Two years ago, chefs John and Karen Shields left their posts at Town House after having put the middle-of-nowhere town of Chilhowie, Virginia on the culinary map with features in the New York Times and a Food & Wine Best New Chef designation for John. In the intervening years, obsessive diners in the Mid-Atlantic have waited for the married chefs — who met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's before John left to be part of the opening team at Alinea — to open a new restaurant in Washington, DC. That wait continues.
Fortunately, the Shields are not waiting around to get back to cooking. Earlier this year, the couple announced that they were going to start up a series of dinners at Riverstead, a diminutive bed-and-breakfast near Town House. Those dinners launch on June 20, starting with just one weekend a month before eventually expanding out to more dates. All this while the Shields continues to scout full-time restaurant spaces.
In the following interview, John Shields talks to Eater about the difficulties of finding a restaurant space, what he and Karen have in store for Riverstead guests — including sommelier Neil Wavra kicking off service by ringing a dinner bell — and the dining differences between the city and the countryside.
Everybody is so disappointed still that you haven't found a place in DC.
It's a bummer. It's an adventure there. I haven't given up on it totally, I just had to do something else. I had to get something else going at least to fill the void. Not even a void financially — definitely that, too — but before I fall off the face of the earth basically.
Riverstead has become something bigger than I originally anticipated.
We were like, okay, what are we going to do now? In the back of my mind, I've been thinking about Riverstead for awhile. I've been thinking about it ever since I left Town House, really. It started off as like, hey let's just throw some tables and chairs in there. Let's just get something going. Now it's grown into [having] custom tables made and having a person make new china for us to [hiring] employees. It's become something bigger than I originally anticipated. But it's been great. I think it's something completely unique and, like I said, it's something I've always envisioned.
The idea for our DC place was we want a very open environment, Karen and I, like you've come into our house. Obviously it's not home cooking, but we wanted that feeling. We wanted that sense of ease in the place and slight casualness. This gives us that perfect environment for that.
Is Riverstead turning into more of a permanent thing?
It's a permanent thing until we figure out our next move. Who knows? That's the million dollar question that we seem to get asked all the time. One of the beauties of this thing was A) it gets us back cooking again, which is just good for my soul, B) we're able to earn decent money because we're able to keep our labor costs and food costs down because we can control it so well. Then, at the same time, it makes us relevant again, but we're not doing it full full time so I'm able to still devote some time into figuring out maybe what's the bigger move.
Who knows? We've have talks of people saying we'd like to maybe turn this into a miniature Blackberry Farm. Right now, this is my focus. It took us about three, three and a half months to get this thing going, which is another reason why I did it, because I knew I could get it open and running. Once we lost that space in Georgetown, I was like, now I've got to spend how many months finding a space then negotiating the space and going through permits and then build out? Who knows when it would be open? I didn't have that kind of time anymore.
Riverstead. [Photo: Official Site]
Was losing that space the impetus for deciding to go to Riverstead?
I didn't want it to feel like a pop-up. I wanted it to feel like a real restaurant.
You could say it like that I suppose. Like I said, we had been thinking about it already. But yeah, once that space fell through, we had to shift our focus a little bit. Like I said, right now this is our focus. That was important to me. I didn't want it to feel like a pop-up. I wanted it to be serious. Not saying pop-ups aren't serious, but I just wanted it to feel like a real restaurant when people came. They're driving a long way. I don't want them to walk in and it just feel haphazard and like we threw it together.
Is that why you started the Kickstarter?
Yeah that is why. We were starting to put some money into it. We had spent so much money on attorney fees and who knows what over the last year and a half that we decided to reach out and see if some of our friends could help us get this thing going. Sure enough, we were able to hit our mark within the first half a day, I think. Then we got a decent amount of private donations as well. It was a good campaign.
I knew it was funded quickly. I didn't realize half a day. That's really impressive.
We were only trying to reach 5,000 to hit our goal, but then once we hit that, we were like, okay great. We have other goals, but we were trying to be modest and somewhat realistic. So now we've hired on a farmer nearby who I've known for awhile, and she's set a plot of an area for us to start growing things. We were able to use some of the money for that as well as the china and the tables. We got customer black walnut tables made and new chairs. We put up a little bit of wallpaper and new paint for the room. We've put a lot of money into the space.
Going back, one of the impetus to do this as well is that Town House had all of this infrastructure already there. We're prepping at Town House, and then we take the food down to Riverstead for service. I had a lot of equipment there. It hadn't been touched since we left.
Is everybody around there excited to see you back?
Oh yeah. We had our friends and family a few weeks ago, and everybody was ecstatic that we're back. Like I said, who knows how long we'll be down there, but it was good to be down there. It was good to see everyone. And that part of the world is beautiful. It's definitely out there, but it's beautiful.
That's what I hear. Your first dinner is this month?
Right, the 20th, 21st, and 22nd. As we move forward, we probably will start to do more services than just one weekend a month. How many and when and what, I'm not sure yet.
Can you tell me a little bit about what dinners are going to be like? Is it going to be a lot like Town House? It sounds like it's going to be more experiential.
What Town House couldn't afford us and what I couldn't do at Town House was really focus on one experience. We had a four-course menu, which had choices for the dishes. You had eight dishes there basically, a choice of two of each one. And then you had the 10-course menu. For obvious labor and cost reasons, I would use some of the dishes from the four-course for the 10-course. But a lot of times, there were just too many ingredients in the plate because I had to make the dishes substantial enough to be a four-course, yadda yadda. Where now we're doing around 16 servings total. That includes snacks and a couple breads.
