Chef Jason Alley grew up in Pulaski, Virginia, where agriculture was the mainstay of the local economy. At the age of four he industriously started cooking and never really stopped, helping out his busy family by whipping up Southern comfort food. His first professional food job was at St. Louis-based fast food chain Hardee’s. Alley resolved to go to college, but he soon realized that he was not well-suited to the world of academia and left to work at a Quaker-owned orchard near Harrisonburg, Virginia.
But fate intervened when a group of friends washing dishes at Harrisonburg Country Club encouraged him to join them. Soon he started prepping food and watching the chefs cook, and it wasn’t long before he had worked his way up to lead cook. He left shortly after for Champaign, Illinois and while his now-wife studied at the University of Illinois, he took a sous chef position at a bar and grill and was quickly promoted to executive chef.
The couple moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he worked at 1848 House, Blue Ridge Grill, and ENO. But his native state beckoned and Alley returned, this time to Richmond, for a position at the Europa Café and Tapas Bar, where he met his soon-to-be restaurant partner Chris Chandler. Alley and Chandler opened Comfort in 2002. Alley’s menu sings with a passion for the kind of Southern comfort-food classics you could picture on checkered picnic blankets in some idyllic painting. Alley is currently busy planning his second restaurant—and when he’s not cooking, playing in his Spanglish Ramones cover band, Los Ramones.
Interview with Chef Jason Alley of Comfort - Richmond, VA
Will Blunt: How did you start cooking professionally?
Jason Alley: I've always cooked. I started cooking at home when I was four, part out of necessity, and part out of interest. I grew up in a southwestern Virginia nowhere town. My first job I worked at Hardee's. So I went to college intending to do anything other than cook professionally. I immediately failed out as I was playing in punk rock bands and trying to make out with girls. Then I worked at a farm orchard owned by this Quaker guy outside of Harrisonburg where I broke my back.
A bunch of kids I knew were washing dishes at a country club and banquet waiting. I started working there and loved it. We didn't do a big family meal at night, so we just used available mise en place and cooked ourselves dinner. Our chef at the country club had moved to Harrisonburg from Manhattan and he was cooking and doing really cool stuff. I would bust my butt on the line and knock out the dishes, and peel the potatoes, carrots, and onions, and bust through it.
If I caught up the chefs would let me watch them cook. I was crazy infatuated with it. I worked my way up to lead cook and in a year and a half I got bit by the bug. I took a sous chef position at a bar and grill. We were hand cutting steaks to order, and doing scratch cooking, but sold more wings and ribs than filet for sure. I had just turned 21 when I took over the kitchen as the executive chef. It went well. People loved the food.
WB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
JA: I didn't go. When my wife graduated from graduate school we moved to Atlanta and I was contemplating culinary school, but couldn't justify the loans. So I worked at four different places in Atlanta and learned a ton.
WB: How did you know you were ready to open your own restaurant?
JA: When my wife, then my girlfriend, left to go to graduate school at the University of Illinois I realized that I was risking being that guy who plays in local bands and just cooks at bar and grills for the rest of his life. So I moved with her and initially worked at a crappy country club, then took a pay cut to work at a Champagne restaurant with an in-house bakery and an East Coast chef. He was stoked to have me as someone else who wasn’t from the Midwest.
When I moved to Richmond to take an executive chef position it was horrible. I hated every second of it. But honestly that was the impetus to do this place. I was really excited when I moved here, but my first restaurant here was a bad fit for me. I was so upset I thought screw this I'm just going to open a barbacue joint. Then I thought, what we don't have is a decent Southern joint in the city. I wanted to listen to country music and punk rock and drink beer and eat good food. I took out a bank loan for $150,000 with no investors, and I opened the restaurant when I was just 29 years old.
WB: Is there an active culinary community in Richmond?
JA: In the beginning this area was a no man's land. When we opened eight years ago we were only thing other than the Jefferson Hotel. We were the only thing open after five o’clock within seven or eight blocks. There’s more now. One of the things about Richmond is that we see the same closure to opening ratio. For every restaurant that is shuttered another opens up. It’s not a trend, just turnover. There are a lot of suburban chains, and independently owned places that look like chains in strip malls. There’s a big suburban culture here.
We also do a lot of charity stuff. There are charity auctions, fundraising dinners for the March of Dimes, the Central Virginia Food Bank, and Southern Foodways Alliance, plus Heifer International—they buy livestock for impoverished villages. Mostly I hang out with other chefs and it's a pretty good community. We all eat at each other’s restaurants and everyone’s really cool.
WB: What makes Comfort different?
JA: We don't really have a menu. It takes a lot of people to create such simple food because we do it from scratch. We try and keep it simple and we try and make good looking food. With this food in particular if you get fussy with the presentation it looks inauthentic. The whiskey collection also draws people in. Even in these crappy economic times the more high end whiskey we buy the more we end up selling. It’s my partner Chris Chandler's thing. He's passionate about the booze.
WB: How local is the food you serve?
JA: We don't have the facilities for food preservation at the restaurant, for dry curing of meats, but we do some short cures and pickling. And we have this great butcher in town called Belmont Butchery. Her man Chris [formerly of Belmont Butchery] is a badass, great guy, and his charcuterie is out of sight. He's not trying to do any crazy pork pies, and worth a look. You gotta share that info. Whatever we're getting we share that info. Everyone talks about organic and it's fine. But I care more about knowing where my food is coming from. Certified organic? Who gives a crap?
WB: What is your favorite current culinary trend?
JA: You know that sort of like fancy but super casual New York style restaurant? With really dynamite food but people are dressed casual? I love that movement toward being able to dress the way we want, relax the way we want, and still be recognized as valid and serious. Being without the restrictions that go along with traditional fine dining. I want to eat extremely good food and I'm willing to pay for it but I don't want to put a coat on. The sir and the madam and the captain descending on the table? Screw that. I want some guy with a neck tattoo giving me really good service. I want it to be casual but I want it to be good.
When David Chang won [James Beard] best chef in New York I was really stoked. First time I went into Momofuko Ssäm Bar I had the grilled hamachi with salt plum and they were playing Van Halen records really loud. We don’t get away with that here; if I feel like listening to country music tonight you people are going to listen to country music tonight. I love that trend.