The city's food and drink scene has changed dramatically in 25 years. And suddenly Richmond is a little fresher, a little more worldly. Where are we going next? We're not sure, but we know some of the people who are taking us there. In no particular order, here are seven passionate young players who want to make their mark on your taste buds and perhaps your psyche too.
1. Owen Lane
Executive Chef, The Track
He's worked with high-profile chefs and big professional kitchens, and he's cooked at some of Richmond's smallest bistros. There will be a point when Owen Lane, 30, will strike out on his own. But for now he's running the kitchen at The Track, Carytown's venerable fine-dining spot, and building a reputation for his American contemporary cuisine.
It's not the most obvious place for an up-and-comer to find his culinary voice, but Lane manages to please the filet and mussels crowd while exciting the foodie -- pan-seared duck breast on a savory Belgian waffle with greens, topped with strawberry-balsamic jam, for example. "There's always an idea to twist," Lane says. "And it's fun and gratifying to see people smile when they taste it."
2. Leigh Rodgers
Leigh Rodgers picked up her baking skills with some simple training at Ellwood Thompson's. But she gave it something extra an intuitive ability to meet a customer's needs: gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan, whatever and to disguise all that healthiness in luscious flavor.
Rodgers, 25, a student of exercise science and nutrition, puts the sweet cap on meals at Relish in Shockoe Bottom with a repertoire of cheesecakes, tarts and other goodies. Her side business, Mmm Mmm Baked Goods, isn't about fancy decorated cakes. "I want to be known as the home baker who can make it healthy," she says.
3. Josh Ball
Executive Chef, Si Tapas
Josh Ball is always thinking about the next menu. This town might be slow on oxtail and halibut, but in love with calamari, squid and duck, he's learned. Ball, 32, executive chef at Si Tapas in the Fan, has worked at serious venues in France and California learning grill techniques, pastry and even chocolates.
"I find a lot of joy in pleasing the customer," Ball says, "and I run an organized, very clean kitchen." Eventually he'd like to open a pastry and chocolate shop here, but for now, an infant daughter and a new restaurant are gratifying enough.
4. and 5. Ned Wheeler and Ross Mattis
Co-owners, Barrel Thief
When childhood friends go into business together, playfulness is a fringe benefit. Ned Wheeler and Ross Mattis, the 30-year-old owners of wine shop and café Barrel Thief, have split their interests into complementary roles. Wheeler's the Harvard grad with the Chapel Hill M.B.A.; Mattis is the food and wine guy with an impressive series of mentors. He's as passionate about flavors and service as Wheeler is about business and strategy.
They've brought a smart model to Richmond with their new store, located in the Shoppes at Westgate across from Short Pump Town Center: Wine in the café is sold at retail prices; foods are upscale local, served and priced casually; and wine-store attitudes are left behind for something more social. "We want people to feel comfortable asking questions and learning," Wheeler says. "We want to satisfy a need with great products and a comfortable place." They're already planning a second Richmond location.
6. Chris Mattera
Chef-charcutier, Belmont Butchery
Chris Mattera, who in his off-hours is reading a thesis on Virginia ham, is a food anthropologist in the making. But sausage and cured meats are his daily work, and as chef-charcuterie at Belmont Butchery, he's been given license to experiment with the choicest ingredients, building a following for his creations. A graduate of the Cordon Bleu, he's worked in important Parisian kitchens and at such local places as Pomegranate.
"Charcuterie is really part of many people's cultural memories," he says of the German, Hungarian and Italian sausages that fly from the shop. Next year, he'll go to Italy to apprentice with pork butchers in Umbria.
7. Paul Blacker
Paul Blacker is used to answering the question, Why would you open an ice lounge in Richmond? "I'm hoping to change that to 'Why wouldn't you?'" he says. Infuzion, set to open next month, will be a national first. The Scott's Addition club will showcase male and female choreographed dancers; it will have a walk-in freezer, 20 degrees below zero, where the walls and bar and even the cups are all sculpted of ice, and premium vodkas are served to parka-wearing guests. The same firm that's building one in Dubai is doing Richmond's. "It's not just a haphazard idea," Blacker says. "It's a full experience that is thought through, and we hope the first of many things to come."