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How the Shieldses Said No to Charlie Trotter, Went to Rural Virginia, and Opened One of Chicago’s Best New Restaurants

John and Karen Urie Shields took a long southern detour on their way to opening Smyth + the Loyalist.

Photo: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune

Almost eight years ago, I read a story in the New York Times about a couple recently departed from Chicago, Karen Urie and John Shields. The setup was wild: they’d met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s. She’d worked at Tru; he moved on to become a sous-chef at Alinea. Trotter tapped them, rising stars in their early 30s, to run his Las Vegas outpost.

And they turned it down to take over the Town House grill in Chilhowie, Virginia, reopening it as a 35-seat restaurant in 2008.

Chilhowie is a town of about 1,800 in far Southwestern Virginia, emphasis on far. I grew up outside Roanoke, a city of about 90,000, the economic capital of the region. My mother taught at Radford University and got her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, neighboring schools about 45 minutes west of Roanoke. Chilhowie is an hour and a half west of that. It’s three hours from Charlotte, over three hours from Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill. The closest towns a non-native might have heard of are probably Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, twin cities on either side of the state line that have about 42,000 people combined. There’s a bit of regional tourism—my favorite parts of the Appalachian Trail run nearby—but there aren’t many people or much money.

It was an unlikely place to open a sophisticated restaurant—offering five- and ten-course meals, around $50 to $110—and especially unlikely if you’d ever spent time around there. So I had to go. But how?

My wife and I decided to take our honeymoon in the area not long after the Times piece ran, and carved out a couple days mostly to go to Town House, staying one night in the recently restored General Francis Marion Hotel in nearby Marion and another in a Forest Service cabin without potable water. And it was worth it; my wife compared Town House favorably to John Shields’s former employer, Alinea. (Here are some good photos from a 2011 meal there, and another set here, which give you a sense of the aesthetic.)

The out-of-the-way spot earned praise from more sophisticated diners; Shields was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2010 and was a Beard Awards semi-finalist in 2011. But filling Town House proved a challenge; Shields told the Washington Post in 2012 that they’d had nights with no guests.

So the couple, by then married and with a young daughter, started planning a move to Washington, D.C., near family and in a city that was starting to wake up to fine dining. While on a long and ultimately unsuccessful odyssey to find the right space, they did monthly 12-course, $200 menus prepared at Town House and served at Riverstead, a farmhouse converted into an inn by Town House’s owners, which allowed them to continue working on their cuisine while eliminating the problem of filling tables on weekdays.

Months of hunting in D.C.—John Shields told the Post in 2014 that he’d looked at “70 locations, easy"—failed to turn up the right spot. But when Bill Kim of BellyQ suggested a 5,600 square-foot space at 177 North Ada back in Chicago’s West Loop, they settled on it in one day and had a lease signed a couple months later.

Now that space has become two restaurants. The prix fixe Smyth, named after the county Chilhowie is in, is No. 3 on our list of Chicago’s best new restaurants; Jeff Ruby calls its Dungeness crab with foie gras and crab “mustard” mixed with farm egg custard “the best new dish in Chicago.” (It was my favorite on the menu as well.) Downstairs is the more casual Loyalist, whose burger (“short rib, ground chuck, and bacon laid on a toasted sesame seed bun with housemade American cheese, pickled cucumbers, onion-infused mayonnaise, and a drizzle of reduced Marmite") is an early hit, and whose biscuit (with nduja butter and ramp honey) is the best I’ve ever had.

After I’d managed to eat at both, I wanted to talk to the Shieldses about the Town House experiment, living and cooking in far Southwestern Virginia, and what they brought from Chicago to Chilhowie and what they’re bringing back from there—which, conveniently, happened around the time my colleagues settled on the Best New Restaurants list.

Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Chilhowie, Virginia?

Karen Urie Shields: What can we say? We’re risk-takers.

John Shields: And a little naive. It was a mix of both.

KUS: We were at a point where we had worked under really great chefs for a good amount of time. I remember when I gave my notice to Charlie Trotter, I’d been there almost five years, which is a pretty good stint, considering that most people last not even a year there on average. I was so nervous to give my notice. He said, “It’s totally fine, I get it, whatever you do, Karen, just go up.” I feel like that was his way of saying, be who you are, be your own chef.

It allowed us to have our own voice; the quietness of the area subconsciously allowed us to focus on what was important to us. To pull out of cuisine, pull out of hospitality, and pull out of nature what inspired us creatively. And I think that’s definitely what we got out of that experience.

Did you know anything about the area?

