Born in 1824, John Dabney enhanced Richmond’s palate with his amazing culinary capabilities as a caterer. Praise may seem unwarranted for such an occupation, but running a successful African-American-owned business during the 19th century was no small feat.
Though enslaved during the first part of his life, he was emancipated after the Civil War Mr. Dabney learned versatility by serving as a head waiter, cook, and hotel bartender all throughout Richmond. Upon receiving his freedom he, along with his wife, opened a restaurant around 1870. Requested throughout Virginia, favorites among his customers included his famous mint julep, terrapin stew, and a perfectly prepared duck dish. Although aware of the racism that surrounded him, he didn’t allow that to stop his ability to bring people together through the influence of food.
Hosted at the newly opened Quirk Hotel in the beginning of November, the Dabney Dinner was truly a stellar event. The art deco, boutique-styled hotel is located only a few steps away from downtown Richmond. With its bright colors but elegant, open layout, it only seemed natural to hold such an event in the hotel’s restaurant, Maple & Pine, to honor Mr. Dabney on the last day of this year’s Fire, Flour, & Fork.
Attendees included John Dabney’s great-great grandson; Tiffanie Barriere, lead bartender at the James Beard Award-nominated One Flew South, known for their impeccable service; and cookbook author Toni Tipton-Martin, whose book The Jemima Code was recently highlighted in the New York Times. Together each spoke at different points throughout the amazing dinner prepared by Virginia Rising Star Chef David Dunlap.
Quirk’s attention to detail was duly noted as mint juleps were passed around before a five course dinner ensued, which began with plump oysters topped with crispy bacon, roasted tomatoes, sweet corn, and smoked shrimp; the bivalve, paired with a light Portugal rosé hinted we were in for a real treat.
This was followed by a Churchill terrapin stew, one of Dabney’s specialties. If bread had been served alongside I’m sure people wouldn’t have been embarrassed to sop the bowl. Tender morsels of chicken and steamed root vegetables were combined with lemon and sherry to deliver a simple but comforting dish. Chef Dunlap’s duck rendition included lightly searing the skin, enhancing its textural component while showcasing excellently controlled sweetness through preserved orange and vanilla soaked figs.
Continuing on the game meat trail, a beautifully sous vide piece of venison was accompanied by sautéed sunchokes, tart green apples, pungent red onions, and juniper berries. Lively conversations were inevitable as guests couldn’t stop talking about the food and drinking the delicious wine.
Almost bursting at the seams, dessert arrived paying homage once again to John’s distinguished mint julep, this time in the form of a semifreddo with mint meringue and rose granola. It was immensely enjoyed and that is what the beauty of food is all about. It is welcoming and transparent, explorative and full of life, but more importantly, it is inclusive and should never be exclusive — just as John Dabney envisioned and executed his restaurant and catering business almost 150 years ago.