WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Have you heard the one about the colonial farmers? “They originated the slow food movement,” says Colonial Williamsburg’s executive chef Rhys Lewis. “They used horse and buggy to transport their goods.” Mr. Lewis delivers a stream of food jokes in his classes at Taste Studio, the new hands-on teaching kitchen at the stately Williamsburg Inn. Taste Studio features lessons in garden-to-table cooking instruction by Williamsburg’s top chefs.
Part historian, part showman, Chef Lewis has an unsurpassed passion for cooking and teaching. He‘s lead several classes this summer, including “Pairing Herbs and Fruits” and “Tasting Tomatoes.” During a recent visit I participated in Taste Studio’s “The Language of Green; Pea Green.” Chef Rhys prepared fresh peas from the Colonial garden multiple ways — pea crostini, pea pesto, corn and pea ravioli, and peas-and-carrots ice cream. Having sampled all of the above, I can attest to their nimble, bright flavors and gossamer textures.
Taste Studio classes include a 45-minute walk through Colonial Williamsburg’s historic village to tour the lush, well-tended Kings Arms Garden (on the grounds of the Kings Arms Tavern). Students are shown where some of their kitchen's ingredients originate, and learn about what Chef Lewis calls “cooking from garden to guest.”
For sweets lovers, Taste Studio’s dessert classes pair heritage chocolate with local Virginia fruits. There’s also “Hands On With American Heritage Chocolate” taught by executive pastry chef Rodney Diehl. He explains the origins, uses and chocolate’s allure during the 1700s. Aprons on, students begin rolling truffles and flavoring their own chocolate bark.
All classes include step-by-step instruction as well as abundant sampling of each dish. The price of classes ranges from $25 to $33 per person. In the heritage-chocolate classes, students leave with swag -- a brown apron and gift boxes for the handmade truffles.
Williamsburg’s Colonial Gardens play an integral role in Taste Studio education. The chefs, including Mr. Lewis and Williamsburg Inn’s executive chef Travis Brust, delight in foraging from the many heirloom varieties of produce growing on the grounds. To help tend the gardens, Williamsburg hires kitchen apprentices who do everything from plant seedlings to harvest vegetables. An interesting side note shared by the chefs: Thomas Jefferson cultivated several of the plant strains grown in the colonial gardens (like at the White House Garden!).
Chef Brust explains how using this produce has effected his cooking: “The hardships involved in farming your own vegetables and herbs teaches a deeper appreciation for the work of growing and harvesting. You learn every carrot counts. You never want to burn or waste anything.”
Not everything can be grown in the diminutive colonial gardens. To keep up with demand at Colonial Williamsburg’s busy restaurants, Williamsburg chefs seek out local and regional purveyors of meats, cheeses, fish, wines and other vegetables. The taverns and hotels have prioritized using local ingredients on all their menus.
Revolutionary? To some. The chefs continue to honor tradition, and retain dishes that were first introduced when John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the funds to establish the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1928. But the current kitchen team also serves contemporary twists on old recipes at Williamsburg's taverns and restaurants. One tasty synthesis of old and new has gained attention: Colonial Williamsburg's Old Stitch Brown Ale took first place in the Mid-Atlantic division of the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship in April 2014.
Now there's another reason to visit Williamsburg. Check out the food-related events on ColonialWilliamsburg.com, including “The Founding Fathers of French Cuisine” this Saturday, July 19, “The Taste Tradition” culinary celebration over Labor Day weekend and the Chef’s Garden Tour and Tasting titled “Fabulous Figs” on Sept. 14.
Fresh Pea Crostini with Feta Basil Pesto
For the crostini
1/4 cup clarified butter
4 cloves roasted garlic
12 ¼-inch-thick slices of French-style baguette
1 shallot, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1/4 cup vegetable stock
1/4 lemon squeezed for juice
Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
For the Feta Basil Pesto
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
12 large fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, peeled and chopped fine
1/2 lemon squeezed for juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the crostini
Combine melted butter with the roasted garlic cloves and spread it on each slice of the baguette.
In a saute pan and over medium heat, saute the slices of baguette a few minutes until toasted and reserve.
Saute the shallots in 1 tablespoon olive oil a separate pot over medium low heat until they are tender without any color and add the fresh peas and vegetable stock.
Cook the peas 3 to 4 minutes or until they are tender and the stock is absorbed. Pour out on a plate to cool. In a food processor or blender, puree the peas with the remaining olive oil, juice of 1/4 lemon, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. Reserve, chilled.
For the Feta Basil Pesto
Combine the basil leaves, fresh garlic and olive oil and blend until smooth.
Add the crumbled feta and juice of 1/2 lemon, and pulse in the blender. Reserve, chilled.
Portion the pea puree on the crostini and spoon a portion of the Feta Basil Pesto on each piece.
Garnish with micro greens if desired.
-- Chef Rhys Lewis, Colonial Williamsburg
Renee Sklarew is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DCWriterMom.