Chef Collin Donnelly wins the 2012 Small Town Chef Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.
To be a success, a small town chef with big-city cooking chops needs to walk the tightwire of trend and tradition, to find a way into the hearts of locals—who may be on the conservative side—with a deft combination of the familiar and the deliciously inventive. “In a small town, they don’t care if it’s trendy,” Collin Donnelly says. “They just want it to be good.”
Donnelly walks that line with tremendous skill. Take his Porchetta with Pon Haus dish: It’s pork and scrapple at its core, but it’s one of the most refined and elevated hog jowl and grits dishes you’re likely to find. He takes ingredients steeped in local history (grits from the 18th-century Wade’s Mill, for instance) and repackages them deliciously, without a hint of snobbery or condescension.
“We try to incorporate the spirit of the Shenandoah Valley and its homesteading tradition,” he says. “You use as much of what’s local as you can, but in inspired and interesting ways.”
Donnelly was raised in Alabama and honed his chops at a number of fine dining restaurants around the country before landing at The Red Hen two years ago. “In a small town, I fit in,” he says. “The pace is easier for me to manage.” He served most recently as a cook at Blackberry Farm, the renowned Relais & Châteaux luxury resort in Tennessee. There, he learned the art of charcuterie from the farm’s butcher, Michael Sullivan.
Donnelly serves house-cured meats and does his fair share of snout-to-tail cooking. “Part of the fun of cooking is to use the whole animal and show people that there’s more to the pig than just pork chops.”
But he also avails himself of the local region’s agricultural bounty, often in unexpected ways: A beet green kimchi pairs with chive spaetzle; lemon verbena–compressed watermelon went with Chesapeake crab on a menu this summer; and tomatoes and peaches melded into a gazpacho with lavender and biscuit croutons.
“This town is blessed with a number of excellent restaurants,” says Georgie Young, who runs Wade’s Mill with her husband. “The Red Hen is exceptional as our first farm-to-table restaurant.”
Donnelly’s wife, Amanda Bertschi, wears a number of hats at The Red Hen: sommelier, pastry chef (she’s a New England Culinary Institute grad, like him), and official taster. “She’s got a better palate than I do,” says Donnelly.
He vows to continue to challenge customers with what one of his regulars calls “edgy comfort food.”
“It takes people a while to realize there’s more to meat than steaks,” he says, “but we’re getting there.”