Chef Bill Foster of Zed Café is matter-of-fact in his approach to food. With a southern accent and a demeanor of relentless honesty, he told us “Things should taste like what they are.” We had heard a lot about Zed Café’s reputation as a seasonal and ‘responsibly sourced’ restaurant– Tanya Cauthen of the Belmont Butchery mentioned she supplies some of their meat – and we were eager to try some of the cooking and form our own opinions. During our visit, we were privileged to chat with Foster, Zed’s executive chef, and enjoy a wonderful four course meal.
The atmosphere of Zed Café is modern and upscale, with large pieces of art displayed gallery-style in ample wall space. We sat at the bar facing a well-stocked wine rack as we spoke with Foster, who was always candid as he chatted with us on how he obtains his ingredients and the way he cooks. “Fresh and local is the European way,” he said. Foster was trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and has cooked for Richmond restaurants like the Frog and the Redneck and Acacia. It is clear he knows quality when he sees it – or tastes it. And local, fresh produce always tastes better. True, some items must be shipped in from other areas – Foster reminded us of the phrase “When Possible” written inside the menu. Cheeses, olive oil and wine: some things are just better when they are imported from France. He also mentioned the difficulty of getting certain meats and dairy products in quantity from local sources. When necessary, he buys these things from places like Albert’s Organic, a supplier of Ellwood Thompson’s. A complete list of Foster’s sources is listed on the Zed Café website. It is clear that he comes to the cooking style at Zed with a no-nonsense attitude – no matter where it comes from, everything should be the best.
When I asked Foster if he thought local and seasonal eating was a fad, he replied, “It’s not a fad…it’s moving back from all the fads.” It seemed silly to think of the locavore movement as a ‘fringe group’ as we spoke with Foster. There was a distinct sense that we, as Americans and members of the Richmond community, are just catching up with the rest of the world when we decide not to eat tomatoes and asparagus in February. Foster seemed interested in distancing his restaurant and cooking from buzzwords like ‘organic.’ “Organic doesn’t mean vegetarian,” Foster said, and we agreed that Zed should be seen for what it is – a gourmet restaurant that uses high quality, artisanal ingredients like grass-fed beef, free range poultry and organic produce picked, perhaps, the same day. Foster uses the term ‘clean food.’ Zed Café does feature a nearly gluten-free menu, meaning diners with allergies can order worry-free, and there are also some vegetarian menu items.
We were thrilled when Foster told us of his congenial relationship with Charlie, the owner of Victory Farms, a family-run farm in Hanover that sells produce at several farmer’s markets and runs a high demand CSA. “Charlie and I hang out,” Foster said. He told us he has been to Charlie’s farm to harvest and wash his own produce for the restaurant. We loved the idea of the chef and the farmer working side by side to create great food for consumers like us. Being at the mercy of what people are growing, Foster says, is a good thing. It encourages him to be creative with the ingredients he has on hand, and necessitates a unique, ever-changing menu.
And, as we had hoped, the food was amazing. Though it’s February, one of the hardest months to find fresh produce, Foster said he has no problems coming up with menu items. We were treated to a custom meal with four courses, all with a distinct winter flair and subtle, pleasing flavors. Beginning with an appetizer of rosemary focaccia and olive oil, we sipped a Savoie and were treated to our first course, duck confit with gnocci, baby carrots, Brussels sprouts and pea shoots. Several of us had never tried duck before, and we agreed it was delicious and nearly as soft as butter. This was followed by a dish of white Alici anchovies over Fourme D’ambert blue cheese (I had to ask Foster to spell that one) and winter kale, all in sun-dried tomato oil and balsamic vinegar. We changed wines here: sticking with white, we moved on to a Chablis, which matched well the saltiness of the anchovies. Throughout, our knowledgeable waitress was kind enough to fill in details on each dish as we dined, lauding the quality ingredients and pulling Foster from the kitchen to spell Fourme D’ambert.
Our next course was a house-pulled mozzarella salad, with fresh avocado, pickled red onions, blood oranges and a vanilla bean oil. The sweet, light flavor was a perfect follow-up to the anchovy dish. The final item was edamame cooked “southern baked beans” style (Foster said he used his mother’s recipe) with chorizo sausage and New Orleans style shrimp. The beans were sweet and almost black, and the dish satisfied any craving for a subsequent dessert. In total, the meal was wonderful, and we waved “goodbye” to Foster as he chatted with several other restaurant visitors. Our visit to Zed Café felt a bit like a celebration. We enjoyed great food and a friendly night out with a chef we respect, and we learned a little more about the way seasonal and ‘clean’ cooking fits into the process of really enjoying what we cook and eat.