You don’t have to go to a large city for great food—the land where the food starts its life is as good a spot as any. That was the premise with which Pastry Chef Karen Urie Shields and her husband Chef John Shields opened Town House Restaurant in Chilhowie, Virginia, located in the southwestern tip of the state and over 300 miles from Washington, DC.
Before tapping into the demand for creative destination dining, she graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. For her post-graduate apprenticeship, Urie Shields made the decision to move to Chicago. The next two years were spent at Tru under James Beard Award-winning Pastry Chef Gale Gand. She would stay in the city for some time, moving to famed Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter’s. She was soon promoted to pastry chef. Along the way she also worked at Providence, Rhode Island restaurant Al Forno. And in January 2008, Urie Shields made her way south to Chilhowie and to Town House Restaurant.
Her goal is to create something “whimsical, spontaneous, humorous, flavorful, and with excellent textures.” The restaurant itself is warm and inviting, a far cry from the palatial chandelier-encrusted destination restaurants of yore. She focuses on locally sourced southern Virginia wild herbs, flowers and a multitude of other offerings in the area. They have an agricultural wonderland at their fingertips and restaurant competition is scarce in Chilhowie. For locals who aren’t as enamored with their culinary pyrotechnics, they offer more down-home, inviting farm-to-table options.
Interview with Pastry Chef Karen Urie Shields of Town House – Chilhowie, VA
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Karen Urie Shields: My grandmother and cooking as a family. All of us eating and cooking together.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KUS: My philosophy is to create dishes that are whimsical, spontaneous, humorous, flavorful, and with excellent textures. The dining atmosphere should be warm and the environment as inviting as your home. I feel like architects and designers of modern furniture would most appreciate the philosophies that I abide by. They deal in aesthetics as well as function-ability and balance. They are conscious of modern trends as well as history. Much like chefs they are only as good as their materials. We both seek premium products and develop relationships with purveyors. It’s crucial. I feel the juxtaposition between their craft and ours would offer a most memorable dining and cooking experience.
AB: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
KUS: My advice is to be driven by your way of life as opposed to your social life or money. Put your head down and focus. You need focus, patience, and the ability to suck it up.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
KUS: I honestly don't do much research beyond eating to stay abreast. I rely on environmental inspirations, base flavor concepts, and on cultural and historical schools of thought. I delve into personal cravings and put emphasis on varying textures.
AB: What inspires the creation of your dishes?
KUS: [My husband, Chef John Shields, and I] have been inspired by living here in Chilhowie. We don't have competition here. We inspire each other. A lot of people thought we were really crazy moving out here. So many of our dishes are inspired by the landscape and Mother Nature. Temperatures, textures, aesthetics, and flavor always are paramount.
AB: What is the culinary community in Chilhowie like?
KUS: There is a local culinary school, from which we have had several students. All in all the local culinary community is made up of the farmers and artisans that we use and have developed relationships with.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing Town House right now?
KUS: Where we are located is a challenge for what we are trying to accomplish. We are trying to embrace the locals, and encourage them to eat better. John and I like the European lifestyle with great restaurants not just in metropolitan areas but near the source of the food. Food in cities gets diluted by other forms of entertainment. Our biggest challenge is getting people to believe in our concept. Every table has a story to tell of how they came to find us.
AB: The recession hit after you opened. How did you adapt? Did your vision for the restaurant change at all?
KUS: I'm proud to say that we pretty much stuck true to our original vision. We adapted by offering shorter, less expensive menus; to relate more to the local community we offered a farm-to-table menu, featuring the local artisans in the area and promoting local seasonal ingredients; all the while still offering tasting menus.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
KUS: Working at Charlie Trotter’s for nearly five years was tough, but the greatest thing I could have done for myself and career. Being the head pastry chef at Charlie Trotter’s for two years is my proudest accomplishment.
AB: If you could cook for any chef, who would it be and why?
KUS: I would love for Chef Mathias Merges, the long time chef de cuisine of Charlie Trotter’s, to make a trip to Chilhowie so we could cook for him.
AB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
KUS: I think vanilla beans are overused as an undertone flavor. They’re under-appreciated as a complex flavor of their own.
AB: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
KUS: Every day is a new day; I would work smarter and more efficiently than I did yesterday.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
KUS: I love problem solving, and I'm pretty relentless, so I'd probably be a lawyer.
AB: How do you define success?
KUS: Success is valued on a day to day basis. If one has devoted themselves to their craft, been kind to their team, made an impressionable mark in the lives of their guests, and put forth their heart and soul, then one has had a successful day.