From the Kitchen | Four Generations of Virginia Cooking

Chef Carlisle Bannister

If you’ve eaten lunch or dinner with us, then you’ve likely already seen Chef Carlisle. He’s the big bear of a man in chef’s whites, smiling his way through the dining room, handing out hugs. Chef is usually too busy helping our guests have a good time to talk much about himself, so we thought we’d share a little bit of the story behind this fourth-generation restaurateur with a passion for Virginia’s rich culinary heritage.

It’s a family story, because Carlisle Bannister and his forebears grew up in Richmond’s kitchens. His great-great-grandfather, George Bannister, was a drummer boy in the Civil War, then opened a BBQ restaurant downtown, feeding his fellow war veterans until eventually he was the oldest living Civil War survivor left in the city.

Carlisle’s grandfather ran an eatery called, appropriately, Bannister’s, at the corner of Harrison and Main. (What was once a bustling café full of students and Fan residents is now buried under VCU’s school of business.) Carlisle’s father grew up in the small apartment above the restaurant and eventually opened his own spot near MCV’s medical center called The Campus Room.

“I did everything there, from bus boy to dishwasher to cook, and then manager after I got out of college,” Carlisle says. “And those are the people who taught me to how to cook – the old Southern ladies in the kitchen. They were culinary geniuses.”

Over twenty years later, Chef Carlisle still carries the recipes from those cooks with him. They’re not written down on paper, they’re embedded in his heart. Those recipes are the soul of Carlisle’s culinary philosophy: Simple, honest food with a strong sense of place, of home. This is food anchored in Virginia’s history.

Photos by Wendell Powell Studio

Photos by Wendell Powell Studio

“When we opened, Tayloe said we had to have fried chicken,” Carlisle remembers. “We played with recipe after recipe, did research and worked with chefs at different places to try different ideas. We made that fried chicken at least eight different ways, and hands down the winner was my old recipe from Elizabeth Harris.”

Harris ran The Campus Room kitchen. “She was loud and loaded with personality, just like any stereotypical chef,” Carlisle says. “She was a big woman with a big heart.” Harris’s secret to fried chicken was to not get carried away and overthink it. No buttermilk. Just a simple brine, then carefully season the breading. “It’s the ratio of flour to herbs and spices that makes it perfect,” Carlisle says. “Flavorful and crispy on the outside, super juicy on the inside.”

Although Carlisle always felt cooking was in his blood, his parents discouraged him from picking up the family business. “They told me to do something bigger and better,” he says. “After college, where I got a business degree, my dad said I could work in the restaurant while I was looking for a real job. After just one day I knew, and I’ve never looked back.”

When The Campus Room closed in 1997, Carlisle moved to the New Market Corporation (formerly Ethyl Corporation) to manage the company’s two cafes, executive dining room and two corporate retreat locations. And as if that weren’t enough, he also started a catering business. His experience running large private events and weddings led him to Upper Shirley Vineyards.

Chef Carlisle shrimp and grits

Here, he is defining our sense of place by reaching out to the food growers all around us. He hooked us up with Victory Farms, a local produce farm that supplies many of Richmond’s restaurants. They’re less than ten miles away down Route 5. We get regular deliveries from Rudy’s Exotic Mushrooms, which picks up and distributes all kinds of tasty things – lettuces, squash blossoms, chard, local honey – from small local producers. Amy’s Garden, which has 10 acres of organic produce and flowers, is right up the road in Charles City. And we use cheeses from Caromont Farms over near Charlottesville, and Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax.  

All this in addition to our own little garden plot out back, which right now is full of tomatoes, peppers, radishes, herbs and more, means that Carlisle’s kitchen is cooking from scratch. He’s using the same local ingredients he grew up with, and the tried-and-true recipes handed down from generations of Virginia cooks who knew that food well.

“This is a unique awesome venue where I can showcase what I do best,” Carlisle says. “What drives me is the satisfaction I get from seeing a customer with a smile on their face because I’ve delivered an exceptional experience. It’s not just a plate of food. It’s a moment when the guest is happy.”  

So, the next time you see Chef Carlisle making his way from table to table, make sure to say hello. Let him know what you think of his fried chicken, and maybe share a food story from your own kitchen. If you catch him at the end of a shift, you might even convince him to pull up a chair and sit a spell.