In any 11-course meal, there should perhaps be a little mystery. At Commune restaurant in January, this came courtesy of our server, 16-year-old Carson Poulos.
“Does anyone know why bread and butter pickles are called bread and butter pickles?” he called out to the room, apropos of nothing in particular — the dish in front of us at the time was a fried oyster plate of admirable complexity, layered with locally foraged chickweed greens you might recognize from every lawn you’ve ever stepped on.
Poulos waited, eyebrows cocked above his mask, with the confidence of someone who had all the answers.
He didn’t. He didn’t even have a guess. He was just hoping maybe someone could tell him about the pickles.
This wasn’t, as it turns out, an unreasonable expectation. After all, our server was also a student. Since December, Commune’s locations in Norfolk and Virginia Beach have been hosting a series of private dinners that amount to an experiment within an experiment.
On the one hand, the Commune X CROP dinners are an exercise in how to provide the classic experience of a fine-dining meal amid the anxiety of a worldwide pandemic. Twice a week, Commune offers up the restaurant’s entire space to a single group of diners at a time, free of worries about what other customers may have brought into the room.
With a reservation from Commune’s website, even a solitary couple on their anniversary who’ve ventured forth for the first time in months, can have a five-course wine-pairing dinner entirely by themselves for $150 a person, a brief respite from a world gone scary.
“We had one party ask if they could come in an hour early and have a so-called ‘happy hour,’” said Commune Norfolk executive chef Kip Poole, “It was their first time coming out since March, because they had a newborn. They said, ‘We just really want the whole experience.’”
On the other hand, these dinners are also part of a much bolder experiment in how to train a new generation of chefs and food industry professionals.
Beginning last August, in partnership with the restaurant, Poole’s nonprofit CROP Foundation has instated a four-season educational program in which chefs as young as 14 years old learn to prepare food from ingredients they may have grown or plucked themselves from Commune owner Kevin Jamison’s farm in Pungo.
And so for Poole, the pickles became a teachable moment. “Why don’t you go get the big book?” he told Poulos, pausing the dinner so his student could fetch a tome on the history of Southern cooking.
The answer, procured eventually from Google, was that the pickles weren’t Southern at all. Bread and butter pickles came about in Illinois, during another time of hardship: The Great Depression.
“The people who were making the pickles from their house used to barter them for bread and butter,” Poulos announced, triumphantly.
Teachable moment: redeemed.
A new generation of chefs
The student-assisted dinners are in some ways a culmination of work begun years ago by both Poole and Jamison — a confluence of Jamison’s longtime focus on locally grown and foraged and sustainable ingredients, and Poole’s work in culinary education.
At Commune, those strands have all become intertwined.
More than three years ago, Poulos had been part of Poole’s inaugural class of students at the Old Donation middle school in Virginia Beach, where students grew their own ingredients in a garden on school grounds.
“I started with chef Poole in the seventh grade, really,” Poulos said. “We made all the different meals from the school garden… that was something that got me interested in cooking and gardening.”
That led to Poulos serving crab and oysters for a meal with famed Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, and helping out at middle schools even after he’d moved on to high school, along with making summer meals for local students during the coronavirus pandemic. Poulos also picked up a paid gig working at Jamison’s bakery, Prosperity Kitchen.
“The people are always super enthusiastic about what they do and the greater purpose behind serving food, how to support the local community with our food that we’re serving,” said Poulos.
Poulos mostly helps out with events, he said. But the program’s eight official students, ages 14 to 23, are paid a small stipend by the CROP program for each season while learning the business of food at a working restaurant. Soon, Poole hopes to also offer college credit at local culinary programs.
The two mentors at the Commune x CROP program, both also chefs at Commune, are former students from CROP’s Delaware days, who’ve since gone on to work with some of the most renowned chefs in the country.
Brent Hillard, author of the aforementioned fried oyster plate, went to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York on a CROP Foundation scholarship in 2016, before working with chef Sean Brock at McCrady’s in South Carolina, and Jeremiah Langhorne at The Dabney in Washington.
The other mentor, Beatriz Balderas, came to work at Commune after a stint at Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, perhaps the most decorated restaurant in America in recent years.
But when she first met Poole, she said, she was a high school student too shy to speak English, after her family moved to Delaware from Guanajuato City in Mexico.
While learning about food through CROP, she said, it all started to click. She got a culinary scholarship from the foundation, which she also parlayed into a bachelor of arts degree. “I didn’t even think I’d be able to attend college,” she said. “It was something that was not even on my radar. So the fact that I got that opportunity was eye opening. It was mind blowing.”
