chef driven | driven chef – reimagining rural farm-to-fork

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Krista Williams bustles around the cramped kitchen, plating hand-rolled ravioli with tomato coulis. With nearly every turn, she bumps into someone; her sous chef, a runner, the pastry master with the cheesecake. But no one minds. They’re all friends and co-workers and all focused on the task at hand. The joking and laughing will resume after dinner is served.

The kitchen is tiny inside this train-car-turned-eatery. The Caboose is a landmark in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Rutledge, outside of Madison, known for its sandwiches, shaved ice, and southern hospitality, but tonight it’s something different.

In the attached dining room, patrons wait. Conversation hums over the rustle of wines being unpacked from brown paper sacks. One man is telling stories of a cross-country trip in his hot air balloon, another updates a neighbor on his cows. The crowd is always diverse. There’s even some new faces here tonight.

Krista promised they were capping it at 45, but there’s now 57 people waiting. She’s exceptionally nervous. Her dad has flown in from Louisiana to be there and she wants everything to be perfect. The truth is, she could have served him Hot Pockets and he would have been happy. She didn’t grow up in a particularly culinary household, but she wants him to be proud.

There’s almost every kind of meat imaginable on the menu tonight, a series of small plates served in five courses – Habanero mango sausage with succotash, braised short ribs with black garlic mash, seared scallops with butternut squash puree.

It’s a far cry from the sandwiches she slings by day, but she’s grateful to the Caboose owners, Ed Hogan and Molly Lesnikowski, for letting her explore her culinary creativity with these Farm to Fork events each season.

When she found herself in Rutledge after the economy collapsed, she lost her job, and her long-term relationship ended, Williams went straight to the Caboose. It was different than when she was younger, in college down the road, and would skip class to go grab a snow cone. This time she needed a job. She needed to get back on her feet and figure out how to follow her dream of going to medical school.

But something changed while slinging those sandwiches. “The more I was around food, the more I enjoyed the instant gratification,” says Williams. “Someone would eat something and tell you how great it was and it felt good. It made me really want to follow something that is more of a passion than money.”

She attacked the lunch menu with gourmet fervor, taking the same pride in the daily sandwich specials as she does during her Farm to Fork events. She experimented with flavors and the lunch crowd and the Caboose owners took notice.

In fact, it was Ed who suggested she spend time working with Andrew Featherstone, executive chef at nearby Burge Plantation during the peak season, making chef-inspired, locally-sourced meals for groups of quail hunters and catering special events.

“Everyone on his staff had gone to Cordon Bleu academies,” says Williams, “so that was a little intimidating.”

Her only culinary education had come from working at a chain restaurant in Athens years before, but to be fair, her skills and attention to detail moved her quickly through the ranks to hop around corporate for a while, training and teaching.

Under Featherstone, she’s been soaking up his cooking style and techniques for more than two years now. He taught her the sous vide steak that was her biggest hit to date at a Farm to Fork event. She’s played with a dehydrator and smoke gun. “He’s taught me some really cool stuff,” says Williams. “I really got into French-style cooking with him, even though he’s British, and he’s a big proponent of fresh, farm ingredients and eating local.”

In the off season, Williams worked under another chef, Christian Perez, at City Pharmacy in Covington, picking up an Asian-Latin fusion style. The former Ritz-Carlton Buckhead chef taught Williams how to create tuna tar-tar and salmon pokes, along with craft-inspired menus.

Now, even though Williams still works at the Caboose, she has accepted the executive sous chef position at South on Broad Kitchen & Bar, downtown Monroe’s newest addition.

And still, in her “spare time,” she sets up these seasonal Farm to Fork events and experiments with all the things she’s gleaned from her mentors, trying them out on a neighborly testing ground.

“The most amazing thing about this to me is that I’m able to convince 50 people to just show up and eat something,” she says. “They don’t see the menu until they get here.”

In fact, sometimes Williams doesn’t know the menu until days before. Since she uses all local ingredients, the menu is dependent on what’s available and what’s in season. “Sometimes, farmers will call the week of the event and say, ‘Well, this is what I’ve got.’ And I’ll say, ‘Cool, you’ve all got lettuce. Salads for everybody!”

Everything down to the edible flowers on her desserts, usually crafted by her sidekick Sheral Simmons, is locally-sourced. She and her sous chef, Taylor Parker, are now working with local farmers like Scotty Peppers to plant specific items she’d like to use, like poppies to dry out and use for a poppy seed cake, topped with white chocolate honeycombs, filled with local honeys.

She’s always planning menus in her head.

But executing those menus is a different story, and Williams is the first to admit she couldn’t do it without her friends who join her in that tiny kitchen and Carol Cox who serves each table, introducing the dish and the farms. She smiles, remembering when she first brought up the idea of these chef-driven events.

“They all grew up here in Rutledge, and when I told them my idea, they said, ‘It’s not going to work here, but we’ll stand with you. When you sink, we’ll all sink together.’”

Maybe they didn’t realize they were talking to such a driven chef.

And so, with each sold-out dinner, Williams drives herself further forward, continuing to learn and grow. She loves to see the faces after every meal – instant gratification. Passion can bloom in the most unlikely of places. 

Photography by Blythe Kelley

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