JS: Zero. Never even been to that part of the world. We were looking for the next move. We were supposed to go to [Charlie Trotter’s new restaurant] in Vegas. We’d known each other for years but we’d just started dating at that point. I’d decided I wasn’t going to go to Vegas; she decided it wasn’t good for her either.

Throughout all that, Town House kept calling my name. It kept popping up on StarChefs [Job Finder], and Craigslist, and few other venues. I was like, what is this? I’d would Google this and there’d be like shrimp cocktails sticking out of a cup. [I thought,] I’m not going there, this is crazy.

Eventually they changed their ad to “a great place for a husband and wife team.” We weren’t married at the time, but we were falling in love. My mom, at the time, was like, you’ve got to get a job, just send them a resume. Hours later, they’re emailing back. The more we got to know them, we realized how into food they were, they were risk-takers too, and they wanted to do something new and adventurous.

KUS: They’re a great family, Kyra and Tom Bishop, and they have two kids. It was comforting, and it was a collective effort to make something great. Coming from working for very detail-oriented chefs, like Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter, it was a warm atmosphere for us to blossom creatively. It wasn’t suppressive or cutthroat like you can get in some cities.

JS: Basically we went out there and did a tasting. The next morning they invited us up for breakfast, and they’re like, we want you. We’ll send a moving truck tomorrow. We were like, whoa whoa whoa, but I think immediately we knew—we’re going to do this, aren’t we?

Did you have a sense of the kind of food you wanted to make?

JS: Not really. I wanted to get closer to food, break that barrier down. You work at Charlie’s and Alinea, it’s a great product, and you think, you must have this connection with the food. But it just doesn’t happen. The more we started to meet farmers, work with them, see the product, the more it became more than an ingredient. It became special, important.

Was that the appeal of working somewhere like Chilhowie? The agricultural connection?

JS: Yeah, but I think it was naive. We had no idea what we had discovered. We had an idea, but we were just blown away, and went to places we never had imagined.

What kind of places did you find?

JS: It started with wild carrot. Queen Anne’s Lace is the generic name for it. I tasted it, and it was like, holy shit. This was 2008, right before the whole foraging thing caught on. The next thing I know, we’re looking at our surroundings. There’s wild asparagus at the base of our driveway. Then we started going on walks, and realizing there’s asparagus everywhere. And it snowballed from there—around 80 varietals of wild plants, berries. The more and more we got to know the land, the more we started to cook like that.

Did you learn the foods of that area?

JS: Bits and pieces, as we became friends with Sean Brock, before his brand had blown up. He grew up in Abingdon [a town of 8,200, 20 minutes west of Chilhowie]. We met people in the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the Blackberry Farm folks, and we got to know a little bit of Southern food. Being a Northerner at heart, I’d push back a little bit, not cooking Southern food. But over time, little things would pop in there. A dish of corn and buttermilk was derived from corn dipped in buttermilk.

KUS: We met a lot of great artisans, like the cultured-buttermilk people, what was their name?

JS: Cruze Dairy Farm.

KUS: And then there’s Alan Benton’s smoky hams, Grayson Cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy.

JS: We started using this Grayson Cheese, and were like, wow, and they’re like, we supply Thomas Keller. And I go on the Per Se menu, and there’s Grayson Cheese, I’m like, holy shit.

KS: They’re our neighbors. [Meadow Creek is in Galax, Virginia, near my grandfather’s hometown of Fries.]

JS: Border Spring Farms lamb, before Craig Rogers was huge.

KUS: Richard Moyer [from Castlewood, near Abingdon], one of the farmers who sold at the [Abingdon] market…

JS: We still get product from him.

KUS: The Moyers, with five or six kids, are so inspiring, a completely sustainable family. He’s a professor, so he’s full of knowledge, had traveled the world, is tapping his maple trees and cooking it over an open fire, has his kids staying up through the night stirring the syrup. He was so into the nutritional aspect of food, which I’m interested in, so he and I could talk for hours.

Then we fast forward to now, the Papineaus [owners of The Farm in Kankakee and the Shields’ main partner, which Michael Gebert profiled for Fooditor] are tapping their maple trees, and they’re cooking it over a live fire, just like we saw at the Moyers’.

John and Karen Shields at the Papineaus’ farmPhoto: Jeff Marini

JS: A perfect example: We wanted to do a dish of root beer flavor, because Richard would forage sassafras, wild ginger, birch trees, and wintergreen leaves. And we’re like, shit, we could make this wild root beer flavored cream that would go over pawpaws from his farm. Pawpaw with root beer cream and some black walnut crumble. All from him.

KUS: You know pawpaw? They’re native to the U.S.

