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Interview: Ellwood Thompson's Todd Johnson Discusses His New Gig as Executive Chef



A Culinary Institute of America graduate has taken over as executive chef at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. But you may know him better as the chef and owner of the now-closed Mezzanine.

Before culinary school, Todd Johnson majored in business at North Carolina State University, and he says the decision to close his restaurant was based on the numbers. Although most nights were good, he says, it was tough to compete with other, newer restaurants in Carytown without compromising his commitment to the local farmers who supplied the ingredients for Mezzanine’s menu.

“In 2008, I wanted to bring the West Coast farm-to-table ethos over to the East Coast,” he says. “But it’s hard, because those are expensive ingredients.”

Johnson learned the importance of good, fresh ingredients from mentor Marcel Desaulniers of the Trellis Restaurant in Williamsburg, and that knowledge was reinforced as Johnson moved from staging in Germany to Spago at the Four Seasons on Maui.

Perhaps one of the most important moments in his culinary education came two years ago when, with a grant from Virginia Commonwealth University, he participated in a pilot study devised by Kati Hornung and Austin Mulloy to test how diet affected autism. Johnson provided all of the food — breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks — to two families with autistic children. Everyone in the family was placed on a preservative-free, gluten-free, high-fat diet brimming with vegetables.

Although the children were by no means cured of autism, their symptoms lessened, perhaps because they were eating differently.

“It was exciting to see how food could not only change a person’s life,” says Johnson, “but how it could change a family’s life.”

It was difficult to close Mezzanine, but Johnson’s new job at Ellwood Thompson’s might be just what he needs. As executive chef there, he oversees all of the cooking, including the operation of the new made-to-order bar, Create. But there are more plans waiting in the wings.

Johnson wants to help the store expand into catering and envisions weekly tastings in the Beet Café space. He wants to hold farm dinners, and there’s also a plan to roll out an Ellwood Thompson’s food truck.

Owner Rick Hood is just as passionate about his commitment to local and sustainable food as Johnson is. “[The store] has been smartly expanding and smartly offering the public what they want,” he says, “but at the same time never tarnishing their brand or image or what they stand for.”

Hood needs an experienced chef to help him continue that expansion. And the store needs a spokesman on premises to talk with customers about what the products are and how they wind up on the store’s shelves.

“It’s important to explain why we’re choosing these farmers,” Johnson says. “We want to know their stories. It’s not just about what we’re putting in our bodies but knowing where your food comes from.”

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