How does one define the word guest?
It is Thursday night at the Foster Harris House in Little Washington, Virginia. Technically, the inn is “closed” for the evening, but I’ve booked an extended stay, and fortunately the MacPhersons have not yet kicked me out.
John and Diane have graciously invited me to join them and several friends for a night of food and wine. It promise to be a taste of what daily life is like in this “fertile crescent” region of Virginia that includes farms, vineyards, dairies and a world-famous restaurant.
I knock on the door at the end of the dining room marked “private” and John MacPherson welcomes me into the kitchen. He has shed his chef’s uniform, worn each morning, and is instead wearing a party shirt covered by a kitchen apron. An assortment of ripe red tomatoes and bunches of green basil have been placed on the counter.
The plan is that I will serve as “sous chef” for the meal. I am both intrigued and nervous. I welcome the opportunity to observe John – a highly intuitive chef – in action. I tend to be a “by-the-book” follower of the recipe and I’ve been trying to loosen up my approach to cooking and go with my instincts. So, I’m anxious to see how John operates. Yet, there is nothing so humbling as teaming up with “a natural” in the kitchen. Your bad habits tend to get exposed very quickly. But while there are culinary tasks at hand, it is also a special treat. I do a lot of traveling, and to have an invitation to dinner from the innkeepers is quite rare. John hands me a Foster Harris House apron and sets me up with a chopping station.
“Here’s what I had in mind,” he explains. The menu will be summer at its most glorious – seared duck breasts with a reduction of champagne and white and yellow peaches, vine-ripe tomatoes stuffed with fresh Italian burrata cheese and breadcrumbs and drizzled with basil vinaigrette, and roasted fingerling potatoes. The peaches and herbs are from the Foster Harris House kitchen garden and the tomatoes are from the nearby organic farm. John explains that he usually prepares the duck with a cherry sauce, but the peaches are abundant, so he thought we’d try something different.
I gulp. Already we’re improvising and we haven’t started to cook. “Where’s the recipe??” screams my inner control freak. But, then, John pours me a glass of cold Riesling, and my imagined stress starts to dissipate.
I tackle the tomato assignment and begin carving the tops off and hollowing them out. With the tomatoes prepped, I move on to the basil vinaigrette. John gives me instructions – some oil, some vinegar, and heaps of basil from the garden. Maybe some lemon juice to make it bright. He pulls seven small white ceramic pitchers from the cabinet. I need to make enough so each guest has some to pour over their baked tomato.
Okay. No measurements. Just ingredients. I can handle this. I rev up the blender and get to work, creating an emulsion with the oil and vinegar and dropping handfuls of basil into the device. In my mind, I’m trying to remember the formula for perfectly balanced vinaigrette, and I have no idea how much basil I will need.
At this point, Bill and Joanne arrive, friends of the MacPhersons who were their first guests for the Tour D’Epicure, their series of Virginia cycling adventures. Bill is watching me fanatically work the blender. “Are you going to pulverize everything in this kitchen?” he asks only somewhat facetiously. Sherri and Kevin arrive. They are the innkeepers at the Hopkins Ordinary in nearby Sperryville, Virginia. Sherri brings a homemade ice cream pie made with goat’s milk, and Kevin offers fresh goat cheese he made himself. Sherri and Kevin had worked in the not-for-profit world before opening the Hopkins Ordinary. I talk cheese with Kevin as I continue to work the blender, although the whir is slightly distracting. Finally, I have enough vinaigrette to fill the mini-pitchers. It is a vibrant emerald green color and tastes pretty snappy. Don’t ask for the recipe. I don’t remember it.
John prepares the duck breasts. At this point, it is occurring to me that this is kind of a weekly ritual at the Foster Harris House. Duck on a Thursday night? Don’t you want to just move in? I chop the peaches, even though removing pits from stone fruit is not my strongest skill. Nobody seems to mind and it all simmers into a luscious, golden puree.
John and Kevin are about to plate the meal and he sends me to the garden to pick a handful of lemon thyme. It all smells the same to me, and for one comical moment, I am crouched in the garden with my nose in the herbs trying to pick out the lemon scent.
The gentlemen work as a team, and within seconds the white plates are perfectly adorned. I grab two plates and John stops me. “Take off your apron,” he says. “It’s time to relax.”
We dine on the patio as the sun goes down, in the shadow of an ancient magnolia tree. Everyone raises their glass in a toast to the chefs. There are several excellent bottles of wine on the table, and the food tastes so satisfying because it is truly a community meal in which we’ve all played a part, from the ingredients, to the preparation, to the conversation.
As we are clearing the dishes, Diane says suddenly, “I forgot to turn down your bed!” Morning coffee and the precision turn down service in the evening are all part of the complete experience at the Foster Harris House.
“What? Does that mean no chocolate on my pillow tonight?” I ask.
Diane gives me a hug as I exit the kitchen. “Tomorrow will be 83 degrees and sunny,” she says. “The chocolates are in the drawer at the top of the landing.”
At this point, I realize I have transcended what it means to be a guest at the Foster Harris House and am now an honorary member of the household and their extended epicurean community.
Recently I traveled through the Virginia countryside, discovering the local food, history and hospitality of what is called “the birthplace of the nation.” Pot Luck Night at the Foster Harris House took place on Thursday, August 21, 2008.
©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved
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