Bo Bech Discovers the Bounty of Virginia
The Danish chef and amateur philosopher spends a week in Virginia in search of inspiration and ingredients for the launch of his experimental pop-up dinners in New York.
It was less than two hours until the premiere dinner of Bo Bech’s New York City pop-up series. The Danish chef stood in the kitchen of Cosme, the Flatiron District restaurant helmed by chef Enrique Olvera, who had lent Bo kitchen space in which to prep and serve his eight-course menu. Bo’s feet were firmly on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Both his palms were flat on the table and his eyes were closed like a yogi's. He was rolling the movie of the menu, setting the tempo and the physicality of each act, previewing the playlist’s texture and flavor so that courses progressed in power throughout the meal.
Earlier that day, six strangers had received a text message—their golden Wonka ticket—inviting them to the first iteration of the guerrilla-style dinners. No one knew until 90 minutes out exactly where, when, or how they would gather. The Virginia-inspired menu was still in flux even as attendees arrived, but the foundation of flavor, sourcing, and soul had been marinating for weeks.
This is the story of how that dinner came to be. It’s the story of how a force of nature named Bo Bech whipped through Virginia in the hopes of flooring an often-jaded New York City food scene. It’s the story of how a road trip inspired an extraordinary meal, and of how an extraordinary meal marked the New York arrival of one of Denmark’s most fascinating chefs.
Before the Trip:
“I kept sensing this itch that I wanted to do something risky,” Bo told The New York Times in October. The Danish chef, who gained international renown at his Copenhagen restaurant, Geist, had just announced his plan to launch a pop-up dinner project, which he was calling “Bride of the Fox,” as a first step toward opening a more permanent NYC outpost. Each meal would be a stand-alone event in a different space with a distinct theme. The locations—and, more notably, the invitees—would remain secret until just 90 minutes before the meal. Jason Tesauro
This wasn’t just marketing. Bo’s motivated by what interests him, and what interests him is pushing his own boundaries. His somewhat unique career trajectory is a living graph of this pattern: total immersion followed by success followed by a sharp turn toward something new. He started cooking in his early twenties, after a brief career as a General Motors salesman and a tour with the Danish Royal Guard in the former Yugoslavia. After deciding to try his hand at cooking, Bo’s first job in the kitchen was at Krog’s Fiskerestaurant in Copenhagen, his hometown, where he worked under culinary wunderkind Frank Lantz. Bo headed abroad next, to train at Le Gavroche and Marco Pierre White’s the Restaurant in London, followed by Lucas Carton and l’Arpège in Paris. After returning to Denmark and working under several of the country’s top chefs, Bo opened his own place, Restaurant Paustian, for which he obtained a loan by cooking leeks over a camp stove for bank employees. Within four years, he had earned the restaurant a Michelin star.
Rather than use this acclaim to propel himself into bigger culinary waters, Bo’s next project was Bo Bech Bageri, a bakery that made just one bread, a naturally leavened organic sourdough. This type of obsessiveness is part of what makes Bo the kind of chef other chefs have a crush on. “He’s the opposite of full of shit,” said Thomas Carter, restaurateur of Estela in NYC’s Nolita, where Bo is a regular when he’s in town. “Bo’s provocative, but always looking for truth. He’s super respectful of the ceremony of food and company and he wants to strip the pretense away very quickly.”
I read the New York Times piece on October 12. I wanted to be a part of what Bo was doing. By noon on the 13th, I’d hatched a plan and made contact. “I’d love to take you on a road trip to explore Virginia bounty,” I wrote. I told him the tour through my home state would include visits with the best chefs, bakers, millers, and winemakers in the area, and that I was sure he’d discover more than just brilliant ingredients for his pop-ups. Four emails and six texts later, he was booked for Richmond. Donna Steele
Day 1: Richmond, Virginia, 6 p.m.
The first time I actually spoke to Bo was when we greeted at the Richmond airport: “Bo f——g Bech!” I said as we embraced outside baggage claim. We hopped in the car, which is where we’d spend much of our time together over the next week, and I began a fast-track immersion course in Bo-speak.
Bo’s words, like his flavors, are deliberate and measured, if occasionally mysterious. “I’m rediscovering my language. Challenging my alphabet,” he said, explaining the reasoning behind his decision to open a restaurant in New York. The pop-ups would help him get a feel for the city, its geography, rhythm, and diners. Also, it would give him a head start in establishing relationships with the chefs and restaurateurs who could help him source ingredients, talent, and equipment.
Day 2: Sub Rosa Woodfired Bakery, Richmond, 9:30 a.m.
