Wednesday, May 05, 2010
A restaurant to call her own
After years of working for other people, this chef has a new restaurant, Natasha's Market Cafe.
Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times
Natasha Shishkevish describes her cuisine as "country comfort food" with an upscale twist.
Natasha's Market Cafe is upstairs from the Harvest Moon Foodstore in Floyd.
Food writer Lindsey Nair
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FLOYD -- Most chefs I interview tell me they always dreamed of becoming a chef and owning their own restaurant.
They tell tales of cooking with their mothers as children, of having an innate curiosity about flavors that drove them to culinary school and their destined careers.
Natasha Shishkevish is not like most chefs I interview. When she was a little kid in Washington, D.C., her Russian mother wouldn't even let her help out in the kitchen.
"I was allowed to grease pans -- that was it," she said, "because I made such a mess."
Obviously, that all changed, because when I met Shishkevish last week, it was in her new restaurant, Natasha's Market Cafe in Floyd. The restaurant is the culmination of decades in the food business working as a caterer, a teacher and an executive chef.
At some point, the 49-year-old Shishkevish learned how to do a whole lot more than grease pans.
Finding her way
Shishkevish's parents both emigrated from Russia to New York City in the 1940s. They soon settled in Washington, D.C., where her father took a job at the Library of Congress.
Food was incredibly important in their household, but it was not something that was rushed through, said Shishkevish (pronounced Shish-KEV-ish). They liked to linger over their meals and talk.
When she left for college, Shishkevish went to study theater at Towson University in Maryland. She earned money working odd jobs, which included catering. She and her friends joked that if the theater thing didn't work out, they could always cater for a living.
At one point during college, Shishkevish called her mom for instructions on roasting a whole chicken. Her mother forgot to tell her to remove the baggie of organs from inside the bird before she cooked it.
That episode is what probably drove her sister to give her a book, Craig Claiborne's "Kitchen Primer." It started with a recipe for boiling water and ended with one for duck a l'orange. She cooked her way through the book, and the grand finale was serving duck a l'orange to a friend at a fancy, well-set, dining room table.
The food turned out well, but her cat jumped on the table and caught fire on the candelabra. The cat survived just fine, as did Shishkevish's fascination for cooking.
After graduation, directing jobs were hard to come by.
"The competition was ridiculous and I wasn't very good," Shishkevish said, chuckling.
One day, a friend pointed out to Shishkevish that she talked about food and gardening all the time. She took the hint and went back to school at age 26 -- this time to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to study the calling to which she had long been so oblivious.
Although some culinary school graduates expect to own their own restaurant within a few years of graduation, Shishkevish is again a little different.
She worked as a roundsman, or swing cook, before teaching baking at Baltimore International Culinary School. Later, she ran a kitchen for an inn in Ohio before coming to Virginia in 2000 to be executive chef at Chateau Morrisette in Floyd.
While employed there, she started to frequent a new restaurant in Floyd called Oddfella's Cantina. She knew it had a lot of potential, so when the job of executive chef came open in 2002, she snatched it.
There, Shishkevish created a menu filled with international flavors. Asked to describe the cuisine, she can only say it was "wildly eclectic" and "schizophrenic, in a way."
But by 2007, she said, she had burned out on running other people's kitchens.
She filled the next few years with catering jobs and consulting work, helping to design the kitchen and recipes at the Floyd Country Store and Over the Moon Cafe, which was upstairs from Harvest Moon, Floyd's natural foods co-op.
When Over the Moon Cafe closed, Shishkevish figured it was time she opened a restaurant she could call her own.
Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur and an investor in Natasha's Market Cafe, was behind the idea right away.
"She really knows the market," Flynt said, "and she has a big following."
Fresh is best
Natasha's Market Cafe is a beautiful space with hardwood floors and colorful hand-tiled accents. Little pots of herbs grow on glass shelves in the massive windows, and local potters display their wares on shelves at one side of the room.
It's called a "market cafe," in part, because the chef sources about 75 percent of her ingredients from local farmers. Most produce comes from Good Food-Good People, a consortium of local growers, and the meat comes from a couple of New River Valley farms.
"It's not so much the carbon footprint thing as I want to put money into this little community," Shishkevish said. "If it isn't produced locally, I try to at least buy it at a local store. I try not to buy too much from big companies."
She describes her cuisine as "country comfort food" with an upscale twist. Because the ingredients are seasonal, the menu is ever-changing.
When I visited, for example, the menus featured an asparagus and smoked trout salad with fish from Big Pine Trout Farm in New Castle, French-style Salisbury steak, a savory cheesecake with shiitake mushroom, roasted pepper and smoked gouda, "grown up" mac-and-cheese with crispy local ham, and an Italian sausage sandwich with sausage made in-house.
Shishkevish buys animals whole or in halves and breaks them down herself with an eye toward using as much of the animal as possible. Larry Bright, who sells beef, pork and chicken from his Floyd farm to Natasha's, said he appreciates that.
"From my point of view as an animal raiser, that's where it's at," Bright said. "In order for local food to be sustainable in restaurants, they have to use it all and not just the prime cuts. We've been very happy with what she's done."
Shishkevish has created a wine bar in the restaurant, which also has a large outdoor dining space. She thought briefly about offering live music, but it didn't take her long to realize that other Floyd restaurants have that base covered and that's not what she wants for her place.
"I want a place where people can talk" and linger over their meals the way her Russian family liked to do, she said.
Despite all the food industry experience she has collected over the years, Shishkevish is still very humble about her cooking skills.
"It's not that I do anything special or different," she said. "I'm not a wizard in the kitchen. I just use good stuff."
Lindsey Nair's column runs in Wednesday's Extra.
Recipes for homemade freezer pops at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet/