The Elbys, which is only in its second year, recognizes those striving for greatness in our restaurant community. The event is named for local chef Paul Elbling who came to Richmond from Alsace and set the bar for fine dining here decades ago.
Years later we are so fortunate to have a varied and vibrant food scene that is growing every day. Richmond Magazine came up with the Elby Awards to chronicle that growth.
I think the restaurant community is collectively grateful and
some folks have wondered how the event works and how they can contribute to make it better. I wanted to ask Susan Winiecki, the founder of the Elbys and editor-in-chief at Richmond Magazine about what she has learned the past two years and where she sees our restaurant community going.
How did the Elbys come to be?
SW By fall 2011, you literally feel the shift in the Richmond food scene. There was a sense of camaraderie within the chef community, our farmers markets had taken off, we were coming off an incredible Broad Appetit/Off Broad Appetit in June, young chefs were pushing themselves with special dinners, pop-ups, and food trucks, and plenty of new collaborations were going on. The micro brew scene and craft cocktail scene were growing, too. The time felt right to put together an event to celebrate and recognize what was going on. Richmond doesn’t have a restaurant association, so we thought there was a need to fill with this event.
What so far, have been the most challenging aspects in pulling off such an event?
SW Trying to keep the event affordable but at the same time deliver a memorable night of food, drink and a bit of visual impact is the goal. The VMFA helped us deliver that this year with its magnificent spaces. We want the public and entire restaurant staffs to attend. We offer a $50 discounted ticket for employees of nominated restaurants and a $65 ticket to the public. There have been some requests for a sit-down dinner/ceremony a la Golden Globes but the costs of doing that are far higher. This year, we had a cocktail party afterward with food prepared by the culinary training programs in the city, and I think the students and their teachers really brought it!
Where do you think Richmond’s food scene is headed?
SW A couple of years ago, Dana Cowin at Food and Wine magazine came up with a list of seven things that she feels define a food town. I think the list still is a good barometer. 1. Markets that make great ingredients accessible.2. Artisan stores dedicated to singular perfection: bread, espresso, chocolate, ice cream. 3. An exciting wine scene and interesting sommeliers. 4. Sophisticated cocktail programs and bar chefs. 5. A new generation of young chefs with fresh ideas .6. Destination restaurants. 7. Maverick chefs.
As far as No. 1, South of the James Market is the granddaddy. On No. 2, check out SubRosa,.Gearhart’s Chocolates, Belmont Butchery, Can Can for morning croissants, and the divine Gelati Celesti. The Lamplighter and Globehopper get my votes for talented community coffee houses. As for No. 4, we have some restaurants who have gifted souls in charge of their spirits programs, and beer programs are coming on strong,too. We have one restaurant, The Roosevelt, who chose to have a wine list with only Virginia wines. I think it’s safe to say we have room to grow with all, but especially No. 3, No. 6 and No. 7.
What have you learned since the first Elbys and what do you hope to do differently in the future?
SW We are still in this event’s toddler years. We are still tinkering with categories to reflect our food scene. This year we added culinary student of the year and excellence in service. I want to do a roundtable with some attendees from this year on how we can improve. We want to ask past Elby winners to contribute nominations next year, and we are considering a people’s choice category.
Right now, we receive nominations from 30 industry types who are not currently working as restaurant chefs/managers; food writers; food reviewers; and bloggers in the Richmond community. The four nominees in each category are each visited by judges (not affiliated with Richmond magazine and again not currently working as restaurant chefs) during January and February. Those judges ate and drank themselves through more than $4,000 worth of receipts as they visited and rated the nominees. We keep their identities secret, as they do with the RAMMYs in D.C.
It’s far, far from perfect, but we are trying to deliver an evening that people don’t want to miss and an evening that highlights all the nominees. We also want it to be an evening that gives back to the community, so making sure there are net proceeds for food-related charities is another goal.
What did you think of this year’s Elbys? Please feel free to leave a comment. Below are some amateur (iphone) pics that I took at the event.