Our first morning together began with coffee and fire. I took Bo to Evrim Dogu, the Turkish baker who founded Sub Rosa Woodfired Bakery in Richmond. Dogu and Bo got granular. They talked about the ritual of bread, the progression of heat, the role of nigella seeds, and the baker’s brain. “Equanimous,” said Dogu. “To do this work, your mind must be even.” We pulled loaves from the oven, thumped on crusts, tore open the gluten matrix, and thrust our noses into warm crumb. Behind the bakery, we fired up the wood and stone mill and ground an heirloom red corn called Bloody Butcher. Radiant morning light washed through the tiny mill room illuminating fine polenta dust like incense smoke in a holy chapel.
Before we left Richmond to explore the countryside, I introduced Bo to artist Ed Trask, Richmond’s most important muralist, painter, and street art curator. We toured a formerly blighted power plant that’s become a hub for visual art and revitalization. Bo paused over a graffiti collage by pop artist Pose and the piece “Bullseye” by Mark Jenkins, its squash-yellow disk lodging in our minds like the scent of jasmine. Bo is another kind of street artist—see his cooking-outside-the-bank-to-secure-a-loan performance piece—and the pop-up restaurant project he has embarked on has the drive-by feel of improv. Jason Tesauro
Behind the concrete walls, Trask took us along a semi-secret pipeline that runs over the James River. Swollen and turbulent that day, white water rendered the walkway treacherous. Bo was nervous—it was the most spooked I saw him the entire time we were together. But he pushed onward. “The sound of the water flipping—I kept telling myself, you have two hands, you can hold onto the sides," he said after crossing the slippery pipeline. "If you put one foot in front of the other, it’s impossible to get hurt."
Day 3: Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, 4 p.m.
We set out for the mountains. At Barboursville Vineyards, a Piedmont-area winery on a historic estate, winemaker Luca Paschina cleaned the deer he’d shot a few days before. Bo and I foraged for oyster mushrooms on fallen logs and picked greens from Paschina’s garden in the fading Blue Ridge dusk before sitting down to a dinner of Italian-inspired rabbit and coarse polenta. To venison-leg carpaccio, Bo added walnuts, nasturtium flowers, and more salt than seemed advisable. He used nasturtium leaves like a torn piece of injera to scoop up the meat, nuts, and flowers. Bottles of unctuous Viognier, elegant Nebbiolo, and a long-lived red blend called Octagon were passed around the table. Donna Steele
Day 4: Caromont Farm, Esmont, 12 p.m.
Vegetables have seasons and so does milk. Autumn is a great kidding season, but when a buck is around, the goats go into heat and the milk gets gamier. To adjust, Gail Hobbs-Page of Caromont Farm in Esmont, a tiny town southwest of Charlottesville, makes her fresh chèvre in the early spring. While showing us around her farm, the cheesemaker talked of teat placement and worm resistance the way some parents brag about report cards and piano lessons. “This one,” Hobbs-Page said, “is the daughter of my very first goat.” We followed a herd into the woods, their hooves schussing through fresh-fallen leaves.
Bo leaned in to marvel: “Eighty-one goats and she knows each one’s name.” He inhaled and sighed. “This smells like home.” Over a bottle of rosé in Hobbs-Page’s kitchen, chef and cheesemaker bonded. “Food does something,” Bo said. “It triggers you, it’s not just a tomato. We do agree on that, don’t we?” Jason Tesauro
Day 4: Autumn Olive Farms, Shenandoah Valley, 3 p.m.
Dragging ourselves from the goats, we realized we were two hours late for lunch with pigs. After arriving at Autumn Olive Farms, we filled our plates in the kitchen and stepped through a door off the dining room. A makeshift plywood ramp carried us into the back of the farm’s food truck, which was set with a table fit for Thanksgiving. Clay Trainum, the deacon-like farmer, served his beloved Berkabaw pork chops cut thick as a family Bible. He beamed with adoration at a playful litter of heritage piglets and their 400-pound mother: “We ate her sister for lunch.”
Bo followed Trainum into his cellar, where the pork is dry-aged. The chef caressed a side of hog meat ripening to a beefy red, layered and marbled with white fat. “Most people can’t afford to eat this way,” said Trainum. “We couldn’t, so we had to grow it.” Donna Steele
Day 4: Foggy Ridge and the Shack, Staunton, 8 p.m.
Further west, near Shenandoah National Park, we ran into Foggy Ridge cider maven Diane Flynt and her husband while checking into Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton, a mountain town of 25,000 with hills like San Francisco. It’s far enough inland to be equidistant from the Atlantic coastline and the easternmost edge of Ohio.
We were all four headed to the best restaurant in town, the Shack. The Flynts, who make the finest handcrafted ciders in the U.S., had a reservation and cozied into a table for two the size of a TV tray; we waited an hour, but there was no bar or lounge or extra chairs. Instead, we put ourselves against the back door of the tiny kitchen. I fetched a bottle of Foggy Ridge and some flutes. Bo scoffed. “In the kitchen, we drink from quart containers,” he said. The Shack’s chef and owner, Ian Boden, grabbed a stack and tossed them over. Bo poured the bottle into the plastic tubs and we toasted.
