James Beard Award Semi-Finalist, Ian Boden and His Restaurant The Shack, Belong to Rural Virginia
In light of Chef Ian Boden’s recent nomination as a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic, we bring you an interview with Chef Boden from 2015 in which he describes starting his cooking career at the age of 13 and why he chose rural Virginia as the site of his much-lauded restaurant, The Shack.
At The Manual, we respect anyone with a strong vision. So when Chef Ian Boden described his restaurant to us as “a middle finger to the food industry,” we knew we were talking to the right guy.
Chef Ian Boden is the chef and owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia. Staunton, located in the Shenandoah Valley, is a town of about 24,000 people. The Shack is a 26-seat restaurant that takes pride in being an integral part of that rural Virginia community. After a highly diverse and well-traveled career— even though he is not yet forty years old—all Boden wants to focus on is cooking and paying attention to whatever guests walk through the Shack’s humble doors. “I didn’t really open The Shack for national attention,” Boden says. “I opened it to support the local community.”
But The Shack has garnered national attention—whether Chef Boden wanted it to or not. We talked to Ian Boden about his restaurant’s newfound fame, the virtue of staying true to the fundamentals of being a chef and his plans for the future.
Can you explain how you started your cooking career when you were 13?
There was a French restaurant right outside the town where I grew up in Northern Virginia. My parents went there frequently and mentioned to the chef that they had a young son who would be interested in coming in on a slow night to observe the kitchen. Food and cooking have always been very big in my family. The chef said, forget about a slow night, if he’s going to come in he’s going to come in on a Friday or Saturday.
So I did that and then eventually started working there on the weekends and I never looked back. When I got to high school I did a work-study program until I graduated and went to culinary school.
You’ve obviously had a very diverse career at a young age, but what was it that made you choose Staunton to open The Staunton Grocery in 2007?
I spent ten years in New York and had just had enough. I wanted to do my own thing and I knew that I didn’t have the name or pedigree to do that in New York. I wanted to slow things down and have a life outside of the kitchen. I also wasn’t ecstatic about what was happening in the food world in New York around that time. It seemed like being a chef became more about being a celebrity. At a certain point you stop being a chef and start becoming a businessman. I thought the guests were getting lost in the mix. I love what I do because I love to cook and make people happy. I would much rather be in the kitchen than doing paperwork.
And then how did you transition from The Staunton Grocery to The Shack?
I opened The Staunton Grocery when I was 27. I had a big head and a big ego and thought I knew it all. I didn’t listen to my guests, my chefs, or the people around me who I trusted. So my business model was unsustainable and it just wasn’t a viable option to keep the restaurant open.
What did you learn from that experience?
Well, in the time after The Staunton Grocery opened, I got married and had a family and I needed to support them. I worked at one place for a little while just for a paycheck and then I met some people who wanted to open a restaurant with me in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was Glass Haus Kitchen. But it’s hard to work for someone after you’ve opened up a restaurant for yourself. That didn’t work out in the end, so I decided to open The Shack as a kind of middle finger to the food industry.
Well I feel like the bigger and grander the concept and aesthetic is for a restaurant, the less of a connection there is to the guest. I want to watch everything grow and it’s difficult to do that in a larger restaurant.
How often do you change the menu?
It changes almost daily. On Wednesdays and Thursdays we do an a la carte menu; on Fridays and Saturdays we do a prix fixe menu. I work with a lot of local farmers so whatever is available, is on the menu.
For a dish like the octopus, rye berries, green onion, and yellow mustard aioli, how do you conceive and construct something like that? Based on something you’ve seen or tasted recently?
My inspiration comes from everywhere. As much as I wish I were, I’m not a plotter when it comes to menu construction. A lot of how I cook is improvisation. I always have a pantry, but everything else changes.
How do you approach desserts? Is there a preference you have? Lean towards fruits and creams and custards rather than chocolate?
Our desserts are a little more plotted and static. I’m not a pastry chef and never claimed to be. But a great trend in food recently is that desserts have become more savory, which lets us get a lot more creative.
One of my cooks that has been working with me for four years now, I kind of gave him the reigns to go crazy with the dessert menu. We’ll work on a basic concept, but then I’ll let him experiment with it and bring it back to me to taste.
We tend to change the desserts once a month depending on what comes in—blueberries and rhubarb are coming in soon so it’ll change a lot more rapidly. We also do a lot of preservation here that allows us to vary what we offer as well.
Yeah, we definitely are. On Fridays and Saturdays, seventy percent of our reservations are from out of town. The national press will do that to you. But I really didn’t open The Shack for national attention; I opened it to support the local community. We do a lot to help the people in this area. I’m happy to serve whoever comes in, but my focus was definitely on the Stanton community.
Across from the restaurant, there is an old home that was just bought by a non-profit. They are redoing it for people that have disabilities and need low-income housing. Someone from the non-profit came over recently and said they are putting in a community garden and asked if there was anything I wanted them to grow. So I was like, well what kind seeds do you need? So we’re going to hook up with them and figure out how to provide them with food and help out in whatever way possible.
I have two kids in the local high school so we’ve done fundraisers for them. My stepson is graduating in June so we are going to be helping out with the graduation party as well.
What are your plans for the future?
I am working on opening a new restaurant. Basically, the Shack is going to remain the Shack but we are going to change the menu to all prix fixe. The new restaurant will be an a la carte menu. I’m opening the place with my friend Charlie Brassard. He just moved here with his family. He came from New York where he was working at Porter House. We used to work together in the 90s.
When Charlie and I worked together, after work we’d end up at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square (this was a long time ago) at 3:00 AM. And we always talked about how cool it would be to open up a diner that served good food. So we are doing a mix-up of a New York diner meets a Southern lunch place. It’s going to be a lower price point, funky and very comfortable. It’s going to be a North meets South diner.
We’re working on a space and all that stuff—getting closer and closer—and hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have something.
All photos courtesy of Sera Petras Photography.