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Craig Rogers breaks down a lamb in the Culinary Village. Photo by John Park
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Travis Croxton’s Lambs and Clams tour shirt. Photo by James Dickinson
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Rappahannock River Oysters brought oysters as well as clams. Photo by John Park
The Lambs and Clams party on Thursday night of the 2013 Charleston Wine + Food Festival lasted until 5 a.m. At least, so go the rumors. According to Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm, co-organizer along with Travis Croxton of Rapphannock River Oysters, the police showed up at The Battery around 12:30 a.m., and he wrapped up his portion of the evening and left. "After that, I don't know," he says.
The Thursday night party wasn't an official event, but more of a legendary outlaw get-together of chefs and folks who saw the announcement on Twitter a few hours prior. Croxton and his cousin Ryan shuck oysters out of the back of a golf cart, Rogers serves "sloppy shepherds," and there are plenty of libations on hand.
The officially sanctioned Lambs and Clams event took place the next night in a big tent behind The Grocery. Rogers and Croxton invited six chefs from Richmond, among other luminaries from D.C. and beyond, to strut their stuff via lamb and/or clams (and oysters). Four different kinds of Virginia wine were poured (the Virginia Wine Board was a sponsor), and the party was jam-packed with Top Chef alums like Ed Lee and PBS' Great Chefs ' Takashi Yagihashi, best-selling cookbook authors like April Bloomfield (A Girl and Her Pig ) and plenty of representatives of the national food press. I was there, too.
"There's kind of a Southern chef circuit, and there's a number of great chefs who belong to that club. It's hard to break into," says Rogers. "We really like the idea of showcasing [Border Springs Farm and Rappahannock River Oysters'] customers that we think are doing a really fine job." And some of these hot young chefs get invited back to participate in the festival the next year. For Rogers and Croxton, the after-party is a chance to get their product into the mouths of great chefs who are done with the events and book-signings of the day.
Rogers and Croxton had seen each other at various chef events over the years, but it wasn't until two years ago that the concept of Lambs and Clams was born. "We were both small businesses with similar issues and questions to address," Croxton says. "We realized we'd have more of a presence if we joined together."
The first event was a party at Hugh Acheson's Atlanta restaurant, Empire State South, after a beer dinner. Rogers has participated in the Charleston Food + Wine Festival since 2009, so an after-party together at FIG for the 2012 festival was the next natural step. It made a big splash.
It was such a big splash that the Charleston festival sponsored a Lambs and Clams blogger recipe contest to create even more excitement this year. The winner, Gwen Pratesi of the James Beard-nominated blog Bunkycooks, received an all-expense paid trip to the festival, and her recipe was prepared for Rogers and Croxton's Pinot Envy event that Saturday.
They've done various smaller events on a Lambs and Clams "tour" with chefs and other producers since the 2012 festival in Charleston. "Travis and I like to find people who do business the same way we do," says Rogers. "It's not going to be the biggest producers, but the finest — people who like to have fun and let the product do the talking."
For Charleston, Croxton flew in 2,000 oysters and 1,500 clams. The year before, he'd brought them in a refrigerated van. This year, it made more sense to pack up what each chef needed separately. (He had to drop off oysters and clams at five different restaurants from Mt. Pleasant, S.C., to Folly Beach for the Pinot Envy event alone.) "It's a little complicated," Croxton says, "but it's not too hard to pull off. It's harder to get the recipes from the chefs [ahead of time] and find out what they need."
Rogers and Croxton also set up in the middle of the festival's Culinary Village in Marion Square for all three days of the festival. There, Rogers roasted whole lambs on a spit, passing out sliders and ribs, plus lamb charcuterie made by famous folks like Allan Benton of Smoky Mountain Country Hams and Craig Diehl of Charleston's Cypress. Croxton and his Rappahannock River Oysters crew shucked oysters at a breakneck pace to keep up with the lines that never stopped forming.
Next up is a James Beard dinner on April 10 in New York with Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick, Md., and Dylan Fultineer of Richmond's Rappahannock. "This may be the first time they've ever invited farmers to do a dinner," says Rogers. But given Rogers and Croxton's success so far, it probably won't be the last.