The self-taught Jason Alley has been cooking since he was old enough to reach the stovetop at his boyhood home in rural Virginia. He’s a big boy now, and he’s stretching horizontally in Richmond, VA, where followers rave about the "local food cooked simply" at his Comfort and Pasture concepts. Pasture, which opened last year, has already branched out to a second location, in Charlottesville, VA. We recently caught up with this self-deprecating chef.
RH: Your style has been described as local food, simply prepared. How do you define that?
Alley: We do try to do what we can locally, but year-round there is only so much we can do. We do serve a lot of local meats and vegetables. Right now we’re using pumpkin, squash and kale. We also do a lot of pickling. Whatever vegetables we get, if we don’t use them immediately, we put up.
We also do all of our butchery in house. We make sausages and cure our own bacon, and if you get a burger here it will be local ground beef done up like a Big Mac, but all house made.
It’s simple—to an extent. We do all the work ahead of time to put out a fairly straightforward plate.
RH: Pickling is so on-trend right now. What have you pickled lately?
Alley: We have onions, shallots, beets, cauliflower, bread and butter pickles, spicy dill pickles, carrots, green beans…a lot of stuff. We use them in recipes, and we also do pickle plates.
RH: It seems like small plates are at odds with Southern cooking. How do the two mesh at Pasture?
Alley: A lot of what we are doing there is Southern, in that the ingredients are Southern and the cooks are Southern. So we serve steak tartare, with meat from a farm in West Virginia, and instead of cornichons we serve it with our dilly beans. We have local oysters and clams. We’ll make a fried rice with house-made ham.
We also do about five entrees. Some people just don’t like to share.
RH: How does the menu there compare with Comfort, your original concept?
Alley: Comfort is much more traditionally Southern. It’s set up as a “meat and three,” and the menu is on a chalkboard that changes pretty regularly. We always have meatloaf and catfish and other entrees. There are about 13 sides—you pick the protein and two or three sides. It’s much more traditional in its approach, but we using local ingredients and make everything in house.
RH: Do you cook some of your family recipes?
Alley: Sure, although the recipes have been a little tweaked. I am trying to give Southern food the respect that I feel it deserves. So you will see some classical techniques in our kitchens. We make cornbread every night, and instead of bacon fat we use olive oil and butter. I cook the same meat and vegetables that I ate growing up. But the mushroom gravy doesn’t come out of a packet. We make demi-glace for our gravy.