Balderas plans eventually to work in education and sustainable agriculture, and so the program’s many prongs — farming at Jamison’s New Earth Farm, the seasonal influx of new students — were tempting enough to draw her away from working with chef Michael Solomonov at Zahav. Currently, she said, she’s teaching herself fermentation, and traditional earth-oven cooking, via online coursework.
The educational program at CROP is just months old and is still being formalized, Poole said. Eventually, it will be a progressive program that begins with job-shadowing by the students at the restaurant, and will proceed until the students are able to run the restaurant themselves under supervision.
For now, it’s a more improvised affair, with different students coming on at different times on a somewhat catch-as-catch-can basis, learning both at the farm and the restaurant. But there have already been a few revelatory moments for the students, Poole said.
“One of my students, he has autism,” Poole said. “So he isn’t experienced in a lot of things. He’s eaten fish at home, but he had no idea what a whole salmon looked like: that it had eyes and fins. So when we got rockfish in fresh, I got him to help me break it down, and he had no idea — it might seem simple to you — that those little pieces of fish came from a bigger fish.”
Was he horrified at the realization, we wondered?
“Oh, he was excited. He ate a little bit of it raw. He didn’t like it, to be honest with you,” Poole said. “But we used that fish to make a stock, and now he’s running home excited that he made a soup.”
Improvised private fine-dining
The elaborate private dinners, however, were not part of anyone’s plans until recently.
Those came about by accident, Poole said, after a group of local restaurant employees asked in December whether they could have a catered meal at Commune. The service-industry workers had otherwise been leery of going out during the pandemic.
Poole agreed, enlisting his students to help.
“And then after the meal, a student actually said, ‘Oh, man, that was fun. I wish we could do that again,” Poole remembered. “And I was like, ‘Why not?’”
Commune is generally a breakfast and lunch restaurant, closed by 3 pm. During dinner hours, the restaurant sits empty. And so Poole called up Jamison, and the two hatched a plan to run private high-end dinners a couple nights a week.
Diners in groups as small as two can sign up on Commune’s website by sending a query message, and this will start a back and forth process. A new four- or five-course menu is specially designed for each group, depending on the ingredients available and the allergies and predilections of each diner.
“If you want foie gras and A5 wagyu beef, I might have to charge you more,” Poole said.
Poole first draws up a draft of the menu, then works with Balderas and Hillard and the culinary students to flesh out each dish before proposing the menu to the customers. The customers’ response might spur a new round of adjustments. In all, the process of putting together a menu, might take a week.
“We’ll even change the music for them, change the lighting according to what each diner wants,” Poole said. “Our idea was, “What’s not being offered in the entire world right now?” It’s this. It’s the full experience of dining in a restaurant. I had four people last Saturday, just joking around, pretending it was their restaurant, that they were the owners. I loved it.”
Not just the food, but the art on the walls, may come from students — in this case, art students from Old Dominion University and the Governor’s School for the Arts. The wine and beer and cocktails are local, whether offbeat natural wines from Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, or a tequila toddy made with hemp grown on Jamison’s farm.
As it turned out, the student-assisted meals are far from elementary. A recent meal in January included some of the more sophisticated food available anywhere locally — if also inflected with the up-and-down experimental fervor of recent culinary school graduates.
The courses might include bread smoked on local fig-tree wood, served hanging from a gnarled branch of that same tree, alongside an imposing mesa of fresh-whipped and ashy wild-onion butter. There might be a crudo of rockfish caught the day before, topped with coal-roasted turnip. Or a bouquet of sugary winter carrots splayed out as an ode to the farm, accented with a complex guajillo-pepper chili oil.
Hillard’s fried-oyster small plate was both one of the most restrained and successful dishes — a play of crisped corn and freshly foraged green, accented with the light give and acidity of rutabaga relish.
But the dessert, a parsley cake designed on the fly by Balderas, was the most welcome surprise.
Parsley isn’t an herb you often think of for dessert. It is a side sprig and forgotten character actor, the Margo Martindale of herbs. It’s also one of few greens that grow fresh in the dead of winter, which meant New Earth Farm had a bumper crop.
As it happens, when mixed into a sweet and fluffy cake, the herb’s brightness and light pepper and bitterness open out into aromatic splendor, a Grinch-green crumble that can warm the heart, beneath a delicate quenelle of brown-butter ice cream.
The dessert was, in some ways, what the dinner was — an improvised showcase for the locally grown and maybe otherwise overlooked, allowed to bloom in an unexpected way.
Commune X CROP private dinners are available for reservation at communevb.com/private-dinners for dinners at Commune, 759 Granby St., Norfolk or 501 Virginia Beach Blvd., Virginia Beach. A baseline price of $150 a person includes at least four courses and alcohol pairings, but not gratuity.
Matthew Korfhage, email@example.com, 757-446-2318