Ryan VanWinkle may hold the title “executive chef,” but don’t be fooled: He’s actually in the business of time travel. Every dish he’s created for the past seven years has been an attempt at taking diners back to his late grandmother’s house.
“We’d walk in the door and the first thing we’d see were shelves of all the things she’d canned from her garden,” the 30-year-old recalls. “Those were the best meals when I was younger. She’d let us go pick something out of the pantry, and that’s what we ate with the meal that night.”
The journey began in 2013, when Ryan and Dawt Mill Resort co-owner Ed Henegar opened The Chef’s Table. Diners who visit the business located on Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative lines are in for an experience that’s unique but not unfamiliar to those who have fond memories of large gatherings around the dinner table. The only difference at the chef’s table is they gather around the stove while Ryan and Chef Brandy Barstow cook, all the while explaining the origins of ingredients, the history of a particular dish and the methods of preparation. The inspiration, like most of the vegetables used, is homegrown. It’s a philosophy born from family traditions and delicious food.
“We want people to feel like they are part of the family,” Ryan says. “It’s fine dining without the pretension.”
Every meal at The Chef’s Table follows a three-course design, but that’s the only consistent element. As a result, no two meals are the same and even the basic format changes from season to season. Summer salads and winter soups give way to appetizers in the fall and spring for the starter course. The entree which follows typically utilizes beef, chicken or pork grown on local farms. Desserts — which can range from chocolate creme brulee to buttermilk chess pie — cap off the meal. While diners chat with the chef and watch the process unfold, they sample a variety of canned vegetables including hot and spicy asparagus and Ryan’s personal favorite, his grandmother’s recipe for bread-and-butter pickles.
Diners call Dawt Mill at least 24 hours in advance to make a reservation and, with the chefs, go over any special requests or dietary concerns for the meal. Ryan tells customers he won’t know the menu until the day of their reservation, preferring to look through his garden at Dawt and farmers markets as well as checking with local producers to pick the best of what ingredients are available.
“When we’re grocery shopping, we’re not going for something specific,” Ryan says. “We’re out there looking for inspiration to see what’s available and what sounds fun.”
For salads, Ryan starts with what’s growing in the gardens out in front of the restaurant: a yellow squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and marigold flower petals. On the way back to the restaurant he veers off to the woods and picks a few leaves of wild-growing beefsteak plant, also known as shiso. The herb, which has the faint aroma of anise, delivers a powerhouse flavor, complementing the basil. On the stove, half the yellow squash is charred with balsamic dressing in a cast-iron pan. Added to this are the chopped vegetables and herbs along with salt-pickled okra tossed in homemade barbecue salt.
“In flavor combinations you want to cut sweet with more salt or vinegar,” Ryan says. “I like to meld different ingredients and techniques, so we use a very Ozarks ingredient — the okra — with the salt-pickling technique, which is an Asian influence.”
The entree builds on twin themes of homegrown vegetables and using all of the edible parts. Ryan sautes Arborio rice for his risotto, mixing in green pepper, red onion and garlic scapes — the stem — of young garlic bulbs, which are collected from the garden during the spring and frozen. “If you catch them soon enough, they’re more tender — it’s like a garlic-flavored green bean,” Ryan adds.
As the risotto cooks down, he preps a beef shoulder tender. It’s already cooked to medium rare perfection by the sous vide method, in which the vacuum-sealed cut is cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath. He seasons the shoulder with salt and pepper and sears both sides in a cast iron pan, adding more garlic scapes on the last turn. A bed of freshly grated Parmesan cheese is added to the plate before topping it with the risotto, beef, scapes and chow-chow relish.
Biscuits: It wouldn’t be the Ozarks without them. The Chef’s Table utilizes the staple food for everything from bread service to sandwich buns and, in this case, a substitute base for strawberry shortcake. Once out of the oven, they receive a healthy drizzle of homemade strawberry freezer jam — made this spring from the bounty of the restaurant’s own patch.
“This is what I mean when I say, ‘without pretension,’” Ryan says with a laugh as he drizzles jam over the flaky folds. “A high-end restaurant might do the salad, they might do the steak, but they’re not going to do biscuits as a dessert.”
The concept may be different, but it’s proven popular. During the summer, The Chef’s Table has two seatings, at 5 and 7 p.m., for a total of 10 diners each, which aren’t hard to come by in tourist season. In the off season, the chefs have more flexibility on reservation times and combine smaller groups of diners until they reach a party of 10.
Fall on the North Fork isn’t to be underappreciated, and diners can watch the changing leaves on the river bluff from the restaurant windows. The fall and winter also are prime times for some paddling or trout fishing, or to hit the local trails for those seeking more solitude and a less-crowded outdoors experience.
“It’s unlike anywhere else,” Ryan says. “That’s the biggest reason to come here: to get the experience of what the Ozarks truly has to offer.”