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“Peanut Butter is the Enemy”

Chef Andy Siff of the Tavern at Triangle Park

A native of Richmond, Andy went to University of Richmond for a year and found himself waiting tables at the old O’Brienstein’s. While working the floor, he was frustrated by how slow the kitchen was and expressed as much to the floor manager, who suggested that if he thought he could do better, he should give it a go back there. He started cooking the next day.

He soon realized this was his calling and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York, graduating in 1983. Upon returning to Richmond, Andy opened Mr. Patrick Henry’s, but quickly discovered that he was putting into it more than he was getting out of it. He decided to move to a lower-profile position at Perly’s, a spot he’s returned to several times over the years.

If you’ve lived in Richmond your whole life and you like dining out, chances are you’ve sampled Andy’s cooking. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Du Jour, Not Betty’s, Cary St. Cafe, the Iron Horse, Palani Drive and the Tavern are just a few of the 50-or-so Richmond venues where Andy’s plied his craft.

And a true craftsman he is. Andy says his culinary philosophy is best summed up by Thomas Jefferson’s advice on writing: “Never use two words where one will do.” He explains that “perfection is a matter of stripping away until you get to the essence. Less is always more.” That’s why he’s skeptical of most trendy cuisine: “There’s too much fusion in this town. Too much pretension. A lot of young chefs haven’t learned their fundamentals. They try to improve the food by adding on, rather than by amplifying the good that already exists. Time and temperature are your friends. Allow them to work for you. You can’t cook anything; the fire cooks the food. Stand there and be still. Patience.”

Now he’s in his element, waxing philosophic and making the big connections. “I would never try to cook Thai,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t like it — it’s that I don’t know the culture and that’s essential to understanding the food. If I put a ‘Thai-something’ on my menu and a guy from Thailand actually walked into the joint and tried it, he’d see it for what it was: a sham.”

This is serious business for Andy and he concludes by saying, “Cultures are driven by food; not the other way around. Wars have been fought over the need for salt. Asian cultures developed chopsticks out of necessity. The only one with a knife was the cook.”

I once confessed to Andy that I bolstered the flavor of my pumpkin soup with a little peanut butter, to which he declared, “Peanut butter is the enemy.”

Food is everything and everything is food. Seeing that connection is what makes a chef a chef. But Andy points out that what makes a great chef is a love of people more than a love of food. “Like all art,” he says, “Food is about communication. What keeps people coming back is that connection. They can feel it. They know when it’s real.”— Joseph W. Cates

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