In Depth with Public Fish & Oyster

by Charlottesville29


In this week’s C-VILLE is an article about Public Fish & Oyster and my visit there with First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe.  As a companion piece, below is an in-depth look at chef Donnie Glass and owner Daniel Kaufman, as well as more thoughts on Public and oysters from the First Lady.


Q. How did you get into cooking?

A. First of all, I’ve always loved food.  I was a red blooded, American, husky kid that loved to eat.  While I was certainly made to eat my veggies as a young kid, because ice cream is better and I didn’t understand that I also needed green beans in my life, as a teenager I started coming around and really eating some good stuff.  I joined the Army when I turned 18 (not as a cook), and while I ate mostly awful Army food, I also finally got away from Northern Virginia, traveled, and saw some new stuff.  I started cooking a lot at home, with my buddies usually.  My friend Seth and my cousin Matt were both good home cooks (for 20 year old bachelors), and we often didn’t have a lot of money, so we cooked for ourselves all the time.  Simple stuff, like breakfast and stir-fry’s and burgers, but I remember that as being some of tastiest stuff I’d ever eaten in my life.  I remember the first time I ate raw oysters- everyone does- I was 21 years old and at a Wegmans with my dad.  That’s not as cool as Tony Bourdain being on a boat in France, pulling one right out of the water, but I bet we had the exact same experience.  By the time I got out of the Army, my career path was kind of up in the air.  Thought about first responder or government work, thought about the sports industry, and while making this decision, began bartending to pay my bills.  I was in Charlottesville, nonetheless, working for Andy McClure at No. Three (when Three was cool, obviously).  I fell in love with the hospitality industry and the people in it. Even more, I loved being around food all the time.  I started volunteering to cook for free at work, just to have Dave Stone (current sous at The Local) teach me how to properly hold a French knife and temp a burger.  I had the fortunate opportunity to use the G.I. bill to go to culinary school up at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island and took it.  So I haven’t been cooking forever (only 5 years, professionally), but there’s a lot more to being a chef than having a ton of cooking experience.

Q. Can you provide your cooking bio/resume?

A. In New England, I mostly worked for chef Mickey Jowders, an old school New York workaholic chef that came up in Manhattan in the 90’s working in some killer places.  He owned a restaurant and catering company up in Maine, so I worked three very tough but rewarding summers with him.  He really took me under his wing, invested in my skill set and approach to the job, and was a really reliable friend.  I stayed on his couch when I couldn’t pay rent, he let me drive his car when my Jeep was broken down, and he even put up with my dog.  I worked for his catering company for a while after school, and the amount of freedom I was given while still having his professional oversight couldn’t be matched at any restaurant.  He wanted me to be great, and he pushed me harder than any other chef I’ve ever worked for.  Good wasn’t good enough, and if I wasn’t trying to make it great, what was the point?  When we were out of season up in Maine, I was at school at JWU and also working full time at The Parkside, a French Bistro and Rotisserie in downtown Providence.  I was the grill cook, or Chef de Rotisseur, and absolutely loved it.  My sous chef, Sean Lawton was a huge influence there, teaching me how to put together composed plates, the importance of seasoning and acidity and balance in a dish.  I also had a chance to work for Matt Trottier at Teknique, a little restaurant in Bedford, NH.  He taught me a lot, got some creative juices going for me, and always took enough care to invite me over on holidays since I didn’t have any family up there.  I ended up heading south to Charlottesville to work out at Keswick.  From the outside looking in, Keswick and Fossett’s look amazing (and they have the potential to be still).  The country club atmosphere, though, just wasn’t for me, so I moved on to take the sous chef job at The Local.  The Local, for all it’s charming attributes and popularity, also wasn’t the place for me.  I had come up in serious kitchens, where every line cook hung out after work and talked about specials they wanted to try and comparing tasting menus and the great chefs they would one day become.  The Local is a machine- they put out a ton of tasty food, and they make a good living from it- but I never felt like it would ever be a place I would learn anything other than the logistics of running a busy kitchen, which, in the end, was the most valuable thing it could have taught me.  I wanted to be somewhere with a shared sense of passion and commitment to truly excellent cuisine.  And as if it was meant to be, I randomly met Daniel.

Q. How did you wind up at Public?

A.  Daniel and I talked a lot about me coming over to Public way before the move was made.  I think I had 5 interviews over the course of a month and a half before he finally gave me the guarantee.  Public was brand spanking new (4 months old), and he was still looking for a chef that was as committed the same way he was.  I was a young, unproven, very hungry chef.  I had decided that unless I could find a place with a grounded, excellent chef that was willing to mentor me, I needed a chance to just do it on my own.  Our interviews were almost always unrelated to Public properly, but more of restaurant and food philosophies.  Over the past several years, I had become an industry lifer.  I wasn’t just cooking and working in restaurants while I “figured things out”, which is what a lot of people do.  I was a hospitality guy, and I think that’s what he respected the most.  We really do share a vision for Public and just on hospitality in general.  As often as we butt heads, and we do from time to time, I really appreciate the opportunity he’s given me and the amount of trust he has in my decisions and my team in the back.  His wine knowledge is unreal (I always say that he’s forgotten more about wine than I will ever know), which is always a fun thing for a chef to work with.