JS: One of like five fruits indigenous to the U.S.

KUS: They’re the most interesting North American fruit, it’s so creamy, like it’s a tropical fruit almost.

JS: And passion fruits, he would find wild passion fruits…

KUS: Remember the chestnuts? The sweetest, most delicious chestnuts. There were tons of people in that area, artisans, that were so passionate.

JS: It was cool. The Abingdon Farmer’s Market was very small in the beginning. Ten, 15 stalls. We were going in there, talking with every farmer, getting stuff from all the farmers. It got bigger, and the next year it got bigger, and chefs came to town for small projects. At the end, around 2011 to 2012, the menu began to tell a story of the area as we really became more confident, comfortable, and knowledgeable.

So it did take a few years to understand.

JS: We were young, we didn’t know what we wanted. Starting this [Chicago] project, we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do. I still think the food is not quite telling the story we want.

KUS: It has to evolve and settle into what it is. We find beauty in a lot of different things—dried brown weeds, fermenting apples under a tree, to us that’s beautiful, that smell is so lovely.

What kind of stories do you want to tell now that you’re in Chicago?

JS: I think our goal, this year, is to tell the story of what’s happening at the Papineau farm.

KUS: The farm is like our sanctuary, the happy place for us to go.

From the other end, what did you learn about running a restaurant as a business?

[Both laugh.]

JS: Destination dining is tough, especially as remote as we were.

KUS: It’s a tough business model for sure. Americans just aren’t traveling like they do in Europe to places like that. We were five hours from D.C., and a lot of our guests would come from D.C., which is very humbling. That was one of the catalysts for building the inn, Riverstead. That was better, people were coming for the accommodations, not just the food.

JS: The people that were coming were coming because they wanted to be there and they knew what they were getting into. Besides D.C., they’d come from Atlanta, Charlotte, Charleston, Canada, New York, California. I think the adventure was very appealing for a lot of people. It’s different now. We’re in a city, people think, we’ll get to it when we get to it.

I’d read that you were looking at moving to D.C. How did you end up in Chicago?

JS: Because of all of our clientele, our first child being born, and [Karen’s] parents in Philadelphia, her sister was living in D.C. and they had their first child at the time, we thought, let’s move to D.C. But it just kept pushing back. We looked at a thousand places. The few places we found just didn’t work out, and a year or two into it, she’s like, why don’t we check out Chicago again?

KUS: Career-wise, we grew up here. We have friends here, a great network of restaurateurs and chefs. It made sense.

JS: We came here and found this place in one day. That was it.

KUS: It was more space than what we planned on. The Loyalist was originally not as big as it is now, literally and figuratively.

I loved the biscuit at the Loyalist.

JS: The more I’m away from Chilhowie, the more I’m putting little Southern touches on the menu.

KUS: I woke up one morning and was making breakfast. We had pickled ramps in our refrigerator…

JS: I had andouille, and you were like, let’s put some butter in…

KUS: It disappeared too quickly in my mouth, the andouille, and I was like, I think it needs to carry a bit with butter. We mixed it with butter and the ramps, and it was literally created at our house on a Sunday.

What kind of tastes do you think you’ve brought back?

KUS: A lot of the inspirations, the ingredients that we’ve talked about, are also available here, and they grow at the Papineau farm.

JS: It’s a purity, seeking out incredible product and letting it show as much as possible. That was a lot of what we did at Charlie Trotter’s. I remember a group of ladies eating fish, with greens on them, and they said, it tastes like you just went and picked these today. Well actually, I just got back an hour ago.

KUS: Though it’s a tasting experience, and it’s on the more expensive side, aesthetically our style is more on the natural side than similar restaurants in Chicago. That is from our experience in Smyth County.

JS: You look back at Charlie and go wow, you know—his food was a vegetable-based cuisine with some proteins. That Japanese minimalism was part of his trademark, and that’s sort of like what we’re doing now. Having that Grant Achatz creativity mixed in, so it’s a little more than just a great product. It’s farm-to-table, but making it a little more elegant, a little more thought-provoking.

I never got to go to Charlie Trotter’s, but not long ago I was thrifting and found a couple of his cookbooks. Seeing that he’d pick a vegetable that was in season, and just build menus around it…

JS: He was way ahead of his time. That’s the thing that nobody knows. You look at all the trends, especially in Denmark, and you look back at his books—all the foams, the sauces broken with oils, cooking with offal, vegetable tasting menus—all those things he was doing before anybody, in the ’90s, and now they’re all trendy. We’ve gotten past the molecular moment, and now it’s coming full circle.

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