Jose Andres may be the most influential chef alive. His impact extends well beyond mere restaurants to such life-altering matters as providing more than 3.6 million meals to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. With the belief that “food can be an agent of change,” in 2010 Andres founded World Central Kitchen, an organization which tackles not just disaster relief efforts but also health, education, jobs, and social enterprise. In both 2012 and 2018, Time Magazine named Andres one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. And now, Andres has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Before all of that, Andres did nothing less than help to change the way America eats. The first of his acclaimed tapas restaurants Jaleo opened in 1993, paving the way for the small plates revolution to come.
Perhaps overshadowed by all of this is another way in which Andres makes a mark: his progeny. In 2006, Andres and Rob Wilder formed ThinkFoodGroup to oversee Andres’ ever-growing group of restaurants and endeavors. At ThinkFoodGroup’s headquarters, a culinary team collaborates daily to develop new dishes, products, and concepts. With the benefit of Andres’ guidance and training, alumni of ThinkFoodGroup and its restaurants have been spreading across the country, starting projects of their own. Those alumni now run some of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants.
And, one of them is set to open a restaurant in Charlottesville.
After nearly a decade working for Jose Andres, Ryan Collins came to central Virginia in 2016 to run the kitchen at Early Mountain Vineyard. There, he began building relationships with peers in the Charlottesville food community, like those with Ben Clore and Tristan Wraight of Oakhart Social, with whom he grew close. After a few pop-up dinners, Collins, Clore, and Wraight found that they worked so well together that they thought they should open a restaurant. Upon ThreePenny Cafe’s closure earlier this year, they pounced. “When they heard the space was available they jumped at me and we all jumped at the space,” says Collins.
In the new restaurant, called Little Star, Andres’ impact is unmistakable. Collins spent three years as chef of Andres’ Mexican restaurant Oyamel and five years at ThinkFoodGroup. At ThinkFoodGroup in particular, Collins says Andres’ influence was profound. “Working for Jose shaped the way I think about dining, from the flavors I like to eat to how I eat them,” says Collins. “A meal used to be a experience that was more eat-finish-go. Now it’s more of a time to unwind, socialize, connect and center myself.”
Collins says that Little Star will reflect that way of eating, drawing on two countries’ cuisines he came to love while working with Andres. “Working at Oyamel for three years, I fell in love with Mexican food and culture,” says Collins, “and the remaining five I spent with Andres, I fell in love with Spain and the connection to each other they share.” And so, Little Star will feature what Collins calls hearth-cooked Modern American Cuisine with nods to Spain and Mexico.
Consistent with the relaxed, convivial way that Collins likes to eat, the Little Star menu combines “smaller snacky things like you would see on a bar in Spain,” Collins says, with other small plates that can also “double as sides for the main event of large format options.” Collins’ aim is to offer options for diners who want to celebrate with a special meal as well as those who just want to eat well on a random Tuesday without spending a lot of money.
Collins marinates lamb shoulder in mojo rojo for 24 hours and then wraps individual portions of the lamb in banana leaf to braise for four hours. From a bone-in pork rack, he separates the loin from the ribs and marinates the latter in olive oil, orange, lemon, bay leaf, peppercorn, oregano, garlic, and cilantro. Then he slow roasts the ribs and smokes them before searing to order. For the loin, Collins makes mole mancha manteles, a glistening sauce of guajillos, pasillas, raisins, currants, pineapple and plaintains.
A sampling of other dishes Collins has planned:
In a former gas station beside the Main Street Market, the location has an unlucky history, having been home to Station, White Orchid, Zinc, and Threepenny Cafe. While maintaining the feel of the historic garage, Collins otherwise overhauled the space, adding needed brightness and warmth. “We are really trying to make the space feel warm and special,” says Collins “without straying to far from what the space is in the history of the city.” Redwood, butcher block, stucco and tile join for the effect.
Running the bar is Joel Cuellar, a transplant from New York, where he spent a decade at Brandy Library and then Copper & Oak. While in New York, Cuellar taught seminars, did private tastings, and traveled the world to meet distillers. “I’ve been immersed in the world of spirit,” says Cuellar. “It’s my passion.”
Like many of us, Cuellar came to Charlottesville by choice. After years in the New York area, he and his wife sought a better place to raise their twin daughters. While visiting fellow New York transplants Jason Becton and Patrick Evans of MarieBette, they fell hard for Charlottesville and decided to move here themselves this summer. In Charlottesville, Cuellar met Collins, and the two struck it off from the start. “After our first conversation I knew I wanted to work with him,” says Cuellar. “I appreciate his philosophy and I understand the flavors he wants to bring to the table.”
And so, Cuellar plans a bar program that mirrors and enhances the food, with an emphasis on spirits from Mexico, where Cullear was born. Cuellar’s twist on a Mexican Ponche combines tequila, guave, tejocote (a regional Mexican crab apple), cane sugar, and spices. Served hot, it is traditionally enjoyed during Christmas and New Years. Meanwhile, another winter warmer he has planned is an Armagnac-based smoked cocktail with chili and spices. “Perfect for cold nights,” says Cuellar.
Little Star opens later this month. Check back for details. And follow along on the Little Star Facebook page for updates.