Richmond, Virginia, Has Become a Culinary Powerhouse

A slew of food competition wins has shown the world that there’s something about Richmond, and the chefs of the River City are ready to shine.

Downtown Richmond, VA

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There are just some things you need to see for yourself, and it wasn’t until late August 2022 that I understood the hype about Richmond, Virginia. I had coordinated my arrival with a food-loving associate who was holding our spots in line — not for a club, but for the Young Mother pop-up in Richmond by Daniel Harthausen.

The first come, first serve seatings are well known in Richmond for lines that wrap around the block and food that’s so delicious you almost forget to snap a pic before diving in. This time, the intimate pop-up was at The Jasper, arguably the most well-known cocktail bar in the city’s Carytown neighborhood.

When the doors opened at 5 p.m., hungry guests flooded in for the kare (Japanese curry gravy over home fries with mozzarella and kimchi) and slurp-worthy dumplings that more than justified the hour wait.  

One thing Richmonders will do is support local. That sure-I’ll-give-it-a-try and commitment to community has spawned a lively restaurant scene with chefs who have the freedom to find their footing. 

With a slew of food competition wins and appearances, from Top Chef to Spring Baking Championship and most recently, HBO’s The Big Brunch, Richmond chefs are making the world take notice of the state’s capital. 

Justin Ross of JC Desserts

Eileen Daniel

"We lack nothing,” says pastry chef Keya Wingfield, winner of 2021’s Spring Baking Championship. But it wasn’t always like that. When Wingfield moved to Richmond from Mumbai 16 years ago, she experienced a culinary culture shock.

“There weren't that many food choices and given where I grew up, it felt lacking,” she says. “But I can't say that any longer, Richmond has created space for itself in the food scene and has earned a name, and rightly so.”

Richmond native and fellow Spring Baking Championship contestant Justin Ross of JC Desserts also noticed that change. 

Ross, who’s also worked at restaurants in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Florida, always knew he wanted to bring his talents back to Richmond, which he describes as a food town that sparked out of nowhere. 

“Even within the past 10 years, so many notable food establishments have popped up and grown roots here,” he says. “It's pretty remarkable. Chefs definitely see Richmond as a blank canvas where they feel comfortable shelling out new ideas and concepts and seeing what works with what they love doing.” 

Desserts from JC Desserts in Richmond, VA

Eileen Daniel

That “spark” was no doubt supported by a community that’s open to trying something new and giving chefs room to experiment, whether it's via a pop-up or new brick and mortar.

That freedom to explore is what helped Wingfield keep her business afloat during the pandemic. The pastry chef shifted to offering savory bites like naan pizzas, masala macaroni and cheese, and chana masala bowls. 

“This was the very first time I was letting my Indian ‘side’ show,” says Wingfield. “I still remember feeling extremely worried that not a single order [would] come through. But to my utter surprise, orders rolled in and for three months we made this custom menu and it helped to get to the other side and I didn't need to lay off any employees.” Her Bombay Chips, masala-spiced potato chips, were such a hit that they’re currently sold in a few local shops, and Wingfield is making plans for national expansion. 

The support from the community, but also local chefs, is something Wingfield loves about the city. That experience, however, hasn’t been universal: Harthausen says, “We've never really had a huge pool of mentors to shape the next generation of chefs.” 

He continues, “But I think that gave me a lot of individualism when it came to my food and I didn't become an echo of some former chefs' success. This can be a huge positive for the city as we start to see new people come up and find their voice with food.” Harthausen, who’s lived in Virginia since 2011 after moving from Korea, recently won HBO’s eight-episode The Big Brunch series. 

As Harthausen works to build a brick-and-mortar for his Young Mother concept (after hosting close to 30 pop-ups, which he describes as “the most confusing mixture of comfort and stress”), Virginia native Kelli Lemon sees the city and its resources as a natural home not just for new restaurants and chefs, but also entrepreneurs in general.

Lemon, owner of the Urban Hang Suite and one of the founders of the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, a marketing and promotion resource for Black-owned culinary brands, says, “Richmond has figured out a way to be this interesting hub for entrepreneurship. That’s our thing. We breed very small ideas into big things.”

JewFro in Richmond, VA

Courtesy of Visit Richmond

Those big things include Richmond Black Restaurant Experience helping the 40 participating businesses generate $1 million in sales during 2022’s restaurant week, the growth of innovative spots like JewFro (Jewish and African eats), a pop-up turned brick-and-mortar like Sprezza that brings a taste of Puglia to the River City, and even a growing non-alcoholic beverage scene from a city that’s known for its more than 30 breweries. 

“We’ve evolved as this dope place that has bred some great culinary concepts.” says Lemon. 

In addition to benefiting residents, Harthausen also sees this culinary boom for tourists visiting the city, which is just 90 miles from the nation’s capital. 

“I've heard before that Richmond feels like a subsection of a large city. Everything you could get from a neighborhood in New York kind of scattered across a whole city,” says Harthausen.

“For people to be able to experience all that in a weekend trip, while staying in Richmond, is pretty special.”

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