A community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

The Soup Makers

Local Chefs Warm Up Winter Meals

By Theresa Curry

Mark Gresge of l’etoile catering. Photo: Theresa Curry.

It seems that all you have to do is simmer a pot of soup in Crozet and a cold, hungry world beats a path to your door.

Camille Phillips, owner and soup maker at Greenhouse Coffee, said customers are always trying to get her to rush the season. She stands fast. Soup’s not like coffee, where people gulp it down regardless of the weather. The temperature has to dip below 50 degrees before she hauls out her giant pots for the six or so gallons of soup she serves each day. “If I give in and start when it’s too warm, I’ll end up throwing some away,” she said.

These days, Phillips offers several vegetarian soups, many of them without milk, cream or cheese as well, a trend she plans to carry over to other restaurant offerings. “People just seem to want that,” she said. She’s glad to oblige, incorporating a variety of root and leafy vegetables into her daily soup menu, but she also finds an enthusiastic audience for meat-based soups like her chicken and sausage gumbo.

Phillips adds flavor with the classic fragrant vegetables that the French call a mirepoix: most commonly carrots, celery and onions. For her vegetable soup, she uses the recipe perfected by Mark Bittman, long-time food writer for the New York Times, which incorporates Swiss chard, celery and white beans in his “Best Vegetable Soup Ever, No Kidding” recipe. Phillips likes to enrich her vegetable soups with a vegetable bullion for depth and color; and add flavorings appropriate for the ethnic origins of her soups, like ginger and lime juice for sweet potato soup.

“It’s the perfect meal,” she said. “We have it at home ourselves with bread at least twice a week in the winter.”

Mark Gresge, l’etoile Catering

It’s a humble occupation, making soup, said Mark Gresge: “We’re not building a piano here. There’s room for adjustment and even mistakes.” Gresge makes dozens of quarts of soup every Wednesday, selling them from a cooler on the porch of his catering operation on Jarman’s Gap Road until he runs out.

Making soup was a familiar early morning routine when Gresge was the chef-owner of l’etoile in Charlottesville, and he missed it. Today, it’s a hopeful, homey beginning to a long day in the commercial kitchen. “I’m here all day, anyway,” he said. “One day, I just put a note up on my catering website (l’etoileCatering.com) that I was making soup and would leave it outside.”

At first, people could leave cash and make change from a tackle box, but someone helped themselves to the day’s take in the few minutes it took the chef to pick up his kids from school. It’s not much more elaborate now, but customers do put money or checks through a slot, and don’t have access to the till. He sometimes finds notes and IOUs in the box, and that’s fine.

“I wanted this to be fun, low-key,” he said. It’s okay if customers want to come inside to pay; and okay if they’re in a hurry and just want to quickly leave their money and be on their way.

Gresge sees the soup business—a small sidelight to his popular l’etoile Catering—as a way to tap into the nurturing aspect he loved about serving the public in a restaurant setting.

He gets requests from people caring for the sick. “I’m always humbled,” he said. “Soup has these connections with home and your mother or grandmother, your history.”

Gresge encourages those who love his soup to try stock at home, simmering the meat stocks long and slow (you can start as simply as with a rotisserie chicken carcass in a crockpot, he says), or vegetable stocks with onions, including skins for color. He salts and peppers in stages: “You can’t undo it once it’s too salty.” Sautéed fresh onions, carrots, celery, and garlic also add flavor to the slow-simmered stock. Then he adds the seasonal vegetables, meat or beans that make each soup individual.

“Soup’s a time-honored way to use leftovers, but try planning a meal around it,” Gresge advises novice soup makers. “If you have extra produce from the garden, a fresh whole chicken, or an unfamiliar item in your CSA box, chances are it will make a great soup.”

Claudia Gibson, Claudia Gibson Catering

Long-time Nelson County caterer Claudia Gibson makes soup year round from fresh vegetables, rotating a stock of soups in her freezer for people to take home: carrot ginger, squash bisque, corn chowder, Thai peanut, tortilla, cream of mushroom and West African ground nut stew. She tries to keep all her soups seasonal: “In the summer I make cold soups like gazpacho, cucumber, watermelon gazpacho,” she said, Most are plant-based; some have cream or milk; and she makes meat- and fish-based soups to order. Gibson also caters, and sells baked goods, frozen dinners, salad dressings and other homemade products along with her soups.

Her kitchen is at the Rockfish Community Center on Route 151, where she’s been cooking for 17 years. That’s where people can stop by to pick up a hot bowl of soup and fresh homemade roll, or grab one of the frozen soups to take home.

Right now, says Gibson, the most popular soup is the West African Ground Nut Stew, with chick peas, sweet potato, tomato, red peppers, onion, garlic and ginger in a peanut sauce broth. She likes it, too: “It’s very satisfying and filling.”

“Soup is such a great food item because it fits so many niches,” Gibson said. “Its delicious, comforting, healthy. When someone is ill, what better food item to comfort and heal?”

Gibson’s Rockfish kitchen will be closed until the end of February. Find offerings on her website, claudiacatering.com

Around Downtown Crozet

Trey Wilkerson of Sam’s Hot Dog Stand. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Most of the area’s full service restaurants offer soup as a side or first course, but soup also pops up at places where you wouldn’t expect it. At the Mudhouse, there’s a new executive chef, Tracy McCauley, (formerly of Greencroft), who began offering soup almost as soon as she arrived in December. “We try to keep those in mind who don’t eat meat or gluten,” she said. Like the other soup makers, she uses aromatic vegetables (the mirepoix) to build flavor. For her gumbos, she’ll switch to a slightly different combination, called “the trinity” by New Orleans chefs: celery, onions and peppers.

You might not expect to find soup at a hot dog stand, but Crozet Sam’s Hot Dogs franchise owner Trey Wilkerson began offering it last winter and saw how much people loved it. “I have the potatoes, beans, carrots, onions and tomatoes here anyway,” he said, “so it’s easy to make soup from scratch.” Before taking over the popular franchise, Wilkerson worked as a line cook at a number of fine dining restaurants in Charlottesville, so it’s no challenge for him, he said. He makes a different batch every couple of days: potato, two-bean chili, Brunswick stew, loaded vegetable soup, You won’t find soup here in warm weather, Wilkerson said: “This is not the kind of place people will come in for gazpacho or vichyssoise.”

Over at Public West at Old Trail, people have loved the specialty soups–prime rib, black bean and bacon, French onion, she-crab and others—so much that the popular oyster bar has started offering soup to go. Manager Gretchen Daub said they have to watch the level of the soup pot, though, as it’s not unusual for them to get low on a busy night.

Soup’s On!

Greenhouse Coffee, Downtown Crozet

  • Cup, $3.50; bowl, $4.95, every day except Sunday, in season

Crozet Mudhouse, Downtown Crozet

  • $4.92 for bowl with large cornbread square

Sam’s Hot Dogs, Downtown Crozet

  • $2.25 for bowl, Check sign outside

Public West, Old Trail

  • $7 in house or to go, Call first to carry out, 434-812-2909

L’etoile Catering, Jarmans Gap Road

  • Quart to go, $10, Wednesdays until soup sells out

Claudia Gibson Catering, Afton

  • $5 for pint container, Rockfish Valley Community Center, Fridays 10-2 after March 1
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