2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Chef Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt

2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Chef Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt
December 2014

South Carolina native and adopted son of Virginia Lee Gregory got his culinary start like many young cooking bucks, working an internship. In Gregory’s case, it happened to be with Richmond Chef Dale Reitzer of Acacia, who not only taught him a love and appreciation for cooking, but also instilled in him a love for the city of Richmond. After working for Reitzer for five years, Gregory moved on, spending time working at Six Burner in Richmond, Mockingbird in Staunton, and Blue Light Grill in Charlottesville, but he eventually made his way back to Richmond.

In 2011, Gregory and partner Kendra Feather opened The Roosevelt in Richmond’s historic Church Hill. An almost instantaneous city staple, The Roosevelt was named “Restaurant of the Year” by Style Weekly, “2012 Best New Restaurant” by Richmond Magazine, and “2014 Restaurant of the Year” from Richmond Magazine's Elby Awards (Gregory also took home “Chef of the Year”). In 2013 and 2014 Gregory was nominated for “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” by The James Beard Foundation.
For his latest project, Gregory is teaming up with fellow 2014 D.C. Rising Star Joe Sparatta of Heritage and local Richmond farmer Matt Gottwald to open the seasonally driven, upscale casual eatery, Southbound.

Interview with Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Chef Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt

Meha Desai: Why did you start cooking professionally?
Lee Gregory:
I went to Johnson and Wales in Norfolk before they closed. I did an internship at Acacia right after [Dale Reitzer] won Food and Wine’s Best New Chef. I kind of fell in love with him, the restaurant, and Richmond. I tried a little bit of everything, but nothing seemed right for me. So I came back home, lived with my parents, and started working at a butcher shop. At some point, you go “I want to just cook for myself” and you open a restaurant in Church Hill, which is now The Roosevelt. I knew I had a skill set and I knew I could cook. But I had to come to a realization that this is who I am and this is what I want to cook. That’s when good things started happening. 

MD: Who's your mentor?
Dale Reitzer. He taught me everything from life skills to cooking and operating and running a restaurant. He was more than willing to share everything and pretty open about how he ran his company, how to treat people, how to run your company, and how to, in some sense, be a man. 

MD: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
We take interns. I’ve talked at local culinary schools and try to do as many events as possible and generally younger people come to those events. Sadly, there’s no room for another set of hands back in the kitchen because it’s so small. That’s also why we’re opening a bigger place. We don’t have a walk-in.

MD: What is the hardest thing you’ve to do in your career?
Probably when I had the nerve to go out on a limb and open my own place. At the time I had 2 young kids, but I still went out and put everything on the line. It was also the most rewarding thing.

MD: What are you most proud of?
Being able to be a part of a growing restaurant community that in some sense has helped redefine what Richmond dining is. I think that’s very cool—and to be able to do that in Church Hill, too. Five years ago, you didn’t want to come here. Now there’s a new restaurant opening every week.  

MD: What's your five year plan?
: I’m opening my second restaurant with my friend [fellow Rising Star Joe Sparatta of Heritage]. It’s a restaurant that has never been done before. We’re trying to offer a little bit of what we both do. We want to be a neighborhood kind of catch-all bar and grill in theory, with a local and Virginia spin, but there will be a little bit of something for everyone. The rest of the 5 years plan is to pay that off, and somehow try to find time for my family. The new place will be bigger, for 150 people, to meet the needs. I don’t want The Roosevelt to be an event place, where people have to wait 2 hours to get in, and that happens right now sometimes. 

MD: What’s your sustainability ethos and what steps do you take in your restaurant to put it into action?
We try to buy sustainable fish and much more than that. Eat local, drink local. We have an all-Virginia wine list. I try to buy as close to the source as possible for the food. Our beer is regional, and our cocktails, too. I mean, there are some things we have to buy. 

MD: What is your philosophy on food?
It is what it is. It’s interesting to be a part of conversations that talk about what Southern food is now. With so many cultures coming in, boundaries have been pushed so far. It’s exciting to think about what our food is becoming. Maybe the simpler, the better? Most of it can’t be hidden or covered up with hot air. It’s salt, pepper, acidity, and something rich. We want our food to be easy to eat and balanced, with four to five ingredients at most. It’s nice to watch the changing of the guard. The industry is growing and that’s super exciting. 

MD: Describe your cuisine in one sentence.
We do what is now becoming Virginia food with definite regional influences and what I try to draw from the past.