Chef Jason Alley, who has three kids and two restaurants, has an understanding of birth order.
His oldest restaurant, Comfort, is the place to get proper pimento cheese, meatloaf or country ham. Pasture, his second restaurant, is the rebellious little sister, serving black-eyed pea falafel, elote corn salad or curry-roasted cauliflower with black vinegar gastrique and Virginia peanuts.
In a way it’s the best of both worlds. Alley, who grew up the grandson of a preacher man in Appalachian southwest Virginia, can feel free to get as creative or be as authentic as he pleases in his Richmond restaurants, defying labels like “New South” along the way.
His philosophy shifts between riffing on Southern cuisine, and using Southern ingredients to riff on, well, any other style of cooking. If you think that sounds a little punk rock, you’d be right. Alley plays in a Spanish-speaking Ramones cover band when he’s not running his restaurants, or creating flash-mob-worthy summer pop-up concepts, or cooking at the James Beard House.
At the recent Trend to Table event at Rich’s Foodservice headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y., Alley demonstrated his “redneck” take on the Reuben sandwich, with pickle and cabbage slaw, house-made pastrami and Thousand Island dressing with fermented red-chili paste on an asiago roll. He also took time to chat with us.
Why did Comfort start out—and remain—the far more traditionally Southern, cuisine wise, of your restaurants?
In the 1970s and ‘80s, white flight hit the South really hard. Downtown Richmond 14 years ago was completely fallow. It was derelict. When we opened Comfort, if we wanted people to be risky and come downtown, they didn’t want to be challenged when they sat down to eat. So we built a solid reputation with our clientele.
And then they were ready for Pasture. How is it different?
It’s a more creative take on Southern food. I don’t like the term New South, but it kind of fits. It’s more playful, more experimental. That’s my jam. Not to the point of molecular gastronomy, but to kind of turn things on their ear.
I’ve heard your version of a Big Mac at Pasture is one of your top sellers?
Yes. We sell so many of these. Our burger is basically a Big Mac. We changed it once and it was like, pitch forks and torches. It’s straight Thousand Island dressing, house-made dill pickles, shredded lettuce, onion, white American cheese and Creekstone beef. At its heart, it’s a medium-rare Big Mac. No games on this one.
Why no games?
Because the only thing that you can do to improve on the flavor of the Big Mac is to improve the quality of the ingredients. The flavors themselves are right where they should be.
What’s another food you don’t really riff on very much?
Pimento cheese. It just doesn’t need it.
Speaking of burgers, what are your thoughts on buns?
If a sandwich bun is too hard, it pushes everything out the back. If it’s too soft, and your sandwich is anything of any substance, it falls apart. I’m always looking for that balance.
What’s an ingredient you’ve been excited about lately?
Popped sorghum. It’s like the tiniest popcorn. We haven’t really found a practical use for it yet.
What kind of dining establishment inspired your restaurants?
The meat and three. If you don’t know, it’s a really traditional homestyle place where you pick the protein and two or three sides; you tell the people what you want and they slop that on a tray. We do that, but it’s from the ground-up, from scratch.
I noticed on Instagram you did a lot of pop-up concepts this past summer?
Yes. You saw the bitmoji (a cartoon version of Alley with a rainbow shooting out of his heart). It was “Jason Loves” fill in the blank. Jason Loves Chicken Sandwiches. Or Jason Loves Tacos. For the chicken sandwiches, we had the options of Nashville hot or not hot, with slaw and potato wedges. The tacos were Southern-inspired: fried catfish or North Carolina chopped barbecue or braised mushroom for vegetarian. The pop-ups are really simple menus and limited choices. It’s supposed to be fun, not an arduous new menu.
We’re doing the catering for a brewery’s tasting room in Charlottesville, Va., with Southerned-up, country-fried tortas.
Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]