The Chef de Cuisine is preparing to help the Virginia resort mark its one-year anniversary over Labor Day weekend with a “culinary game plan” that will include an “Epicurience Brunch Spectacular” featuring the most popular items of the past 12 months.
Chris Edwards, Chef de Cuisine at Salamander Resort & Spa, Middleburg, Va., was recently featured in the Middleburg Life section of Leesburg (Va.) Today.
Edwards prepares dishes for the resort’s various restaurants and other dining options, Today noted, including 24-hour room service, and is currently working on the “culinary game plan” for the one-year anniversary of Salamander’s opening, which will be celebrated at the resort on Labor Day weekend starting Friday, August 29.
Edwards’ special efforts for the occasion will culminate with an “Epicurience Brunch Spectacular” from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 31, Today reported.
“It’ll probably include some of the things people have really liked over the last year,” Edwards said of the weekend food choices for all the resort’s dining options. “I just know it’s going to be a very special weekend.”
Chris Edwards can look back now and see that he had something of a penchant for pots and pans and the ingredients that went into them as far back as his pre-school days growing up in Woodbridge, Va., Today reported.
“My first recipe was for Winnie The Pooh peanut butter balls,” he recalled. Asked to provide that recipe, he laughed and said “I can’t remember. But definitely peanut butter.”
Edwards has had a very special place in his heart for the kitchen ever since his childhood days when he visited his nearby grandmother, Today reported. They often watched the Food Network together.
“I was always interested in cooking,” said Edwards, who in high school had part-time kitchen jobs at Chucky Cheese and Red Robin franchises and several pizza places. He was initially torn between pursuing architecture or a cooking career, Today reported, until whisks and cutting boards became far easier to handle than calculus.
Edwards attended Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C., and it soon became apparent he’d made the right decision. He also continued to work in several local restaurants, mostly smaller mom-and-pop operations, until he landed a job at McCrady’s, a world-famous Charleston eatery.
“I started at the bottom, the cold side, mostly salads, and kept working my way up,” he told Today. “It was modern, California-style cooking. They didn’t want to do the usual lowcountry food. This was modern American and very well-received.”
Edwards moved up the McCrady’s kitchen depth chart to sous chef, but also knew he needed to enhance his repertoire, Today reported. And so, he followed the same path of so many budding young chefs, heading to Europe for what is known as a stage.
That involved finding a top-notch restaurant and serving an unpaid internship from six months to a year. Because he spoke Spanish, Edwards thought Spain would be a fine fit, and he set his sights on working for world-renowned Chef Ferran Adria at the El Bulli restaurant in Cala Montjoi, 90 minutes from Barcelona.
The restaurant, on hiatus since 2011 but soon expected to re-open, annually received about 5,000 applications for 28 stage openings. Edwards designed his own application press kit, written in Spanish, and sent it out three different times. He also applied three more times online. One day, an e-mail came telling him he’d been rejected. The very next day, a real letter arrived at his home informing him he’d actually gotten the job.
“I took the letter and headed to Spain,” he told Today. “I was the only American. The restaurant served about 50 people a night, and between the 28 stages and their regular staff, there were about 45 cooks.
“The food was so creative. [Chef Adria] would take a classic dish and turn it upside down. He would make a gazpacho, a cold tomato soup, and turn it into a jell. The textures and the temperatures were all flipped. You’d look at that gazpacho and say ‘no way,’ then put it in your mouth and say ‘Wow!’ He would use liquid nitrogen; they call it molecular gastronomy, and it was incredible.”
So, apparently, was Chef Adria, who Edwards described as “eccentric in some of his habits. If there was a drop of water on the floor, he’d lose his mind. You’d hear people screaming ‘moppa, moppa.’ If you’ve ever seen the sport of curling, that’s what it looked like, everyone with a mop trying to get rid of the water.”
There was plenty of other grunt work—shucking oysters, taking fur off rabbits, de-feathering birds—and no particular formal training.
“You’re thrown into it,” he said. “Just show up and see what happens. They’d give you the materials and some of the techniques. We’d get the recipes. It was learn as you go. For me, it had a de-mystification effect. I was in the best restaurant in the world, and it was just a restaurant. It wasn’t a science lab. Just a restaurant.”
Edwards left Spain after seven months in 2004 and compiled a list of American chefs he wanted to work for, Today reported. That included Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro in Tysons Corner, Va. where he again clawed up the food chain, this time with a major difference.
“Everything up to that point was like I was in boot camp,” he told Today. “At Maestro, I was now a starter in the big leagues. There was an expectation of excellence that was clearly defined, and anything less was not acceptable. It required extreme focus, and this is where all the values to become a chef are instilled.
“It was like going to cooking school all over again,” he said. “We cooked so much from scratch it was unreal. If it called for lemon juice, you squeezed a lemon into a strainer. I was chopping herbs to order. The cooking was so pure, and everything was fresh.”
Maestro closed in 2007, but moved to New York City, in SoHo, with virtually the entire staff re-locating, including Edwards. The new place was called Fiamma and opened to rave reviews, but Edwards wasn’t wild about living in Manhattan and decided to come back home to Virginia. He then served a valuable stint as executive sous chef for the Moon Bay restaurant at the Gaylord National Resort, National Harbor, near Washington, D.C. That’s “where it all came together for me,” Edwards told Today.
“The resort experience, the huge staff, learning the executive and administrative side of being a chef is what I was able to hone,” he said. “We’re not just cooks. We’re also mediators, motivators and sometimes magicians.”
His last stop before coming to Salamander a year ago was at the Patowmack Farm restaurant in Lovettsville, Va., Today reported. It was far smaller than Moon Bay and offered pure farm-to-table cuisine. “I was cooking everything,” he said. “We had a pastry chef and a dishwasher, and that was about it.”
Edwards said he also became intrigued when he kept hearing about Salamander and its future plans.
“I had been watching it from afar and I knew I wanted to get back into a larger-scale operation,” he said. “I wanted to be part of something big, part of a larger team and have a much greater audience.”
He has all of that and more these days, with responsibility over Harrimans and the Gold Cup dining rooms and a cooking staff of close to 40. Some are in the early stages of their careers and are eager to learn from Edwards and his boss, Executive Chef Sean McKee, Today reported.
“It’s never a done deal,” Edwards said. “We set the bar very high even before we opened, and every time we think we’ve reached it, we put it up a few notches higher. There are days when it clicks better than others, but we learn from past mistakes and move forward. That’s the way a team grows.”
Edwards and several staff members also teach weekly cooking classes in the resort’s kitchen studio, complete with two big-screen televisions for up-close and personal views of food preparation by the “masters of this culinary universe.” Hotel guests and drop-ins from the local area make up the student body for classes that can accommodate as many as 24.
Edwards commutes to the resort from his home in Sterling and yes, he said, he does most of the cooking for himself and his wife Martha, Today reported. Winnie The Pooh peanut butter balls are not on that menu, however, Instead, he loves doing tacos, with as many fresh ingredients as he can stuff into the shells and no recipe necessary. These days, it just seems to come naturally.