The Dish-The humble chef: Why Clifton's Yoder won't always go green

Humility isn't always found in upscale kitchens, but newly hired Clifton Inn executive chef Tucker Yoder says he isn't beyond pulling weeds or digging up carrots with the local farmers who source his food–- or catering to some special orders. Or unspecial orders.

"We recently had a guest who requested plain grilled chicken for dinner every night," recalls Yoder. "If that's what someone wants, we'll cook it for them.

"She even complimented the kitchen before she left," says a grinning Yoder, showing a talent for deadpan humor as well.

The 34-year-old has arranged Clifton's prix fixe menus to help guests identify the "body" of the food: delicate, light, full, etc. The food is earthy, raw, and austere. It offers a haute cuisine experience without fuss or pretension.

That's the attitude found on Yoder's blog, aptly named The Humble Chef. Yet, he's a graduate of New England Culinary Institute helping to make Clifton one of only eight southern American properties in the prestigious Relais & Ch¢teaux consortium.

He's so serious about seasonal, locally sourced food that he's willing to challenge long-time regulars–- well-heeled denizens from the eastern edge of the County accustomed to buttery French cuisine like big steaks and thick sauces served in the middle of winter with green vegetables.

"Do you see anything green out there?" says Yoder, gesturing out the windows.

So a winter Clifton menu might include a grey mushroom flan with pumpkin, shallots, and a house-made white tofu surrounded by roasted pumpkin seeds, or a fall squash ragout with chestnuts and sage.

One isn't limited to the local at Clifton, and if the ambitious Meritage from the DelFosse vineyard still has too much youthful Virginia soil in its soul, a disciplined French Gigondas or Chateauneuf du Pape should do the trick. (Turkish-born Sommelier Deniz Dikmen can help you figure that out.)

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Pennsylvania native Yoder began cooking in high school when his mother became ill. He washed dishes at a local restaurant, read cookbooks, and tuned in to "Great Chefs, Great Cities" on the Discovery Channel. After getting his Culinary Institute diploma, there were stints at The Ryland Inn and Clio in Boston before he landed in Charlottesville to work under former Oxo chef John Haywood. He first joined Clifton as sous chef in 2005.

Three years ago, however, Charlottesvillian-turned-Lexingtonian John Blackburn was opening the Red Hen, a gastro-pub style restaurant in a renovated 150-year old former chapel with an audacious plan to source 95 percent of the food from within a 50-mile radius. Yoder says running that kitchen prepared him for his return to Clifton.

“Chefs and the media have made the 'farm-to-table' idea a huge trend in the food world,” says Yoder. “In this part of the country, though, it is a way of life.”