The chefs had barely laid down their shotguns and shed their orange vests when Joe Henderson started in.
"Does everyone understand the value of this stream?" he asked, interrupting a few restaurant-focused conversations on the porch of his historic cabin as he gestured toward a picturesque waterway trickling nearby.
Henderson had invited more than two-dozen chefs from D.C. to his 600-acre farm and preserve near Berryville, Va., for a guided partridge hunt on an unseasonably-warm Monday before Thanksgiving. For many of them, the day was an introduction to hunting and to Randall Lineback cattle, a rare breed Henderson raises on the property, and that he sells as “ruby veal” to area restaurants.
And, if Henderson had his way, the day also served as a primer on the importance of healthy streams, the threat of invasive plant species and the art of being an omnivore with an ecological conscience.
“If you haven’t, go look at it. Put your hand in it,” Henderson continued about the stream.
Three of the chefs, walking back from the hunt, had done just that — and pulled out handfuls of wild watercress growing in the trickling waters.
Paul Stearman, chef de cuisine at Marcel’s, offered me a few sprigs of the spicy, fresh-tasting greens that go for a premium when grown in greenhouses. The water was sparkling, and Henderson had just told us that he waters the house, as well as the cows, from it.
I was starving; the cress was delicious.
“So fresh, right?” Stearman said.
At the cabin, as the chefs shared hunting stories and added bourbon to their apple ciders, those who knew the stream chimed in on the waterway that shares its name with Chapel Hill Farm and feeds into the Shenandoah River.
The stream is“the bloodline, the lifeline of Chapel Hill,” added David Guas, chef and owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, VA.
Guas and Robert Wiedmaier, owner of Marcel’s and six other restaurants (with whom I’ve now had the pleasure of both fishing and hunting) have spent their share of time at the property. That morning, before the partridges were released and the other chefs arrived, the two were holed up in a deer stand, trying to take advantage of their time outside the city.
Wiedmaier was one of the early-adapting chefs in D.C. He started serving Henderson’s signature “ruby veal” cuts of meat in his restaurants almost ten years ago. He remains an evangelist of its uniquely meaty flavor as well as its broader mission: to revive the nearly extinct Randall Lineback cattle, a workhorse of breeds used in colonial times for milk, dairy and farm work.
“In order to save this breed, we need to consume it, because it doesn’t have a job,” explained Javier Arez with Huntsman Specialty Game & More, the distributor Henderson began working with this year to expand the meat sales.
Arez helped organize the hunt that morning, bringing in 82-year-old Virginia hunting guide, Waverly Coleman — and his impressive birddog Shadwell — to ensure that chefs new to shooting didn’t take one another out in the process. (Waivers were signed; reporters tried their aim only at clay pigeons.)
The partridges the chefs bagged, raised on a Virginia farm and released that morning, were donated to a D.C. charity for holiday dinners. Hawks likely consumed by that evening the birds that escaped the hunt.
But that’s not because the birds didn’t have enough cover; Henderson has been cultivating for more than a decade the types of grasses that are ideal for quail and the other species that were once prevalent on this land. He allows hunters he knows on the preserve, but asks them to shoot three does for every buck to restore more natural population levels.
“He’s a great conservationist,” Wiedmaier said of Henderson. “He knows so much about grasses and what this land should be (that) he’ll talk over these peoples’ heads — for hours.”
At the cabin, I make the mistake of asking Henderson to identify an orange berry I’d seen in the grasses during the hunt. Oriental bittersweet, he says, before launching into a tangent on invasive plant species:
“Here we are in the middle of Virginia country. We shouldn’t be having oriental bittersweet!”
Dressed in a golfing cap, buttoned-down shirt and khaki corduroy pants, Henderson looks the part of a professor lecturing his captive audience of chefs (but for the drink in his hand).
That afternoon, following a meal featuring several cuts of Henderson’s veal prepared by Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio, Henderson led a group of chefs who were less familiar with his meats into the field to meet the cows.
They peppered him with questions: What do the cows eat? How are they slaughtered?
Henderson relished the chance to answer them, explaining that killing the cows in the least stressful manner results in the most flavorful meat.
“Everybody’s got to understand you’re killing an animal. You want to do it as humanely as possible,” he said.
Henderson then suggested that the group take a seat in the grassy, cow pie-dotted field to see if the cows might get comfortable enough to come closer.