Kevin Roberts, the chef and owner of the modern Jewish deli Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, isn’t Jewish. Fortunately for Roberts, his wife’s family is, so he has a knowledgeable audience to critique his dishes before anything hits the menu. His wife, in particular, is the person everything must get past first, Roberts says: “I can’t tell you how many times I had to make matzo balls before I won her over.”
Roberts isn’t the only Richmond chef cooking outside of his personal tradition.
Brittany Anderson tackles German-inspired food at Metzger Bar & Butchery. “It’s true I’m not German, and I didn’t grow up with it,” she says. “I have to work really hard to educate myself about German food.”
Steep learning curves are a theme, according to both chefs. “[I] spent a lot of time reading really weird old cookbooks,” Anderson says. “It’s about education — I can’t even explain how hard it is to work on that.”
Chefs can get drawn into a battle over diners’ stereotypes of what a style of food ought to be. “It’s a struggle let people know that Germans eat things other than jaegerschnitzel,” Anderson says. “People think German food is one thing — they only think of German food as Bavarian.”
Attachment to memories of ancestral meals runs deep. But that also can help restaurants. “I have many Jewish women who come up and ask, ‘How do you get matzo balls like that?’” Roberts says. “Or guys who will say, ‘That’s better than my Bubbie’s.’”
To complicate matters further, traditions are fluid and diverse. “What someone grew up eating in their house, while similar to what someone else grew up eating, could be totally different,” Roberts says. “My mom’s meatloaf is different from others.”
And then there are food trends. Paul Keevil, an English transplant, owns the Mexican restaurant Tio Pablo. He notes that traditional Mexican food is gluten-free and nose-to-tail.
At Perly’s and Metzger, on the other hand, they’ve had to work to lighten up the traditional fat- and salt-laden comfort food. “German food is not necessarily the most modern,” Anderson says. “How do you make it appealing to people in 2015?”
Most restaurateurs enter this risky business to fulfill a personal passion. For Keevil, a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula 25 years ago piqued his interest in authentic Mexican cuisine.
Experimenting at his first Richmond restaurant, Millie’s, allowed him to get a lot of Mexican dishes under his belt before pulling one of Millie’s chefs, Martin Noriega, who’s from Mexico, to lead the Tio Pablo kitchen. Paul traces his love of bold, spicy flavors to growing up in England, where ubiquitous Indian restaurants and their hot curries provide an alternative to British cuisine that can be fairly bland.
Opening a restaurant is a notoriously challenging enterprise. Choosing to run a restaurant offering food deeply attached to someone’s personal history — but not your own — is even riskier and presents unique challenges.
But chefs are irresistibly drawn to exploring the intersection of food culture and history. “Like any ethnic food, it interests most cooks,” Roberts says. “They’re always looking for something they didn’t grow up with and that isn’t their everyday.”