Q.  What do you like about cooking at a seafood-oriented restaurant?

A. The fact that I ended up at Public, being such a seafood-centric joint, wasn’t a coincidence.  Having strong ties to New England, having grown up on the Potomac river, and being a fish enthusiast in general all made Public a perfect fit for my personality and my food.  What I really love about cooking fish and other seafood is the finesse required to do it well.  There’s very little room for error when it comes to timing, heat control, product freshness, etc.  That doesn’t mean it is difficult to perfectly sear a piece of fish, because its not.  All it takes is a hot pan, salt and pepper, dry protein, patience, and attention to detail.  All of my cooks, from my sous chef right down to the newest, greenest dishwasher, has finesse drilled into their heads from day one.  Sometimes I get frustrated by just how specific the concept is (I miss my grill at the Parkside often), but even within the constraints of being a seafood place, there’s always something new to learn.  My most recent lessons have been related to pairing seafood with other meats.  Oysters and foie gras, mussels and chorizo, scallops and duck confit, monkfish and veal stock, the list goes on and on.  I love it.

Q.  What is your favorite dish at Public?

A.  Picking a favorite dish is tough- I always relate it to picking my favorite kid (if I had any children, that is).  We change our menu all the time, and very few dishes stick around longer than a couple months.  My favorite dish right now is our warm cauliflower salad.  I eat it whenever I swing in on my days off after golf.  We toss cauliflower in a little African curry powder, olive oil, orange and lemon zest, salt and pepper, golden raisin, shaved shallots and garlic.  We roast it al dente under very high heat, then chill it down.  On the pickup, we put a big handful of chopped kale into a cold saute pan, add a big handful of cauliflower and pop it in the oven for just a few minutes to warm it through and wilt down the kale.  When it comes out, we dress it in a corriander-lime vinaigrette and plate it with a little aioli, pomegranate seeds, cilantro, and toasted almonds.  Its a crunchy, acidic, warm salad that has a ton of depth and is super tasty.

Q.  What do you think about the resurgence of Virginia oysters?

A.  Virginia oysters continue to surprise me.  Having been a New England guy for so long (especially with a huge soft spot for the Cape), I’ve always favored the high brine, mineral, sea air flavor of our oysters.  When I came down here, I frankly wasn’t impressed with the local varieties.  I thought they were boring and muddy and flavorless.  But, now that I’ve tried a lot more varieties, I’m wicked impressed.  Shooting points, Misty points, and Sewansecotts are all fantastic oysters.  I looked at Le Bernadin’s menu a few months ago, and they even had a raw Virginia oyster on it.  What oysters do for the Bay can’t be overstated either.  We’re currently working with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program and the CBF, not just to raise awareness, but to actually DO something about cleaning up the bay.

Q.  The PFO Pan Roast is delicious.  Can you describe its preparation?

A. The pan roast was a very collaborative effort.  We made it per Daniel’s request.  Most raw bars in New England have their own version of a pan roast, and a lot like mole in Mexico, everyone thinks theirs is the best.  At Grand Central Oyster bar in NYC, its full of sweet chili sauce, worcestershire, and heavy cream, served with a slice of white wonder bread, and its the chronic.  Ours (which was recently featured by Rabbit Hole, and can be viewed here) is a touch lighter.  We start with making a veloute with lobster stock.  We add tomato paste and a bit of curry, but never salt and pepper it until we’re picking it up (all shellfish is different…some mussels and clams bring a lot of salt to the party, others can be a bit bland…we always wait and taste them individually and season appropriately).  On the fire, we sautee the mussels, clams, shrimp, and oysters with garlic, shallot and haricots.  Deglaze with a little white wine, add some veloute, an unhealthy amount of butter, a splash of cream.  Finish with herbes fines, salt and pepper to taste, and a scoop of rice.  What I love most about the pan roast is how subtle and humble it is- the oysters taste like oysters, the mussels taste like mussels, and the lobster sauce compliments everything.


Q.  How did you get into the restaurant business?

A.  Like many kids I got a dishwashing and prep cook job at 16 at Thompson’s Family Restaurant in my home town of Franklin West Virginia.  The food was horrible and the rest of the kitchen staff were strange but the $4.25 an hour I was making at the time seemed like a fortune.

