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Images courtesy of Isabel and James Eckrosh
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Behind the front door of this Church Hill house lies a secret. A long trestle table is set with linen napkins, dark silverware and flowers — more Pinterest than Martha Stewart. Arcade Fire plays over the sound system. Most of the guests don't know each other, nor do they know their hosts, chef James Eckrosh and his wife, Isabel.
Isabel, tall and lovely, with dark hair casually pinned up, greets you, and a cocktail quickly finds its way into your hand. You won't see James, bearded and intense, until dessert, because he's too busy preparing your dinner.
They've probably been around forever, these secret, word-of-mouth supper clubs. It's a simple concept: Invite people into your home, serve them dinner and wine, and charge them for it. It's no way to make a living (the fee charged generally only covers ingredients and alcohol), but if you're a chef who wants to flex your muscles or a diner who wants to experience something different with like-minded folks, it's a way for people on either side of the kitchen door to try something new.
I went to the Eckroshes' house with my husband and two friends in April, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm gluten intolerant and didn't know James Eckrosh took that as a challange. I thought the food would be good, but it wasn't — it was outstanding. Four amazing and cohesive courses came out of the kitchen, one after another. Each dish had a surprise or a reference to something familiar that was prepared differently — or perhaps from a different perspective. "There's so much interconnectedness with foods … even across cultures," James told me later. Basil and tomato is a familiar combo. Tempura green tomatoes sprinkled with baby basil isn't — and yet it works.
Isabel headed up the table and explained each course. First came a sous vide strip loin, cooked perfectly, with crispy shallot rings and a chimichurri sauce; next, a house-made boudin, along with the tempura green tomatoes with remoulade and that sprinkle of basil.
The showstopper, however, was the next course: shrimp and grits. It's an old standby that has gotten rusty of late, appearing too frequently on menus and prepared too carelessly most of the time. Here, fat shrimp rested on some of the creamiest grits I've ever tasted, topped with red caviar. Within the grits, James swirled a kimchi-bacon butter that gave the dish an unexpected depth and smokiness tinged with a tangy funk from the kimchi. Dessert? Oh, just a stroopwafel that Isabel made, accompanied by cheesecake ice cream with a scattering of chocolate chips and drizzled with coffee. No big deal.
The Eckroshes call their monthly event Sunday Suppers, and it's under the umbrella brand, The Dog and Pig Show. There's a food truck with that name planned. "People were throwing names out … but I [thought] it should be personal and specific to us," says James. They ended up yoking together their two Chinese astrological signs — date conversation in the early days of their relationship.
They started the suppers with just friends, and asked them to bring someone whom the couple didn't know the next time. Isabel had read about similar suppers in Brooklyn and was captivated by the notion of the community table. Like a similar (but less intimate and more chef-driven) monthly Richmond event called The Underground Kitchen, tickets are sold online (for $75 each), and the address is released just prior to the evening.
The couple is new to Richmond — they moved here in October from New Orleans, where James was a chef at Surrey's Uptown and Isabel was a teacher in both New Orleans' public and private schools. "We knew we wanted to do something dealing with food — but what?" Isabel says. "After mulling and mulling it over, we focused on the food truck. … And the Sunday Suppers were a product of that conversation."
"I've worked at enough restaurants, and I know what kind of a nightmare they can be," says James. "And that wasn't necessarily a nightmare I wanted to shoulder."
However, the food truck is still in the future. "We need a physical location," he says. "We need somewhere to park the truck, and we need a kitchen." Finding the right space is key, and so far they haven't found it.
Even once the truck is up and running, the Eckroshes don't plan to end their Sunday event. "We want to be able to house [the suppers] there," Isabel says. "And we'll be able to do things that aren't on the food truck [menu] — that might be out of my comfort zone, say, or might use what I find fresh at the farmers market that day," James adds.
It also has to do with James' larger philosophy about food. "For me, as a chef, it's all about being happy with the food, being satisfied with the food — and then everything else will take care of itself."