Fueled by laughter and shop talk and the occasional outburst of song, some of Richmond's best chefs, all female, joined Michael Hall to prepare a five-course feast for "Le Chef de Femme" in the Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel last week.
Out went pretensions or stuffy wine-dinner remarks. Instead, each chef introduced her dish, and a relaxed but respectful crowd of congenial food-lovers applauded and then dove in with gusto.
Andrea Huntjens of Flying Chef Catering started off, presenting a lemony tuna tartare on sliced green tomatoes with ginger wasabi and crumbled quail egg. An unlikely wine pairing of pinot noir drew murmurs of agreement from the discerning and enthusiastic audience.
Next, Christine Wansleben of Mise En Place served a luscious velouté of butternut squash touched with Poire Williams and cream; a cracked pepper pappadam offered crunch.
Vegetarian legend Jannequin Bennett of TJ's at the Jefferson Hotel brought out a tender, quinoa tabouleh dressed with Portuguese olive oil and chunks of red and golden beets, and Thomas Mountain pippin apples. A sauvignon blanc echoed its subtle flavors.
Melissa Close, chef at Palladio Restaurant at the Barboursville Vineyard, earned raves for her lamb sausage-wrapped venison loin with sweet potato puree and braised Swiss chard. A hearty Shiraz, Campbells Bobbie Burns, stood up to the meat's rich character.
A seasonal dessert by Q Derks of Avalon Restaurant won over even the non-sweet-eaters ginger pumpkin cheesecake with pumpkinseed brittle was a delicate foil to the Campbells Tokay that accompanied it.
Diners emerged fully sated under a harvest moon, and the kitchen crew relaxed and even signed a few autographs for lingering fans and friends.
"Not all chefs have egos," Michael Hall said of his desire to spotlight these chefs in the event. "This is a chance to work with people side by side and see what they're coming up with in their own kitchens, and it's a chance to communicate and just spend time together."
Jannequin Bennett agreed. "It's great to work with other chefs we don't often get to socialize with," she said. "We trade shop talk and restaurant news, and one of the things we talked about tonight was which liqueurs we've been using for our reductions."
Christine Wansleben laughed when describing the esprit de corps in Hall's usually quiet kitchen: "We started singing and making up songs while we worked. It's just a joy to have time together and to get to know each other better. It was great to spend a night on the line with the girls." S