It can be a bittersweet moment in the career of a chef. On the one hand, it’s what many chefs work towards as they grow older: a restaurant that becomes so well-run that they feel freed to spend less time onsite and more time with family. On the other hand, stepping back from the kitchen can be difficult for someone who has spent so much of their life there.
Such is the crossroads for Ryan Collins. Most of his adult life has found him the kitchen, and, since opening Little Star in 2018, he has been involved in every aspect of it: design, management, cooking, and more. In many ways, the restaurant is Collins. But, the grind of the industry can take its toll, and at 39, the father of two has been feeling the pull to take a step back. The feasibility of such a move always turns on whether, in the founder’s absence, there are hands capable of sustaining the restaurant.
Enter Reggie Calhoun. With experience at places like Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar and Lampo, Calhoun joined Little Star soon after it opened and has been Collins’ right hand man ever since. As Calhoun’s responsibility grew in the kitchen, he eventually began creating his own dishes for the restaurant, like, on the current menu, Smoked Beets with cashew crema, green grapes, pistachio, and horseradish; Ember Roasted Carrots, with citrus mole, sesame brittle, coconut, scallion; and Grilled Tequila-Lime Shrimp, with peanut aioli, crispy shallots, and herbs.
Ember Roasted Carrots
Grilled Tequila-Lime Shrimp
As Chef de Cuisine, Calhoun is now poised to run the Little Star kitchen himself. “Reggie’s been with us since the beginning, and knows as well as anyone who we are as a restaurant,” said Collins. “His talent and hunger leave me with strong confidence that Little Star is in good hands.”
So, what will change? Well, on the one hand, not much. The aim is for Little Star to remain the same great restaurant it always has been, grounded in Collins’ passions for Spanish and Mexican cuisine. But, on the other hand, over time regulars may notice more of a stamp from Calhoun himself. “Like Ryan, I plan on operating in the fairest and most ethical way,” Calhoun said. “While doing so, I also plan on making my own stamp on the menu with my inventive yet approachable flavors, while staying in the realm of our Spanish/ Mexican American fare.” Welcome the Calhoun era at Little Star.
NBA legend Pat Riley may have meant his words for basketball but they apply just as well to restaurants, where a sure path to failure is to rest on past success. And, so while Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar has done well since opening on the downtown mall in 2011, its owners have decided it is time for change. For that, they have called on the experts: restaurateur Will Richey and chef Harrison Keevil.
The short version is “Modern Virginia Cuisine.” The long version is a fascinating story about the Charlottesville restaurant community and Virginia cuisine.
But, with five food businesses of his own on the downtown mall, why would Richey want to help another? The answer lies in a philosophy shared by many in the Charlottesville restaurant community: a rising tide lifts all boats. “Richard and I never saw ourselves as competition,” says Richey. “We both believe that the downtown mall can only be made stronger when all of the parts are stronger.”
Richey’s first task was to give Commonwealth a clearer food identity. Richey saw many strengths at Commonwealth, from the handsome decor to the good service. But, for all its success, Commonwealth’s hodge-podge menu never left clear what type of food it features. Richey’s idea was “Modern Virginian Cuisine,” observing a relative dearth of the style on the downtown mall, particularly with last year’s closing of Brookville, the hyper-local restaurant run by Chef Keevil and his wife.
“Modern” Virginian Cuisine
Why “modern”, as opposed to just Virginian cuisine? Well, consider one of Commonwealth’s most popular dishes: jerk chicken with rice & beans, plantains, and mango chutney. With its Caribbean flair, it may not seem like a traditional Virginian dish. But, as Commonwealth Chef Reggie Calhoun told Richey, Virginia now has a large population of people from Caribbean islands. And so, while Commonwealth’s food will draw on Virginia’s long culinary traditions, it will also reflect the melting pot that Virginia is today, including the restaurant’s beloved jerk chicken. “Virginia is a place that has been shaped and reshaped by various cultures and communities from around the world,” says Richey. Instead of focusing just on colonial or traditional foods of Virginia, Commonwealth will also reflect thee newer influences of the, well, commonwealth. “The name Commonwealth played right into the concept,” says Richey.
As the idea started to take shape, Richey decided to call on Chef Keevil. After all, Richey says, when it comes to Modern Virginian Cuisine, “he’s the guy.” For years at Brookville, Keevil oversaw Charlottesville’s most locally-sourced restaurant, drawing almost every ingredient from within 100 miles of the restaurant. “Harrison is the greatest adherent to elegant modern regional cuisine in this area,” says Richey. At Commonwealth, Keevil’s role has been consultant, working with Richey, Calhoun and his staff to re-write the menu.
The cornerstones of the new menu, Richey says, are classics drawn from the cookbooks of Edna Lewis, the Orange County native who Richey calls “the Grand Dame of Southern cooking.” Dishes bearing Lewis’ influence include Spiced Virginia Peanuts, ham biscuits, and ham hock meatballs, with blistered field peas and ham hock jus. More recent influences appear in the carry-over jerk chicken and an “autumn empanada” of short rib, with cider habanero pineapple sauce, and fall pico. Other dishes include a smoked trout dip (pictured), vegan Hoppin John, a fried oyster sandwich, and Keevil’s favorite, pork rinds with spicy pork dip. “It’s a unique, flavor-packed snack,” says Keevil.
In addition to Calhoun, the collaboration includes Commonwealth sous chef Tres Pittard, and Keevil says it has been amazing to work with such talented chefs. “I can’t wait for people to taste all of the hard work that the Commonwealth kitchen team has put into the new menu,” Keevil says. “A collaboration like this is one of the main things I love about this town,” echoes Richey. “You have guys from three different restaurants all working on one restaurant to make it tighter and stronger.”
The new-and-improved Commonwealth, to be managed by Ten Course Hospitality, launches on Monday, September 4.
1) Double Bacon Cheeseburger at Riverside Lunch. “This is not only a place that sells the best burgers in town but it also holds a lot of memories for me growing up playing soccer. My friends right after practice would go straight here and get the double bacon cheeseburger with fried onions and pickles. These burgers are perfect just as they are – juicy with tons of beef flavor and a tiny bit of crispiness to them. Each bite just melts away. It’s the perfect burger!”
2) Bourbon Fruit Punch at The Alley Light. “The first time I went to this place, I expected it to be over-the-top good, and sure enough it was. I sat at the bar and asked the bartender to select a drink. She asked me which spirit I wanted, and I chose bourbon and said I’d like something very refreshing. She ended up making a drink that not only was the best fruit punch drink I have ever had but still to this day is my favorite drink I’ve ever had, period.”
3) Polyface Chicken Wings at Rapture. “Nothing much to say other then hands down the best chicken wings in Cville. Super clean and clear chicken flavor, juicy, and crispy.”
4) Gambas al’ Parilla at MAS Tapas. “Very simple dish, but that’s just the reason why these shrimp are awesome. Briny and fresh, with the fattiness of the garlic alioli that they make in house, which is key, and huge chunks of sea salt.No lie, I eat these once a week or at least every other week. I love MAS!”
5) Carne Asada at MAS Tapas. “In my opinion, this is one of the top steaks in Cville because it is always cooked perfectly and seasoned just right so the steak flavor shines through. Served with garlic alioli and tortillas dabbed with duck fat.”