Chef John Shields of Town House

Chef John Shields of Town House
October 2010

Chef John B. Shields’ father was a playground designer for Little Tikes, but it was he who provided Shields with the inspiration to cook. As a youth, Shields scoured Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks and longed to recreate something of that caliber. He began his foray into the culinary world at the Gateway to the West, St. Louis.

Here he attended culinary school and worked in local restaurants. Shields accepted a position in Tampa Bay, Florida, leading the kitchen at Grande Finale. He soon moved locations, this time to Chicago as sous chef at the Windy City’s renowned restaurant Charlie Trotter’s. After two years, he continued his career in Chicago at Alinea, also as sous chef under Grant Achatz.

Shields was inspired but couldn’t let go of his dream of having the run of his own kitchen. So he packed his bags and moved with his pastry chef wife to Chilhowie, Virginia. Here he works with fellow executive chef and pastry chef Karen Urie Shields to rework culinary Americana and destination dining with inventive flair and distinct panache. The two also run the nearby two-room inn, Riverstead, which they stock with Town House-made snacks for their guests.

Shields also works extensively with local farmers and puts together quarterly fundraising dinners for the Appalachian Sustainable Development organization. He is an avid supporter of healthy eating habits for children and helped raise funds for classes that teach young students how to garden, harvest, and cook produce from the garden. We weren’t the only ones to notice. He was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s 2010 Best New Chefs.

Interview with Chef John Shields of Town House – Chilhowie, VA

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
John Shields: My father inspired me to cook. He wasn’t a professional cook, he designed playgrounds for Little Tikes. It was when I saw the original Charlie Trotter books that I knew I wanted to cook at that level.

AB: Did you attend culinary school?
JS: I went to a school for one year in St. Louis.

AB: What advice would you give to young cooks just getting started?
JS: My advice would be to learn the basics. What makes a great chef? It’s understanding how to break down a fish or how to turn an artichoke. Master the classic techniques and embrace the basics before you worry about other things.

AB: What’s the extent of your food and beverage operation at Town House and Riverstead?
JS: Riverstead is a separate property; a small house with only two rooms. It’s more like an inn than a bed and breakfast. It has a kitchen which we stock with breakfast foods like granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, scones, blue cheese with walnuts and raisins, etc. We don’t serve food at the house unless it’s requested. In those cases Karen [Urie Shields] might make a peach and onion crostata, or cheese cookies served with a bottle of wine. Some guests like to reserve the entire house and bring and cook their own food. The stay also includes a five course dinner at the restaurant. We pick them up since the lodgings are more secluded and bring them in. On average four people or so people will be from the rooms and the rest just have restaurant reservations.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JS: Dining should be an engaging experience; intriguing, thoughtful, and delicious. But most of all fun!

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JS: We take an array of ideas and work things back and forth. There is a lot of thought that goes behind inspiration. That inspiration can come from an ingredient, an aroma, a landscape, a trail, or a craving; it’s Karen that has the cravings.

AB: If you could cook for any chef, who would it be and why?
JS: Not to jump on a bandwagon, but it would have to be Ferran and Albert Adrià. Their innovations and creativity allow the entire world a new freedom in the kitchen. They are the most influential chefs of our lifetimes.

AB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
JS: Seaweed. The entire world seems to be eating it except for us Americans.

AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
JS: Through cookbooks and the internet.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JS: Our involvement is agricultural; we work with the farmers to expand upon what they were doing originally. We did monthly dinners to raise money for the Appalachian Sustainable Development organization. It’s also important to us to fight childhood obesity and promote healthy eating habits. We raised $10,000 to fund classes for young students to learn how to garden, harvest, and cook from the garden.

AB: Which element of service at Town House requires the most of your energy and which is the biggest income earner?
JS: The restaurant is our baby and our focus; when we first got here we had to redesign the kitchen and train a staff. We also offer catering services so we might do one or two weddings a year which make a good income.

AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
JS: I’d be a professional golfer.

AB: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
JS: I would have traveled around the world and staged at a younger age.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
JS: Winning the Best New Chef title this year in Food & Wine Magazine.

AB: Where will we find you in five years?
JS: As long as the restaurant continues to grow, and the destination dining idea grows, there is a very good chance we will still be here.