SPECIAL- WEDDINGS- Field-to-fork... to altar? New caterer sets the bar higher


Catering is catering, isn't it? Occasionally caterers bring pizzaz and punch to their menu– and occasionally, stereotypically, they don't. For a community as foodie as Charlottesville claims to be, catering standards incorporate current cuisine buzzwords: local, organic, farm-to-table. And while many local caterers and food providers offer brides a wide variety of options– from refined tastes to casual picnics, gourmet food-and-wine pairings to relaxed Southern menus– the newest caterer in the central Virginia, chef Ben Thompson's The Rock Barn, mixes modern sensibilities with competitive, artistic concepts to create a new standard in wedding catering.

"The food at catering events can be absolutely spectacular," says Thompson. "It can be every bit as good as the food you have at a restaurant– and you really have a lot of choices. It doesn't have to be food sitting on the buffet line for hours."

Beginning his culinary career in the typical New York culinary school scene, where he was classically trained, Thompson worked under the famed American chef Thomas Keller in his Manhattan restaurant Per Se, one of the highest ranked restaurant in the country. But it was a move to Keller's Napa Valley restaurant, the renowed French Laundry (named "Best Restaurant in the World" in 2003 and 2004 in Restaurant Magazine), that inspired Thompson's attitude towards catering. 

"There was a whole new mentality on organization and design," he says of The French Laundry's approach to cuisine. "It gave me good exposure to the wine industry as well."

It was his French Laundry experience that lead Thompson to The Rock Barn. Settling in central Virginia after his stint in Napa Valley, Thompson started a new venture: creating a catering company that was driven by the highest qualities possible– execution, design, and presentation.

"We're a chef-driven catering company," he says simply. "We take the quality of chef that's usually focused in high end restaurants and start to apply that expertise in other avenues of food."

By using classically trained, innovative and competitive restaurant chefs– much like himself– Thompson creates a culinary environment that approaches each catering event like another night at a highly ranked restaurant. According to Thompson, these chefs are keen to express themselves individually through creative, playful menus and create a competitive atmosphere in the kitchen– very unlike traditional catering companies.

"Competitive enhances everybody," he notes. "Instead of having one chef that drives a crew of prep people, we have people that are striving to be their own chef as well."

With the high consciousness of the local food movement in Charlottesville, Thompson understood from the get-go that creating a community between the farmer, chef, and client was essential to the long-term success of a caterer. Working alongside Nelson County farmers, The Rock Barn offers a "farm-driven" service that can be as "local" as a client wants. If incorporating fresh, locally-sourced ingredients is a priority for a couple– or not– their menu will be composed accordingly. Going just 10% local in a wedding menu is a giant leap forward, according to Thompson, and should be treated as such.

"People in Charlottesville care about the small things," he says. "Charlottesville is a very educated crowd– people are willing to think about what they're doing in their daily lives as opposed to going to WalMart every day."

As a result of such high local expectations, The Rock Barn crafts every catering menu to accommodate the every whims of a bride and groom. One of the first questions Thompson asks a couple is about their favorite foods or flavors growing up– incorporating personal history or culture and infusing it with playfulness is the top priority.

"We will find a way to do things [the couple] identifies with at the level of service we're committed to executing," he says. "Being personal, playful, defined, and focused– the entire evening is about giving people multiple presentations of different flavors in a playful way."

In order to give each bride the most custom experience possible, The Rock Barn sticks to only catering one major event a weekend. "If you are our client for the weekend,  you deserve our full attention or else you lose personality and communication," Thompson says.

While The Rock Barn isn't merely a catering service– they also do custom butchering, sell a line of products, and do extravagant wine dinners– perfecting the institution is the highest priority for Thompson. Wedding food should never be an after-thought– in fact, after the main event, it's often the most memorable element of a wedding... or it should be. And for brides in an up-and-coming culinary scene, holding their caterers to higher standards should be second nature.

"Expect more out of caterers," Thompson urges. "Expect something very high end, because it is possible."