Bo and I drank cider and admired Boden’s tidy mise en place of crosnes, romanesco, and boiled peanuts. At last two seats freed up. Bo told the server: “Feed us as you like.”
Day 5: Casselmonte Farm, Powhatan, 1 p.m.
On our last full day in Virginia, we visited a farm with an unusual metric for success. Bill and India Cox don’t use yield or shelf life to evaluate their Bradford watermelons or pasilla peppers. They’ve spent years finessing their soil and plants.
Bo, who was known for the avant-garde vegetarian tasting menu he offered at Restaurant Paustian, was impressed. After a blind flight of Southern sorghums, cane syrup, and three varieties of farm-raised ginger, India served us a lunch of her wild shiitake hot-and-sour soup. Bo said it was the most delicious thing he had eaten all week.
Later, we wound up in the basement gawking at a record-setting stuffed bison that Cox took down with a bow and arrow. At the feet of the bison, Cox and Bo rummaged through a box of Hayman sweet potatoes, an heirloom variety grown on only one other farm in the state. Bo took his time to select two to salt-roast at the pop-up. “I’m very passionate about trying to slow down. There’s something sexy about being slow when there’s chaos,” he said. On the way out, we ogled a massive moose mounted over the hearth. Another bow-and-arrow kill. Jason Tesauro
Day 6: RIC > LGA, 12 p.m.
Our plan was to road-trip to New York City the next morning, but once word of Bo’s presence spread throughout Richmond, our final evening on the town became a Bo Bech bacchanal. Chefs in the city wanted to cook for Bo. By night’s end, we’d had three dinners, four group photos, and five rounds of drinks that might as well have been called Why-Not-Skip-the-Drive-and-Just-Fly. Twenty-four hours later, that’s just what we did, deplaning at LaGuardia with a suitcase of Virginia bounty that didn’t fit in the overhead bin. On that flight, Bo had begun to sketch out a menu and prep list for the first pop-up, which was taking place the next night. Fifteen hundred people had registered for the Bride of the Fox, but Bo’s plan was to invite six guests and use the groceries we’d collected. One rule: he couldn’t serve any dish he’d ever cooked before.
I get it. Bo hates status quo. "It’s about getting ideas out of my head. I don’t like having prisoners in my mind. I think wherever you are in the world, pick your disease, but also choose your sun.” For Bo, his source of warmth and light is cooking and breaking bread. The diseases are those ills that come with the craft: brutal hours, no free weekends, the physical toll and pressure of launching pop-ups and opening new restaurants.
“How can I find a beautiful spot that I can afford? How can I do a build-out that doesn’t sink me so I become Titanic before I even get out onto the ocean? How can I get a crew assembled that’s willing to go through the same journey?” He paused. “But it’s the right challenge. It’s a proper challenge.”
Day 7: Cosme, NYC, 3 p.m.
The curtain was set to go up at Cosme in the Flatiron District at 6 p.m. on Monday, November 16. “He called me three days before,” said Enrique Olvera, the restaurant’s chef and owner, of Bo’s request to host the dinner there. “Bo-style, everything at last minute. I like his way of thinking and doing things. His cooking looks like it's simple but it's not, and I feel pretty identified with that.”
Yana Volfson, Cosme’s beverage director, shed a little more light. “Bo and Enrique are on the same frequency,” she said. “They change dishes on the fly and they always look like they’re dancing. They lead with the confidence of experience versus the confidence of knowledge.”
Of course, Bo’s not fearless. He had blanched above the swirling white waters of the James River before stepping onto the thin metal walkway. But he didn’t turn away: he gripped the railing, put one foot in front of the other, and walked. “Entering the arena,” he calls it.
He enters the arena. Jason Tesauro
4:25 p.m.: Bo hands me his phone. “It’s time to tell the guests.”
4:52 p.m.: Bo slices walnuts and plans seating. He decides to put us on the pass—the table in the middle of the kitchen where the finished plates are set out. We’d be sitting a foot away from the dishwashing station.
5:16 p.m.: Wines are on the ice, sauces on the stove.
5:19 p.m.: Bo selects the plates and flatware. “No tablecloth,” he says. He’s in the same uniform of black pants and two-tone Nike Zoom Elite B sneakers he’d worn all week.
5:21 p.m.: “When you have time,” he says, holding out his knife to Cosme sous chef Sarah Thompson, “Can you please sharpen?”
5:27 p.m.: Menu is typed up.
5:31 p.m.: Bo pulls out the raw fish, makes three precise cuts, rinses his knife, and puts the fish away.
