Images and words by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields.
The interior of The Local feels like no other in Charlottesville. We walk into the dark, cozy downstairs space and admire the exposed brick walls, rough timber beams, and beautiful bar. The restaurant stands up to its name from the moment you walk in; the furniture, light fixtures, bar, and even the floor were all constructed by local craftsmen. It is a place you want to occupy on a cold winter night or a grueling summer day; a respite from the outside world.
We are greeted by Crystal, manager of The Local, and led to the kitchen to meet Chef Matthew Hart. Even amongst the renovation projects happening around him (The Local has just undergone a major expansion of their kitchen) Matty is excited to see us and gives us a quick tour. We see several pans on the stove and a line of plates waiting for food; Matty has quite the menu prepared for our visit. Thrilled by the opportunity to have a taste of what The Local has to offer, we move our party upstairs.
Along with an expansion to the kitchen, The Local has added on to their rooftop terrace, making them the restaurant with the most outdoor seating in Charlottesville. Large wood-framed glass doors accordion back to open the upstairs dining room to the terrace, creating a connection to the outdoors that is opposite the feeling downstairs. We arrange our plates on one of the restaurant’s locally-crafted wood tables, breathing in the aroma of the truffle mac-and-cheese, and ask Matty which dish is his favorite. “I love the short ribs. It’s not a creative dish; to me, it’s a good dish. It’s a dish that takes technique and skill to do properly; to transform a piece of meat.”
At The Local, where locally sourced products are used to create all of their dishes, Matty explains, “We bend traditional dishes to fit with the local ingredients and farmers that we work with”. This is the type of food that Matty himself enjoys; traditional dishes in an updated way. The short ribs are a good example; they began as an interpretation of beef bourguignon, which he turned away from a stew and into a composed dish. “I like the transformation of something tough and chewy and fatty to something that is tender and delicious. You’re given four hours to build flavor as you braise the meat. Then, you use the liquid [from the braise] to make a sauce, which gives you another chance to really add flavor.” The result is an incredibly tender piece of meat that we can’t get enough of. “You really have to put a little love and time into it to make it tender and delicious. That’s the sort of thing I really like.”
“It fills a lot of the needs in my life: excitement on the line, a fast-paced environment, the competitive feel during service, a creative outlet.”
Matty sits at the table with us as we dig into the crab cake surrounded by a panzanella with pickled vegetables. He is originally from Waynesboro, and first began cooking at the C&O when he was seventeen years old. What began as just a job turned into a passion and desire to learn more just a few years later. “It was a great place to learn. Thomas and Dave were good to me, and willing to spend time working with someone who had an interest and passion for food.” His original draw to the kitchen, at seventeen, was the excitement. “They were really busy. Everyone was swinging sauté pans around and there was fire and yelling. I played sports in high school; this gives you a similar rush and challenge as a sporting event, trying to get dishes out well and in a timely manner. The passion for food and the passion for creating new dishes came a few years later.”
Another favorite dish is the crispy shrimp appetizer with pickled ginger black sesame aioli. Actually, it is Matty’s wife’s (Melissa Close-Hart of Palladio) favorite, and therefore, laughs Matty, can never leave the menu. The couple has a nine-year old son who loves skateboarding and animals. “Our house is starting to be like wild kingdom!” With two saltwater aquariums, two snakes, a dog and a cat…we tend to agree. With both Matty and Melissa cooking sixty hours each week at their restaurants, their home kitchen doesn’t get much use. They eat out or order in often, and their son happily orders real food off of the dinner menu instead of the kid’s. “He’s pretty open-minded. He likes good cheese, seafood…he ate fois gras when he was two. He’d eat salmon every night for dinner if we’d let him.”
As we take our last bites of the truffle mac-and-cheese, we ask Matty what continues to inspire his enjoyment in the kitchen at The Local, where he’s been since it opened four and a half years ago. “It fills a lot of the needs in my life: excitement on the line, a fast-paced environment, the competitive feel during service, a creative outlet. I’m not a painter or a singer, so this is my way to be creative and artistic… You get to fill your desire to be an artist and also fill your desire to be a stonemason or to build a wall. These are the things that I like to do and to be able to do that at work is a great thing.”