The Charlottesville 29

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Tag: Ryan Collins

New Star: Chef Reggie Calhoun Takes Little Star Helm

Reggie Calhoun

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.

Smoked Beets

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.


Introducing Little Star, a Restaurant from Jose Andres Alumnus Ryan Collins


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.

Ryan Collins

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.

The Food

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:

Charred Endive, Piquillo Confit, buttermilk dressing, poppy seed, green onion, bottarga

Charred Endive, piquillo confit, buttermilk dressing, poppy seed, green onion, bottarga

Shrimp sauteed with leeks, garlic, grapes, deglazed with anejo tequila and fresh juiced grapes and lemon juice.

Shrimp sauteed with leeks, garlic, grapes, deglazed with anejo tequila and fresh juiced grapes and lemon juice

Beef Rib, Sour orange and annato marinade, Pickled jalepino and roasted garlic habanero dressing, tajin

Beef Rib, Sour orange and annato marinade, Pickled jalepino and roasted garlic habanero dressing, tajin

Country Ham Croquetas

Country ham croquetas

The Space

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.

The Bar

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.


Five Finds on Friday: Ryan Collins


Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Ryan Collins, Executive Chef of Early Mountain Vineyards. This weekend, on both Saturday and Sunday, is Early Mountain Vineyards’ popular Spring Oyster Festival, with live music, Rappahannock oysters, and an a la carte menu by Collins including fried chicken, clam chowder, and corn chowder. Info and tickets here. Collins’ picks:

1) Marañón Paletas from La Flor Michoacana Ice Cream Shop. “With my kids, I normally get a fruit-based one like Guanábana (soursop) or Piña Colada. When I don’t have to share with my kids, I get the Marañón flavor (cashew). All of them are great but that is my favorite.”

2) Pickled Shrimp at Oakhart Social. “This dish hits on all points for me. It’s salty, sweet, spicy, acidic, oily and herbaceous with lots of textures. I can eat it with my hands, a fork or just make little lettuce tacos with it. I love this dish.”

3) Spam from JM Stock Provisions. “So it’s spam, but not like what you think. It’s made from beautiful Virginia pork, and the care that is taken to make this spam is not like what you get in a can (although I’m not knocking the canned stuff either). It’s made by hand with attention to detail and attention to flavor that comes from meat instead of mounds of salt. Now that you’re okay with spam, I like to get it with a jar of Gordy’s pickles and some bread from Marie Bette and bring it home to make a sandwich. I slice thick slices and use plenty of mustard. If you are feeling fancy then feel free to crumple some potato chips on top of the sandwich.”

4) Crispy Tacos at Barbie’s Burrito Barn. “I go here not necessarily craving the traditional Mexican tacos on hand-pressed corn tortillas but the crispy tacos.  Her pork, chicken and beef fillings are all great – but with the crispy tacos I always go with the beef filling.  It’s like the best version of the ground beef taco filling you grew up with. I get the tacos with everything on them – I want all the sliced radish, cilantro and lettuce you can give me. I put some crema and Tapatió on top and crush everything with my fork and eat it like a taco salad. I crave the taco salad nostalgia. With Barbie’s fried daily tortillas and awesome meat and salsas, I really can’t get a better version of this any other place in Cville.”

5) Martinez at Tavern & Grocery. “I don’t know if this is printed on their cocktail menu, but they have the best cocktail program in town so I order whatever I want. That doesn’t mean I go crazy, but I like to order a classic three-ingredient drink called a Martinez (gin, sweet vermouth & maraschino liquor) and they make it perfect. I might have three or four of these and an order of the caviar service with extra house-made chips. It’s a great start or end to my night in Cville.”

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