Chef's return: Langhorne wows Clifton crowd

In the first installment of its Chef in the Garden series, the folks at Clifton Inn welcomed rising star chef Jeremiah Langhorne, the 26-year old Albemarle High School graduate who went from delivering pizzas in Charlottesville to cooking at one of the top restaurants in the country. Indeed, McCrady's in Charleston, South Carolina, run by famed chef Sean Brock, and where Langhorne is chef du cuisine, is considered, by Newsweek,  to be one of the best places in the world to eat.

Two long communal tables were set up in a small grassy area along side the Inn, with torches and candles for light. A small army of servers came out all at once, and in-between courses, Langhorne and Clifton chef Tucker Yoder came out to talk about each one.

Langhorne's particular talent could be described as a kind of gastronomic chemistry in which extraordinary flavor is drawn out of the simplest of foods. A simple sweet carrot, for example, garnished with herbs Langhorne found on the beach in Charleston, South Carolina, hits your mouth in a thunderbolt of carrot flavor, like some kind of uber carrot that has had its natural flavor magnified ten-fold. An arrangement of herbs on an oyster leaf– that originated on the coast of Scotland and is grown on the coast of Maine– is no bigger than a thimble but delivers the taste of a full-sized oyster. A circular arrangement of rust-colored wild mushrooms, foraged on the Clifton property, and accompanied by white grapes and an assortment of herbs explode with flavor the instant one bites into them.

And a simple bowl of rice becomes a homage to, and history of, Carolina Gold Rice, also known as Charleston Ice Cream.

As Langhorne explained, rice from Carolina was once considered to be the best in the world. In 1685, a storm-battered ship arrived in Charles Towne Harbor carrying rice seeds from Madagascar, which locals received as gifts in exchange for restoring the ship. By 1726, colonists were exporting 4,500 metric tons of it around the world. Some believe that the labor requirements of producing rice, not cotton, initiated the plantation-era South. After the Civil War, however, the industry died. About a hundred years later, strains of Carolina Gold Rice were re-introduced to the region, and today there's even a Charleston-based foundation called the The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation dedicated to its preservation.

Indeed, it is a treat as sweet and rich as ice cream can be, but capped with red bay leaves, there is an earthy, fragrant essence about it that makes other rices taste chalky.

It was a beautiful night, and the communal dining was both elegant and informal, but when the sun went down it was difficult to see what was on your dish. Many people had to use their cell phones to view their meals. Servers brought out more candles, but there really wasn't enough light. Wine pairings often didn't arrive in time for the courses. Of course, these were just small kinks in a new endeavor for the Inn, and we're sure they are working these out.

Next up in the Chef in the Garden series: a tag team dinner with Christian Kelly of Maya Restaurant, Angelo Vangelopoulos of the Ivy Inn, and Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt in Richmond on Monday, October 29. Along with Yoder, they will create four appetizers and four courses, one created by each chef. Cost is $125, a portion of which will go to charity, and reservations are required.