Q.  Can you provide your restaurant bio/resume?

A.  A slew of pizza restaurants growing up.  Farmington is where I learned the finite details of hospitality.  I started as a bartender and worked my way up the Assistant Manager in the Grill (the club’s casual restaurant).  I was later promoted to the Terrace Room Manager (fine dining) and given beverage responsibilities at the club after receiving my Sommelier credentials.  I was very much involved in the Terrace Room’s reconceptualization to Northside, a more casual upscale dining environment.   After Farmington I worked for JW Sieg wines for a year before opening Public.

Q.  What made you to decide to open a restaurant like Public? 

A.  I had dreamed of owning and running my own restaurant for years.  The concept changed over the years but I saw an obvious lack of seafood options, particularly an oyster bar in Charlottesville and everything came together.

Q.  What is your favorite dish at Public?

A.  I love the Pan Roast, our classic oyster house dish of various shellfish.  We do ours in a lobster veloute.  It is awesome.

Q.  What do you think about the resurgence of Virginia oysters? 

A.  I think it is great both for the culinary attraction but for the quality of water in the bay and rivers.  It’s great to have so many unique tastes as well as we are growing oysters in so many different places…  The Rappahannock, York, Lynnhaven, Potomac, The Bay, Chincoteague, all up the eastern shore.

Q.  Can you describe the types of oysters we had at our meal?

A.  We had some Mobjack Bays, a great source of oysters from the bay.  These tend to have a lower salinity and are a great oyster for those who like to dress their oysters up. We also had some Sewansecotts from Hog Island Bay.  These are a higher brine oyster that are great with just a spritz of lemon juice to lift them up. Both varieties are aquacultured.

Q.  What are your plans for the new venue in Crozet?

A.  A slightly more casual concept.  The menu reads more pub-like than the Charlottesville spot.  We feature fresh fish, raw bar (of course), and signature PFO dishes like the pan roast.  Additionally we offer fish and chips, burgers and even a kids menu. The cocktail program is being headed up by Garrett Moore who joined us from the Alley Light.  We are very happy to have him on our team.


Q. Did you like Public?  Why or why not?

A.  I loved my meal and visit to Public – great atmosphere! I loved the rustic, but modern feel of the restaurant – a beautiful, yet relaxed, spot.  Daniel and Donnie’s emphasis on farm to table makes the dining experience truly authentic and more meaningful. Doing all we can to support Virginia agriculture/ aquaculture, as well as our wine, craft beer, and spirits industries, is something I focus on in my work every day, so  it’s both fun and inspiring to dine at Public where they do such an amazing job.  It’s truly a wonderful place to gather and enjoy delicious, real food.

Q.  How did you enjoy the oysters?

A.  The oysters were delicious! We are all big fans of this incredibly hardworking and delicious food. It’s always a treat to compare the flavors of our oysters from Virginia’s seven different oyster regions across the Chesapeake Bay.

Q.  How did you enjoy the cauliflower salad?

A.  The warm cauliflower salad was so good; it’s the perfect salad for a fall day.  The warmth brings out all the wonderful flavors of the creative mix of vegetables, almonds, and seasonings.  It had all my favorites … I feel like cauliflower, a vegetable with really amazing health benefits, rarely gets the attention it deserves on menus at great restaurants, and this salad definitely gives cauliflower its due!

Q.  How did you enjoy the pan roast?

A.  Okay, so I’m sounding redundant, but I loved everything I tried at Public. The pan roast was truly delicious. While it had the traditional rich feel of seafood stew or bouillabaisse, the flavor and taste were uniquely simple and wonderful at the same time.

Q.  What makes Virginia oysters special?

A.  The importance of Virginia oysters, as a food source and an important commodity, goes back to the very beginning of our history. One translation of the word Chesapeake from the Algonquian language is “great shellfish bay.”  From our Native American ancestors, to Jamestown settlers, up to today, oysters have been an important source of food, economic activity, and a significant contributor to the environmental quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  That’s why we like to call it the hardest working animal on the planet!  Oysters do so much for us – they feed us, employ our watermen, clean our Bay, and are a big part of the exciting growth in the agritourism sector of the Commonwealth.  Their unique life cycle is fascinating and their contributions to the study of marine life and environmental science are exciting for all ages.

Q.  What is the significance to you of Virginia Oyster Month and the Virginia Oyster Trail?

A.  The significance of Virginia Oyster Month is that it calls attention to Virginia oysters and hopefully encourages everyone to go out and support that industry, whether it’s by going to one of the Commonwealth’s great oyster festivals, experiencing the wonderful oyster trail, or trying a new Virginia oyster variety for the first time. The Virginia Oyster Trail is a wonderful way to experience all of our state’s oyster regions and learn about all things oyster, from the unique tastes in the different regions to the economics of the oyster industry.  The Virginia Oyster Trail also incorporates other Virginia industries such as hospitality, restaurants, and the arts – all of which make significant contributions to Virginia’s culture and economy.