Five people who are making Harrisonburg the most interesting place in the Shenandoah Valley
“I was raised in the Valley, then went away for a while. Now I’m back.”
That’s what they say here.
In an era when rural populations are growing ever smaller, with youngsters heading to the bright lights of the big city and whatnot (meaning: jobs), Harrisonburg is a story about reinvention, and coming home.
BRIAN BOGAN is the executive chef at the Joshua Wilton House, in the center of downtown. Until he was 13, he lived in Rockville, Maryland, but then his parents “ruined his life and moved to a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, raising turkey and Angus.” He hated it. Nothing but nothing to do.
But the years passed by and he unwound, then lived for a bunch of years in the small Eastern Shore town of Cape Charles, where he got into food. Moved to Colorado for a bit. But finally had to come back to the Valley.
He’s a focused guy, respectful, serious about his work. Ninety-percent of his ingredients are locally sourced, and he believes that green is the way to go, from animal rearing to vegetable growing. It’s a commitment that sometimes puts him at odds with others in the community who are doing what he calls “the commodity thing.”
Brian showed me a rack of cured egg yolks he’d made in the Wilton kitchen. Later, at his weekly cooking demonstration at the Farmer’s Market across the street, he grated just a tiny sprinkling of the yolk onto crostini, which he’d topped with watercress and black walnut pesto and local goat cheese. The rich yellow added a visual pop and a lacing of umami. The crowd snatched up every last bit while my attention was diverted, listening to his story.
ELIZABETH STOVER is 35, and she’s the busy pastry chef at the Joshua Wilton House. All of the Inn’s baked goods—even the English muffins and croissants—are made in house. Pies are her favorite.
She was raised just down the road, and says she’s always been an “ag kid,” but was headed down the white-collar path until a volunteer stint in New Orleans post-Katrina derailed her.
“You can’t be involved in something that big and not have it change your life,” she says.
Good-bye law school, hello pastry school, her true passion. As she talks, Elizabeth bounces on her toes when she really gets going, telling about baking through New York City, France, Alaska, Colorado, Seattle, even cruise ship tours to Antarctica. She came back to the Shenandoah Valley last December, reuniting with friends who are also chefs, or growers.
“We grew up here, in this environment. It’s exciting, like the baton is being passed; so many young people are now doing this,” she says.
JULIE WALTON HAUSHALTER and her family own White Oak Lavender Farm outside town, in Rockingham County. In season, when 9,000 bushes are in bloom, it’s a pretty relaxing place to hang out. But not relaxing enough for Julie.
Her background is in counseling, and she’s seen the chaos that comes from stress, so she added all sorts of relaxation-inducing funsies, like a labyrinthine meditation garden, and lavender ice cream, and Flemish giant rabbits, mini ponies, Pygmy goats, and chickens with crazy bouffant hairdos, strutting where they please. She’s got a bottle tree—you’ve seen them before, usually at wineries—that some believe is a catcher of evil spirits and protector of homes. There’s a kids’ playground and a huge chess set and a gift shop where you can buy lavender olive oil and bath soap and tea and biscuits and 100 other fragrant treats.
Next came a winery, where some of the wines taste nothing like lavender and some do. Randy Phillips of Cave Ridge Vineyard up the road makes the actual wine—winemaking being a little more complicated than most things, especially when you’re trying to infuse lavender into it. A relaxed-looking wolf sits in the center of the winery’s logo, and although Julie worried about such an aggressive animal representing such a gentle place, the staff loved the acronym - Purple WOLF Winery… White Oak Lavender Farm, get it?), so that’s that.
Chef Jakob Napotnik, of Local Chop & Grill House, grew up 30 minutes away from town in Elkton, on a small family farm.
“It wasn’t big, but we lived off what we grew and raised,” he says.
Jakob knows all the local farmers, and while he says it would sometimes be easier and cheaper to buy his ingredients from commercial suppliers, it’s not in his DNA.
The bacon in my rustic BLT came from Autumn Olive Farms in the Valley, as was the rhubarb in the compote on the side of my seared lemon pound cake, and the basil in the ice cream that topped it off.
HUGO KOHL’s name even sounds interesting. A European name for an old world guy with a young guy’s presence. Hugo works out of a refurbished ice plant that is part jewelry museum and part shop, breathing new life into vintage jewelry. He’ll take you on a tour of his plant, let you watch his jewelry makers in action, and show off his big collection of hubs – the biggest in the country. Hubs are the hand-engraved molds used by bench jewelry makers in the heyday of filigree, signet rings, medallions and such – “the art of dimensional hand engraving at its zenith."
Hugo says that when he decided to make jewelry in a small town, he knew he needed something a little bigger, more ambitious, and completely authentic.
For a list and map of wineries near Harrisonburg, go to Virginia Wine in My Pocket