5:33 p.m.: He responds to some text messages and fills a pot with water.
5:39 p.m.: “Go upstairs,” he tells me. “Walk out of the restaurant and then walk back in anew. From now on, you are my guest.”
6:00 p.m.: The Bride of the Fox begins. Bo Bech is ready for the dance.
The kitchen hummed with action, a wild cadre of stainless steel and white jackets. Cosme chefs Mariana Villegas, Daniela Soto-Innes, and Sarah Thompson were all on the line, and the restaurant’s 140 seats turned over and over while we six sat on the pass in the middle of the kitchen. Printers whirred around us, spitting out orders until tickets filled the window.
Within each course, I glimpsed a moment of genesis. The sea bass with barbecue sauce would have seemed a preposterous combination had Bo and I not sucked down smoky-sweet chipotle oysters at Merroir on the banks of the Rappahannock River. The pumpkin, a bright Pantone 138-C cut in perfect circles, hit the bull’s-eye and harkened to the vivid street art we saw in Richmond. The second course took me back to Bo nosing through Caromont’s woods, and how he thought mushrooms would pair splendidly with the fecund chèvre. The grains we milled with a Turkish comrade; the wines were bottled on land where we had foraged, cooked, and communed with the winemaker. Even the very idea of eating on the pass recalled our time at the Shack with the chefs, when we drank cider close enough to the fryer to speckle our sleeves with hot oil. Jason Tesauro
Afterward, over mezcal in Cosme’s dining room, Bo reflected. “For a whole week, I listened and tasted. Tonight, I’m an immigrant interpreting what he saw in America, in a state, in a small town, on a farm. No artsy-fartsiness, nothing weird, nothing technical. A nice piece of pork with a kiwi and a coffee sauce. Simple. Complicated simple.”
Bo held a second pop-up a week later at Harry & Ida's Meat Supply Co., an East Village provisions store and Jewish-style delicatessen that is at once nostalgic and innovative. The theme of the night was “Fire and Smoke.” Bo cooked the entire meal using only the grill, serving grilled smoked eel and grilled pigeon that had been aged for 30 days and glazed with carrot juice, mustard seeds, and smoked maple syrup. The next dinner is scheduled for December 11—Bo has hinted that it might take place in a private apartment. Meanwhile, the success of the first two pop-up dinners has cemented Bo’s commitment to putting down roots in NYC: he has moved out of a hotel and into his own place, and is scouting spaces for his new restaurant.
Back at Cosme that night after the first dinner, I looked around the dining room. It was getting late, but all but one of the pop-up guests were still in the restaurant. No one could bear to break the spell.
Two pop-uppers sidled up to Bo’s table as he offered a toast. “If we’re not afraid, not so blocked, six people who don’t know one another, they can have a night where a server is fooled into thinking we are old friends,” Bo said, looking everyone in the eye. “How beautiful is that?”
Watch Bo harvest oysters on the Rappahannock, forage for mushrooms, and prepare the eight-course dinner that was the culmination of his journey through Virginia in this video from writer Jason Tesauro.
1. Roasted Virginia Peanuts with Fenugreek
Sam Edwards and Border Spring Farm "Lamb Ham" Cured Neck with Banana
Latin Quarter Cocktail: Santa Teresa 1796, Bodega Tradición Fino Sherry, housemade passion fruit syrup, Cava
2. Caromont Farm Goat Cheese with Champignon Mushrooms and Cocoa
“Bride of the Fox" Junmai Ginjo Saké, Kanbara, Kaetsu Brewery, Niigata, Japan
3. Pumpkin with Mustard and Sweet-Sour Olive Oil
Serious Cider, Foggy Ridge, Dugspur, VA
4. Rappahannock River Oyster Co. Grilled Rappahannock Oysters with Sub Rosa Bakery Bloody Butcher Corn and Butter Whey
Cuvée 1814 Brut Rosé NV from Magnum, Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, VA
5. Striped Sea Bass Barbecued with Raw Onions and Benne Seeds
2006 Viognier Reserve, Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, VA
6. Autumn Olive Farms Berkabaw Pork with Chef Ian Boden's Pickled Kiwi and Coffee
2004 Octagon VII Edition 2004, Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, VA
7. Casselmonte Farm Hayman Sweet Potato and Sorghum with Saffron and Whipped Cream
Philippe Bornard Savagnin Arbois Pupillin Ivresse de Noe 2006, Jura, France
8. Sub Rosa Bakery Rye Bread with Apples and Chocolate
Mezcal Vago Tobalá en Barro by Salomon Rey Rodriguez (Tio Rey) Sola de Vega, Oaxaca, Mexico
Jason Tesauro is an award–winning journalist and co-author of the Modern Gentleman. He contributes to the New York Times, Details, Decanter, Poetry, and the Somm Journal. Find him at @themoderngent.