Two Chicago chefs left the big city behind for the small town of Chilhowie -- and the chance to focus on their relationship and their craft.
CHILHOWIE -- John Shields and Karen Urie pride themselves on unconventional flavor combinations that result in culinary harmony.
In their kitchen, chocolate marries with carrot; chestnuts with grapefruit; white beans with vanilla and smoked apples.
But the unlikeliest pairing of all might be these rising star chefs and the tiny, rural town where they're trying to make a name for a restaurant.
The Town House Grill opened in Chilhowie in 2002. Now it is called simply Town House, still owned by Chilhowie native Tom Bishop and his wife, Kyra, but under the kitchen management of Shields and his fiancee, Urie.
The chefs took the job at Town House in December 2007, moving from their apartments in Chicago to a farmhouse on the Bishops' property.
Shields, 32, had been sous chef at Alinea, an innovative five-star restaurant in Chicago. Urie, 30, was executive pastry chef at Charlie Trotter's, another renowned five-star establishment.
They had both been offered jobs at Trotter's new Las Vegas restaurant, where he would move to executive chef and she would stay in charge of desserts.
To the west lay the flashy, sleep-deprived city of Las Vegas and a gig that most chefs can only dream of. But when they packed his Nissan Maxima and left Chicago at 4:30 one morning, they were heading a different direction.
Looking for a team
Just off Interstate 81, about halfway between Wytheville and Abingdon, there's a large scrap metal yard. That's Berry Iron & Metal, the company Tom Bishop's grandfather started in Chilhowie decades ago.
On nearby Main Street is Berry Home Center, one of two hardware stores owned by Bishop in Southwest Virginia. And right next door, in the same row of historic brick buildings, is Town House.
Tom Bishop, a tall, lean 55-year-old, was born and raised in Chilhowie. He and his wife, Kyra, 53, raised their two children, Leslie and Tommy, in the tiny town.
Originally, their restaurant was an upscale steak house. But after traveling extensively and enjoying the wines and cutting-edge cuisine of big-city restaurants, the couple was ready to bring more innovative food to Southwest Virginia.
In fall 2007, they placed an ad on a Web site for professional chefs.
"Owners' sole desire is to provide exciting, excellent food and service; they are willing to give a fresh palette for you to grow and showcase your talent and creativity to its greatest extent," it said. "Ideal for a husband/wife team."
At that time, Shields and Urie were working together at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. They had met there years before and started dating after he left for Alinea. When he was offered the Trotter's Las Vegas job, Shields returned to the Chicago location to plan a menu for his new restaurant.
But months later, the Las Vegas restaurant was still under construction, and he was just helping in the kitchen, unable to start his new menu. In addition, he and Urie only had quality time together after dinner service had ended, or on Sundays.
"The kitchens there between Alinea and Charlie Trotter's are very intense, very professional," Urie said. "They are made up of hopefully the best of the best, people who are willing to put their lives on hold for their careers."
After more than five years of embedding themselves in work, they weren't sure they wanted to put their personal lives on hold anymore. When they saw the Bishops' ad, something clicked: the opportunity to have complete control over their own food and their relationship.
At a smaller restaurant in a rural area, they could personally prepare every dish that left the kitchen. And it didn't escape them that Southwest Virginia would be an ideal place to find fresh, local meats, vegetables and dairy products.
"It is right on the cusp of being really great," Shields said. "In 10 years, it could be right up there with the Napa Valley."
When their application came through, Kyra Bishop turned to her daughter and said, "Leslie, I know they won't come to Chilhowie, but I'm going to call them."
That's how the young chefs came to be packing a cooler with duck, lamb and lobster in the middle of the night. Alongside, they had everything they'd need for an 8-course tasting, from 64 stark white plates to the last leaf of mint.
Driving through the sunrise, Shields thought: "There's no way that they're going to want to do the kind of food I want to do here."
Making their mark
In Chilhowie, Shields and Urie immediately wanted to see the modest kitchen at Town House. Then they began piecing together the meal they hoped would win over the owners.
The Bishops had already narrowed down their choices to Shields and Urie and two other chefs.
That October afternoon, the Bishops had lobster with tempura-fried herbs, miso and black sesame. They had lamb with yogurt and smoked paprika, and a dessert of toasted milk ice cream with honey and ricotta.
They also had poker faces. But inside, their excitement was barely containable.
"They blew us away," Kyra Bishop said.
The next morning, over French toast at the family's home, the Bishops excitedly offered Shields and Urie the job.
On Thanksgiving, the couple packed up their things in the Windy City and moved 600 miles. On the way, Urie had the impression that the landscape of Southwest Virginia looked a lot like the French countryside.
They set up house with their two cats, Sierra and Luna. They drove to Abingdon and Marion to meet the farmers they hoped to buy from.
At the restaurant, they changed the maroon dining room into a more modern, chocolate-colored chamber. Together, they developed a new menu with three options: a four-course tasting, an eight-course tasting or an a-la-carte option featuring salad, four entrees and desserts.
In June, the Bishops hired master sommelier Charlie Berg from the Troutdale Dining Room in Bristol.
At first seating, guests at Town House are treated to a whimsical amuse-bouche, such as Shields' savory take on an Oreo. The "cookies" are made with dried black olives and Parmesan cheese. Inside are sweet olive oil jam and lemon confit, all rolled in more freshly grated Parmesan.
Another of Shields' creations is dry-aged beef ribeye and short rib with cauliflower, mushrooms, bulgur wheat and walnut.
Urie's desserts are equally inventive, with unexpected savory punches incorporated throughout.
One begins with a layer of soft chocolate custard. That's topped with Indian curry ice cream made from freshly ground spices, cocoa crumbles, coconut foam, cold smoked chocolate pebbles and beads of carrot puree. It is all garnished with fresh mint, coriander flowers and fenugreek sprouts.
When wild blueberries and blackberries came last summer, Urie incorporated them into a dessert with a warm lemon crepe, Sauternes (a sweet wine) and buttery foie gras.
Not all of the Town House Grill regulars have taken to the new menu, which neither surprised nor bothered Shields and Urie.
"Food is essentially an art; it is subjective," she said. "Not everybody likes the same thing."
Word is slowly getting out about the restaurant, mostly on food blogs. Already, diners have traveled from as far as Atlanta, Knoxville, New York and even Canada to dine there.
The Bishops want to someday put in a boutique hotel or a bed and breakfast beside the restaurant to add another layer to visitors' experience.
Shields and Urie, who will marry in July, sometimes miss their friends and the rush of urban life. But with every wild fig, paw paw and chestnut they gather, they grow a little closer to their new home and each other.
On their wedding Web site, Urie wrote: "We have found one another, the missing piece of the puzzle. We wanted to nurture rather than destroy that.
Being chefs at the Town House restaurant has brought us closer ... and revealed the true inner chef in us."
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