“I’ve never been more excited about opening a restaurant.”
That’s a big claim from someone with a resume like Will Richey, who has launched some of Charlottesville’s most beloved eateries. But to be fair, he says this every time.
This is not to accuse Richey of insincerity. Richey genuinely loves creating new restaurants, and is never more excited than about the next one. Plus, Richey’s projects are worthy of excitement. From conception to execution, no one has delivered as many stellar, novel food concepts to Charlottesville.
His latest is his most unusual yet: an “improvised Japanese” restaurant in a movie theater. Kama celebrates its grand opening this weekend at Violet Crown. Unusual as it may be, Kama has the bones of a place that could rival Richey’s past hits like Brasserie Saison and The Alley Light, a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the country.
Props belong to Bill Banowsky, the Austin-based owner of theater mini-chain Violet Crown, with locations in Austin, Santa Fe, and Charlottesville. Eschewing the cookie-cutter food offerings of many theaters, Banowsky wanted to do something different at Violet Crown. And, he had the good sense to contact Richey, whom he offered full creative license to overhaul the theater’s restaurant.
As luck would have it, Richey had recently been in discussions about working with chef Peter Robertson of Côte-Rôtie – three-time winner of Charlottesville’s Best Food Truck. “I liked Peter immediately,” Richey said. “Within minutes of meeting him, you know that he is a no nonsense, straight shooting guy who knows his craft.” But, after trial runs at two of Richey’s restaurants, Robertson told Richey that his heart was really set on a dream of opening a Japanese restaurant, rather than any of Richey’s existing places.
This conversation sprung to mind months later as Richey toured the Violet Crown space with Banowsky. “As we stood in the dining room, I couldn’t help but notice the clean and simple lines, and a large fabric print with a duck pattern on it on the back wall,” Richey said. “This made me think of an Asian influenced restaurant, which made me think of my conversation with Peter.” Richey contacted Roberston, who leaped at the opportunity – and they were off and running.
Richey’s role was to design, build, and staff the restaurant, and Richey beams about the team who helped execute his vision. “The chefs and restaurant people often get all the glory,” Richey said, “but the very talented artisans in our area who build these restaurants deserve every bit as much credit.”
For design, Richey called on architect Stephanie Williams, who helped design Prime 109. “Our goal was to design a cohesive aesthetic that was respectful to the existing theater architecture,” said Williams. “We employed mainly darker neutral colors with shou sugi ban (Japanese burnt wood) accents and added pops of bold color.” KB contractors did the build-out, and Lost Mountain Woodcraft handled wood finishes, bar and table tops.
The result? “The restaurant came out far better then I had imagined it could,” Richey said. “It is beautiful – an elegant place to repose in.”
Côte-Rôtie fans will be thrilled that Richey has given a brick-and-mortar home to Robertson. Even from a tiny food truck kitchen, the Culinary Institute of America graduate and former owner of an acclaimed Hamptons restaurant was already one of the most creative chefs in Charlottesville. Now that he has a full kitchen, all kinds of new equipment, and a expanded budget for exotic ingredients, look out.
“Bigger kitchen, new toys, and top tier ingredients, like Japanese uni, are what make this job fun,” says Robertson.
Aside from brief stints helping to launch two Charlottesville restaurants, Robertson has worked for no one but himself and his wife since 2006. So, while reporting to a boss may be an adjustment, Robertson actually cites the chance to work with Richey as one of the reasons he took the job. “His ability to problem solve creatively is something I really admire and enjoy being a part of,” said Robertson. “Building restaurants is extremely stressful but also incredibly gratifying, so the opportunity to learn from Wilson [Richey] was a big part of me taking this job.”
Improvised Japanese is how Robertson describes the menu of primarily small plates, with a few larger options as well. Why “improvised”? Well, as much as Robertson has eaten, cooked, and studied Japanese cuisine, he has never actually been to Japan or trained under a Japanese chef. “We are basically trying to cook the food we love with as much respect and honor to the cuisine that has inspired us,” says Robertson, who regularly included riffs on Japanese food in his truck’s ever-changing menu.
And yet, despite the bigger kitchen and new toys to play with, Robertson says that the beauty of Japanese cuisine is keeping it simple: “taking great ingredients and manipulating them as little as possible.” King Salmon Teriyaki, for example, is simply grilled over wood and served with steamed rice and bok choy.
That said, there are manipulations, too. Ever heard of tsukudani? Here’s how it works. Start with kombu, a type of seaweed most commonly used to make dashi, the stock for many Japanese soups and noodle dishes. For tsukudani, Robertson takes leftover kombu from making dashi, slices it thinly, and slowly simmers it again in shoyu, mirin, and red rice wine vinegar. The result he uses as an umami-rich garnish for a trio of sashimi.
When pressed for personal menu favorites, Robertson balked. “The menu changes almost every day so typically the new dishes are what I’m excited about,” said Robertson. “We get fish and different produce almost every day, and it’s those products that excite me.” During the soft opening period, Robertson says, guests really seemed to enjoy Kama’s handmade udon, noodles made from a dough with organic flour, which is kneaded for a long time to give it its chewy texture. The noodles are served in broths of locally sourced beef and pork, and topped with a local egg.
Sous chef David Morgan, who was Executive Chef of Tavern & Grocery before cooking at Prime 109, sounds like a kid in a candy store in his new environment.”I’m just excited to be learning a new cuisine and techniques,” said Morgan. “And I love that we are working with the best ingredients available,” like Bluefin otoro from Spain, kanpachi from Hawaii, uni from Japan, and wild king salmon from Washington.
Manning the bar is Mike Stewart, a Nick Crutchfield protege who got is break at age 25 when, as an electrician looking for a career change, responded to a Craiglist ad for a new Charlottesville restaurant called Commonwealth. Looking back, he can hardly believe his luck in stumbling upon a mentor like Crutchfield. “25 is a late start to make a career shift from tradesman to barman and really could have only been facilitated by a talented-beyond-belief mentor and friend like Nick,” said Stewart. “I soaked up every bit of knowledge I could from him, and got hooked on the quest for knowledge, history, tradition and all of the wonderful things that make being behind the bar a great privilege.”
At Kama, Stewart says, his focus is hospitality. “Passion without pretentiousness is contagious,” said Stewart, whose main aim is that everyone feel welcome, not intimidated. A novice in Japanese food and culture, Stewart has enjoyed being a student again, learning a new cuisine, and how to build a bar program around it. “I’ve taken everything I have learned and adapted it,” said Stewart. “Like notes in music, the tradition of crafting a cocktail is the same. With those notes you can play blues, jazz, country or whatever. That’s how I’ve approached this new palate of flavors.”
Take the “Tokyo” – a blend of a Boulevardier and Manhattan, with Japanese inspiration – combining the “familiar with the unfamiliar.” Stewart blends Suntory Toki Whisky, Aperol, Cocchi Rosa, grapefruit bitters, and St. Elizabeth allspice dram. His favorite way to serve it is two versions side-by-side – one made fresh and the other aged for 28 days in a charred oak barrel, where, he says, flavors become a well-rounded sum of their parts.
On the left, a barrel-aged Tokyo. On the right, an un-aged Tokyo:
Kama’s Grand Opening is this Saturday, August 31. The restaurant is located at 200 West Main St, in Violet Crown. Hours are 5 – 10 pm, Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations here.