he’d let me cook.” She worked her way through Patina’s kitchen stations until, she says, “I realized I was better than everyone — and I [wasn’t] going to learn if I stayed.”

She left Richmond and VCU for New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and its challenging two-year program. The kitchen manager from Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico, New York, was a judge at her final presentation at culinary school — and he hired her on the spot. “I worked on the farm, worked with livestock, learned how to take care of sheep and pigs, slaughtered chickens and all of that.” She left to open the Northern Spy Food Co., in New York’s East Village.

But after a few years, life began to change. Anderson got married, and she wanted to have children. She was making great money but it was time to move on.

“I could have taken an executive chef job somewhere else, made good money, gotten a nicer apartment,” she says, “but I would have been working 75 hours a week. Even if I worked for four years, I still couldn’t afford to have a kid.”

She and her husband, Kjell, returned to Richmond because they knew the only way they could have a family was by moving to a place that was affordable enough for Anderson to own her own restaurant.

Still, even a chef and owner in a livable city like Richmond isn’t going to be away from her restaurant much — at least in the beginning. “I don’t think it’s a job that’s supportive of families,” Anderson says. “I’m not doing that for a while. This is my baby. But we will [have children] — and I plan on working right until they’re ready to come out.”

Metzger Bar & Butchery
801 N. 23rd St., 325-3147

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The Veteran: Carly Herring

I did a brief spell waiting tables,” Carly Herring says. “It didn’t agree with me — I was a horrible server.”

Herring started cooking early. “I wanted to be a Boy Scout [like my brother] so badly,” she says. “I’d go to all the jamborees and cook hamburgers and hot dogs for, like, 15,000 Boy Scouts. They put 10-year-old me on a six-foot grill, and gave me some spatulas and tongs. The first year I did it, I still had to stand on a box.”

Now Herring stands more than 6 feet tall and leans down, peering at you with sharp blue eyes. After a semester and a half at VCU, she dropped out and started restaurant work. “It was a crushing disappointment to my parents,” she says wryly.

But she realized the work suited her. “It was what I wanted to do,” Herring says, “so I went to culinary school.” She enrolled in the culinary program at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and today serves on its advisory committee.

The college’s internship moved her behind the line at the Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel, where she eventually took over breakfast and brunch. She didn’t stay, and served a stint as a pastry chef at Verbena until it closed. Catering paid the bills for the next couple of years.

Enter soon-to-be-convicted real estate developer Justin French. In 2009, Herring helped to open the Republic with Rick Lyons in a building that French owned on West Broad Street. French also owned a space two doors down, and along with partner Melissa Barlow, Herring opened the Empress there in April 2010.

“I did a lot of the manual labor on the building,” she says. “Demolition was awesome. Designing the kitchen was even better. We bought a lot of stuff at auction, so the design of the kitchen was like putting together a puzzle.”

Reviews were good, but the restaurant was finding its footing when French was arrested for forgery, among other charges. Lenders immediately started foreclosing on his properties, and the Empress’ building was one of the first they came after.

Herring and Barlow were presented with two options: Buy the property immediately or close down their five-month-old business. Herring’s parents cobbled together the $280,500 needed to buy the building at auction.

But after two years of struggling, Herring and Barlow parted ways, and the Empress closed about six months after Herring left.

“To be completely honest,” she says, “I never wanted to own a restaurant, but I’m glad I did. It was a hell of an experience.”

She took over the kitchen at Shockoe Bottom’s C’est le Vin soon afterward and was lured away by the head chef position at the Berkeley before returning to the 17th Street spot this year.

Buddy’s Place, in its new location in the former Viceroy space, is next. She’ll revamp the menu to go along with the restaurant’s move. “Anything I’ve tried to do other than food — it’s just ended badly.”

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The New Kid: Thuy Bui

As soon as you walk through the door of Commercial Taphouse, if you look left, you can see directly into the kitchen. There you’ll spot a small girl with dramatic eyeliner and an asymmetrical haircut, confidently handling several hot pans.

Mekong and the Answer Brewpub’s An Bui took ownership of the restaurant in October, and he put his 26-year-old niece in charge of the kitchen. Thuy Bui was finishing up her culinary arts degree at Stratford University and serving an externship at the Roosevelt.

She wishes she could have stayed at the Roosevelt longer, she says. But the timing wasn’t right. “An came to me about this place and I said, ‘Yeah, it sounds perfect.’ … I thought they were going to get [Commercial Taphouse] and renovate everything — and I thought it would be like a year that I could stay at the Roosevelt.”

Instead, she jumped into a tiny kitchen with little storage and had to throw out a chunk of her menu to accommodate it. In thinking about the food, she aimed for her own idiosyncratic take on Asian fusion. “I tried to incorporate some things I learned at the Roosevelt and some things I learned at Mekong,” Bui says.

One item that made the cut is the Viet dip. It’s an Asian mashup of the French dip: beef brisket with Thai basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, Sriracha and hoisin on a sub roll with pho broth on the side for dipping. And it succinctly sums up the kind of food she wants to create there. The sandwich also can operate as a metaphor for what it’s like to be an American kid with firm Vietnamese roots.

Bui was born in the late 1980s shortly after her parents immigrated to Richmond from Vietnam. Along with her uncle, her parents own the West End’s Mekong, and she grew up in the restaurant. “It’s where my parents always were, so I had to go there after school,” Bui says. “I would help out in the kitchen, getting the sauces ready for the appetizers, just to give me something to do.”

She worked in Mekong’s front of the house starting at 15 — but it didn’t stop her from cooking. “I was always there — my mom would call me to come help her in the kitchen,” she says. “I can do any station — I know Mekong like the back of my hand.”

She wanted to learn more. “One day I woke up and decided that I wanted to go to culinary school,” Bui says. “I knew how a restaurant worked, but I wanted to learn from the ground up.”

On the first night of Commercial Taphouse’s series of soft openings, the stove wasn’t operational until halfway through the evening. “It was a disaster of an opening,” she says. But now business is steady, and Bui feels comfortable with her kitchen staff in charge if she needs to leave the restaurant.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Bui says, looking around at the restaurant’s bare walls, “but it’s getting there.”

Commercial Taphouse & Grill
111 N. Robinson St., 359-6544
Search for Commercial Taphouse & Grill on Facebook.


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