Ernie Labrecque | Upper Shirley's New Chef de Cuisine
We're incredibly excited to welcome the extremely talented Ernie Labrecque to the kitchen staff at Upper Shirley! Under Carlisle's tutelage, Ernie will be helping to manage kitchen operations for Special Events as the new Chef de Cuisine, with Carlisle continuing his oversight role of the entire kitchen.
“Ernie is the real deal, man,” says Executive Chef Carlisle Bannister. "His style is perfect for our kitchen – organically focused, with a Southern twist."
A native of Williamsburg, Ernie is rooted in Southern style-cooking, using fresh, local ingredients. After cutting his culinary teeth as a teenager in local restaurants, he was accepted to Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Pittsburgh, one of the most renowned culinary schools in the country. The journey wasn't financially viable, but Ernie was able to find work in the Fairmont Pittsburgh, a high-end luxury hotel with one of the best kitchens on the East Coast, to help fund his education.
"I was working sixteen hour days or more, but I was also really lucky," says Ernie. "Chef Andrew Morrison, the Executive Chef at the Fairmont at the time, is widely considered one of the best chefs in the region. He really instilled in me his philosophy of nose to tail cooking."
For those unfamiliar with 'nose to tail' cooking, it's a style that tries to incorporate every portion of any ingredient to some aspect of the cooking, a style that is especially effective for kitchens using primarily fresh, organic ingredients like Upper Shirley.
"When you're using the best ingredients, you don't want to waste anything," adds Ernie. "Often, the tastiest, most nutritious parts are those that are traditionally tossed out."
A great example is his rock fish, a.k.a. striped bass (course #1 in picture below). Traditionally, kitchens will keep the fillets but toss the head, bones, and skin. In Ernie's case, he saves the skin, which is full of flavor and nutrients, then dehydrates, bakes, marinates, and garnishes it, turning it into delicious chips to accompany the fish. The bones he'll toss into the stock, getting all the flavors out and nutrients from the marrow. And as for the head, there's a little-known secret that the choicest piece of meat in any rock fish is a small, circular cut just inside the cheek. It's difficult to get to, and there isn't much of it, but it's perfect for an amuse bouche, a small appetizer to whet the taste buds – in this case, a tasty spoon-full of meat with garnish and sauce. (Pictured below: June 8th Prix Fixe Dinner . June 22 Prix Fixe Dinner menu available here.)
Course #1: Citrus Seared Striped Bass Jalapeno Coconut Mousse Pickled Pearl Onion, Lime Dust Seasoned Cast Iron Popcorn & Squid Ink Tuile
Course #2: Pan Roasted Duck Breast
Fava and Sorrel Grits, Seasoned Local Oats, Blackberry and Lavender Gastrique & Cured Duck Yolk
2014 Cabernet Franc
Course #3: Braised Short Rib
Summer Root Vegetable Gratin Arugula Horse Radish Foam Crispy Turnip & Petite Verdot Demi Glace
2015 Petit Verdot
Course #4: Poached Rhubarb
Corn Muffin & White Chocolate Soil
With Key Lime Curd & Strawberry Cilantro Sorbet
2015 #2 White
After graduating valedictorian of his class at Le Cordon Bleu, Ernie continued to work and train under Chef Morrison a few more years until he began to feel the pull southward. He returned to Richmond to work as the Executive Chef for Pearl, Hard Shell, and Max's Positive Vibe Cafe, a high-end restaurant and non-profit that helps teach culinary skills to people with physical and cognitive disabilities.
"My wife introduced me into Max's," adds Ernie. "She's a social worker and told me about the concept – it's actually the first non-profit kitchen of its kind in the country. I'd run the kitchen for really high-end events one day, then lead training sessions for some amazing people the next. I loved it, but my heart had always been in fine-dining."
There were only a few problems with that dream: Ernie was a new father hoping to put down roots closer to Williamsburg, an most fine-dining establishments require late, exhausting hours.
"I was frustrating," he says. "But when I learned about Upper Shirley, a fine-dining vineyard not to far from Williamsburg with manageable hours and special events, I was all over it! They had southern favorites on the menu like ham biscuits, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits, but they put their own spin on it. I just loved that. So we were really on the same page from the start. And you can't ask for a better leader than Carlisle. He's run a highly successful fine-dining catering business for over twenty years in the area and is so efficient at cooking high-quality food for large crowds that it's almost mesmerizing. But besides being an unbelievable chef, he just embodies the kitchen style I aspire to have: always calm and focused, never yelling or stressing. He just really puts out a great vibe. And he gets really excited about good cooking! That's the kind of atmosphere any chef would want to work in."
The feeling is definitely mutual.
"He's teaching us a lot, and we're teaching him a lot," says Chef Carlisle. "He's a wizard at the art of modern plating, and is doing things with nose to tail cooking I've never seen before. He's really bringing us up to another level. And he's just an all around great guy. We couldn't have asked for a better fit."
Dying to try the best of Ernie and Chef Carlisle's cooking?
They'll be preparing a four-course Prix Fixe Dinner with wine pairings this Thursday, June 22th (click here for full menu, reservations required), with more pop-up Prix Fixe dinners throughout the year. See events calendar for details.