You're basically coming to our house for a dinner party.
And we're just able to give more of a singular experience. The guests, they pull up. I don't know if you've seen Riverstead at all, it's an old Victorian house. It's been refurbished and it's incredibly charming. You're basically coming to our house for a dinner party in a sense. We want it to be totally casual. We even joked around and said maybe we'll be out front on the porch having a glass of wine when they show up. Not even as a show, really, but that's just a feeling we want to invoke. Then we have a great big front porch and a nice area when you walk in the house, the living area. The guests can just chill out. We ask them to get there a little early, have some wine, a few snacks we'll start to pass out, and just relax. From there, we literally got a dinner bell.
Riverstead's kitchen. [Photo: Official Site]
Yeah, like a triangle cowboy bell. We saw it at Pottery Barn as we were shopping. We were like wow that's hilarious. We have a sommelier, Neil Wavra, he's incredibly talented. He'll basically go out and ring the bell and say, "Won't you all join us for dinner?" or "Come inside," or whatever. That's all to be worked out as we move forward. Then they come down and sit down and we figure out drinks and the food starts to go at that point. Just try to keep it fun and engaging, but at the same time, obviously the food is serious and creative. [There's] a big focus on the market and vegetables, but also for me personally, I'm a big seafood person. I grew up near the ocean my entire life. Seafood plays a big role and perhaps a few meat components throughout. That's basically the feeling of it.
That sounds great. It reminds me of novel scenes of the dinner guests arriving and meandering through the grounds until dinner.
Exactly. We were lucky. We put out the reservations and within four days, we virtually sold out, which is about 85 spots total. We have two rooms as well. Those have sold out now as well. The response was immediate and overwhelming and humbling. We're very excited.
We are doing a ticketing system a la Alinea and Next.
As you may have noticed or have seen the site, we are doing a ticketing system a la Alinea and Next. We're not using their system. We're just doing Paypal, very ghetto-style, but it all works out at the end of the day. Especially because we're not actually living there at the moment, so we didn't want to commute all the way and then have guests not show up and then here we're stuck with all this food.
Are you going down there before each weekend?
Yeah, we go out about a week early. Then we go to market and visit some of the farms that I've been working with for awhile over the years and gather product. Then I have some friends that come and help us prep throughout the week. This is our first weekend so it's tough to say exactly how it's all going to play out.
Even if you do find a space in DC soon, will you keep doing these dinners while you're working toward that?
Yeah I think so. I think it will be a good lead up to whatever we do. No matter what we end up doing, this can't hurt.
I was reading some of the message boards from when Town House closed, and there was such disappointment of losing the destination experience as you move into the city. What are your thoughts on the difference between the two and how to bring that feeling into the city?
I don't think we planned on going to the city and doing what we did at Town House exactly.
I don't think we planned on going to the city and doing what we did at Town House exactly. It couldn't be. Town House is very much about that area, especially the last year where I really started getting comfortable with myself and the food we were doing. Most of the product was coming from there and a lot of the dishes were inspired from that area. They always were for the most part, but especially that third year. So I knew going in to whatever project it was in the city that it was never going to be Town House exactly. We weren't trying to bring the country to the city either, just our experience and our knowledge really, and just be open to what environment we're moving into.
I think whatever we do is going to be a little more streamlined, a little more focused. What I mean by that is just less on the plate. As I'm getting older, I'm more comfortable and confident in myself. We wanted to bring maybe some of the charm from the country, a very relaxed atmosphere. Serious, but I didn't want any pretension. I didn't want servers saying, "please enjoy" after each course kind of BS. I wanted it to be fun. You set a plate down and the chefs come out or it could be a server, whatever. We explain the course and then we tell them to have fun.
We wanted to bring some of that and the thought process behind the food but, other than that, we were just going to be organic with it. I had a farmer out there that I met at Stone Barns this year that Dan Barber introduced me to. Those guys are just doing amazing stuff. He's super excited to be working with us and he wanted grow all this stuff for us. That was going to be a big inspiration for us. David Kinch, I think what he does out there with Love Apple Farm, having the farm dictate the menu — and truly dictate the menu — is pretty special and really shows a talent of a cook. I've got tons of respect for him and what he does out there. That was the thought as well. Not really farm to table, or so to speak I guess, but still with a lot of thought put into it.
I'm definitely keeping my fingers crossed.
I appreciate it. It's tough there. The landlords don't make it easy. They all want a big cut. The rents are high. Then they want percentage right on top of it and it's fucking crazy. Unless you're doing big volume, it's really hard. That was another thing. We've got to find a good rent and have it all make sense. You see how the city is. It's so expensive to live there. It's crazy.
It's gotten really terrible.
I love seeing a place like Rose's Luxury. I think what he's doing is awesome and he's able to get enough volume for it to make sense and for it to be really viable and still creative and fun. For us, it was going to be tough. We had to find the perfect spot with the perfect rent and have everything fall into place.
Riverstead has already sold out its dinners in June and July, but just this past weekend opened tickets for August and September to the general public. Shields says they'll be shooting for the third weekend of each month, with a big New Year's Eve blowout in the works as well.