A hundred pounds of raw beef. Two giant gaping grouper. Cases of pickled peaches, foraged mushrooms and rare whisky. This is what chefs bring to a three-day potluck.
Seven years ago, chef Brian Voltaggio asked sheep rancher Craig Rogers if the staff from Volt Restaurant in Frederick, Maryland, could come camp out and cook at his several hundred-acre Border Springs Farm in Patrick County. That first cookout quickly swelled to nearly 100 chefs, and Lambstock has been growing ever since, attracting celebrities like Sean Brock, Vivian Howard and Edward Lee, among others, with its underground vibe. From New York to New Orleans, hundreds of food industry insiders come annually to cook on outdoor fires, swap recipes and techniques, taste new ingredients and share bottles of bourbon while live music drifts over the rolling farmland.
This piece originally appeared in Virginia Living magazine
Why would chefs who work 14-hour days drive for hours to cook on their day off? “It’s about chefs having an opportunity for fellowship amongst themselves,” says Rogers. “That’s the reason we don’t open it to the public. Nobody is on display, there’s no pressure. Just appreciating where food comes from and how you go about honoring it.”
I’ve come to see the chefs in action at Lambstock, and do some serious eating.
I arrive with a group from Richmond, and we camp under some trees at the edge of a pasture full of other tents about 200 yards slightly downhill from Rogers’ house, toting our gear and food in a golf cart. About a hundred yards away in a neighboring pasture a small stage is set up for the live music that will start around dinnertime, and a a sizeable drink tent is stocked with beer, wine, cider and liquor. There are also several fire pits here, and a long row of tables and folding chairs, all tightly clustered around the 20 feet by 80 feet open-air kitchen pavilion where it’s a flurry of lunch prep.
Kent Graham, who recently moved to Memphis but still runs the Field Dog Kitchen food truck in Atlanta, is deep-frying chicken in one of the Cowboy Cauldrons—a massive steel pot hanging over a fire. While we wait, we snack on a charcuterie platter with pork lardo and roasted foraged mushrooms.
Serving dishes appear and disappear as chefs plate up roasted meats, pickles, savory sides and sourdough breads, then those who aren’t cooking devour them. “Lambstock is one giant laboratory,” Graham says. “Last year, for example, I got handed some lamb testicles. I shaved them and flash fried them, then made a Coca-Cola reduction. It was so good it ended up on my menus.”
Next to Graham, long brown hair pulled back, is Lilly Gray Warren, former sous at Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, who now cooks at pop up restaurants in Raleigh. Graham hands her a cold bottle of beer. She looks at it, shrugs, and pours it into her pot of grits.
“Here it’s not about the perfect detail, it’s all about flavor,” she says. “You can try new things because it’s a one-off, not something you have to cook the same way every day over and over.” The beer grits are tangy and rich. I make a note to try that trick at home.
Jeff Farmer, chef at Fortunato and Lucky in Roanoke, is on the Lambstock prep line, tossing roasted pigs feet with hot sauce. A trotter is something chefs love, but would never cook at work, because it “is too much to throw on a plate at the restaurant.” Next to the kitchen, Craig Reeves, a catering chef from Williamsburg, quietly sets up a small table spread with lambs-head tamales and garnishes. He stands back and smiles as a small crowd forms and the tamales disappear: “Last year I came prepared to cook but I was overwhelmed.” He’s been planning the tamales ever since. (Chefs can be part of a bigger meal or do something on their own, there are no rules, he explains.)
The crowd swells to about 300 hungry people, as a crew of chefs from Virginia and North Carolina prep dinner. Vivian Howard from Chef and the Farmer arrives, trailing a crew filming her PBS show, A Chef’s Life. She sets up next to Jim Ertel of Richmond’s Salisbury Country Club, who is working with a container of Asian noodles. He slides his cheap plastic bin next to Howard’s antique wire basket of colorful Shishito peppers, nudges Howard and grins: No style here, only substance.
As a bluegrass band onstage sounds the fiddle and banjo, rich wood smoke wafts through the kitchen pavilion from the fire pit, where a lamb hangs on a spit and ducks dangle from their long necks. Chef and forager Jitti Chaithiraphant from Boston applies a marinade with a brush made of nearby pine and shiso leaves. He is cooking with Mike Wajda, of Proof on Main in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kosta Kontogiannis, who is planning a new restaurant in Baltimore. The three swap foraged mushrooms, homemade vinegars, pickles and stories as they eye the meats and create side dishes.
“At Proof we did a bourbon sauerkraut,” Wajda is saying. “Fermented it in a Pappy Van Winkle barrel for two months. We called it Pappy Van Kraut.” Laughter ensues. The sun dips low as all around us chefs meet or reunite around food, swapping stories, sharing ingredients and demonstrating techniques.
Dinner appears: Lamb banh mi, lamb nachos, roast duck, Thai green curry, lamb enchiladas, chicken bao and so much more. Diners spread out on the hay-bale seating, balancing plates on their knees, eating with fingers and passing bottles of wine, hard cider and brown liquor.
As the food settles, Durham-based hip-hop artist Shirlette Ammons takes the Lambstock stage and gets the crowd dancing. Meanwhile, in the outdoor kitchen, my husband Eric Lindquist, a former chef who is making breakfast in the morning, hunts for breakfast sausage. He chats with Knoxville-based Michael Sullivan, who sells beef for Creekstone Farms. They discuss flavor profiles, and Sullivan offers to mix up a few pounds of lamb and sage sausage to stow away for morning.
The food (and bourbon) doesn’t stop coming until after midnight, when Ian Robbins of Williamsburg Winery cranks out a tub of cinnamon ice cream, and chef Jon Roberts fires up the wood oven for a variety of his signature late-night pizzas. The music plays on, with a new band every hour switching it up from bluegrass to folk to rock covers. Craig Rogers takes the stage with a few words about the value of farm-to-table eating as the crowd cheers. The night ends with people drifting back across the field to their tents to fall into deep food comas.
As the early sun slants through the kitchen, a few late-nighters are snoozing in chairs and on hay bales around the outdoor kitchen. They stir and help pick up empty beer bottles as Eric rolls out biscuits for the still-hot pizza oven and starts the gravy.
Chef Ertel’s helpers are like kids with a new toy, excitedly commandeering a cauldron to make corned-lamb hash with fried duck eggs. As I clear off the serving table, Joe and Heidi Trull appear with Coca-Cola chocolate pound cake and fried hand pies from their South Carolina restaurant, Grits & Groceries. Early risers gobble these up, then dig into the hot food as we plate it. Team RVA’s breakfast disappears quickly, and then we pass the fire to someone else.
Bill Hartley, formerly of the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and soon opening Postal Fish Company in Pittsboro, North Carolina, takes over the prep tables. He and business partner James Clark edge aside our breakfast pans and start readying lunch, wrapping their grouper in chicken wire for the fire pit.
“This is a big party, and it’s fun to cook with other chefs,” says Hartley. “At food festivals it’s head down, serving food. Then all you want to do is pack up and take off. But here, you stay around so you can socialize. And you get ideas for things you want to try.”
Chef Arthur Mueller of Little Hen in Apex, North Carolina, starts prepping quail with a cherry-bourbon glaze as we clean our pans. After a quick lunch plate of Hartley’s grouper and citrus slaw from Chris Fultz at Richmond’s ZZQ, it’s time for us to pack our knives and go. We say our goodbyes, load one of the golf carts with our camping gear and drive to the car.
Behind us, the food just keeps coming.
To get the Lambstock recipes, visit Virginia Living magazine, where this piece first appeared.