Tuffy Stone may be the only Richmond chef with his own Wikipedia page. He's called the Professor, although to us he's always been Clark Kent — the mild-mannered superhero of smoke, meat and trophies. He's the only person in history to win back-to-back world barbecue championships just two grueling, road-weary weeks apart. This year Stone won the Jack Daniels Invitational and the American Royal Invitational competitions, the mortal equivalent of winning the World Series and the Super Bowl in the same season. And yet he operates mostly out of sight, rarely bathing in the glow of pit-master fame. He is Richmond's restaurateur of the year, no matter who else is nominated.
"I can't really talk about it," Stone says of the wins and his unprecedented high scores on the circuit — he's that humble. "It's kind of ironic. If I lived in Kansas City or Memphis where barbecue is part of their core being, it would be, how do I describe it, bigger news." He couldn't escape notice, though, when thousands in the audience gave him a standing ovation as he got the robe, crown, throne, $10,000 check, "and there's not one picture without tears running down my face," he says of the Kansas City finale.
"Then we went to the Jack, and it was really cold, in the 20s, and the wood was green and the brisket took a lot longer to cook — that's the thing about barbecue. It's big hunks of meat and weather and wood." It's emotionally and mentally draining, but his Cool Smoke team's work paid off with another win. This is a grand slam of the highest barbecue order, but Stone says he's still learning every day.
While Stone continues to methodically expand his Q Barbeque empire, now in four Richmond locations, he also does a breakaway move in January. He's opening Rancho T (and no, it doesn't stand for Tuffy) in the former Sample space at 1 N. Morris St. It's a handsome redesign, with warm Westernish art and casual décor, and two large exhaust fans at the back to indicate a complete kitchen overhaul.
Stone co-owns the project with Ed Vasaio (Mamma 'Zu, Edo's Squid, Dinamo, 8½), and it's arousing as much interest as any restaurant venture this year. That both guys prefer to operate under the radar makes the details and delay more tantalizing. Rancho T will serve southwestern-style food but with the inevitable twists that two perfectionists require. Stay tuned.
Pun in the oven: There's a reason Saison stands apart from other gastropubs in town. It's the staff members' sense of humor and the inspired events that they bring to the scene — including placing their menus in conversation-starting hardbacks, vinyl nights and now their first anniversary bash Dec. 12.
It's the Big Pun Hip-Hop Dinner, during which a soundtrack plays while courses are presented with pun play. Owner Jay Bayer explains: "For the dinner think Eminempanadas, Old Dirty Custard, Wu Tang clams, Tupac choy, RaKimchi, the Rootsabaga, you get the idea. We will open with amuse and aperitivo followed by six courses with beverage pairing." Seating is at 7 p.m. unless demand warrants a second serving. Tickets are $45 and available at Saison, 23 W. Marshall St., or through eventbrite.com.
Saison also marks its birthday with an expansion, adding a market, lounge and deli with lunch, coffee and beer in an area that becomes more of a dining magnet with each passing season. Nitro-poured, cold-brewed coffee is a featured beverage along with sandwiches, salads and desserts in a former deli at 323 N. Adams St., now linked to Saison as one business. It's expected to open in January. Follow progress at saisonrva.com.
North for New Year's: If big, noisy crowds aren't your thing, chef and owner Andrew Wisniewski of the intimate North Side bistro Tastebuds has an alternative. Two seatings of a New Year's Eve dinner, at 6 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., feature four courses for $55. Reservations are being taken.
The business also offers a fixed-price dinner Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights for $22 per person, with a choice of salad, any entree on the menu or specials board, and choice of dessert. Wines by the bottle for $15 and up complete the deal. New to the menu this month are lamb Bolognese with acorn squash, a mixed grill with romesco sauce, and fresh cod cakes with corn grits, bacon and kale. 4019 MacArthur Ave. 261-6544. tastebudsamericanbistro.com.
Kitchen addition: Chefs Ellie Basch and Jannequin Bennett of Everyday Gourmet have moved into new quarters at 12422 Gayton Road. Customers can pick up platters from the team's growing list of meals-to-go and party foods. The business website starts with wisdom from Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiapirelli: "A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness." egourmetrva.com.
Stella as goddess: Artist Catherine Venable presents a crazy mash-up of Richmond restaurant owners and florid paintings in a show that runs this month at the Richmond Public Library. Longtime local chef icon Stella Dikos, portrayed topless, did her best to cover it up when shown the painting, Venable says. venableart.com.
Spilt milk: Food and emotions often are linked, but perhaps not as cleverly as with Doug Orleski's new calendar, Mean Eats. His cartoon, RVA Coffee Stain, is featured weekly in Style weekly. Now he shows how food relates to life in a witty gift item for $40. Find it at blunt-objects.com.