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Posted August 15, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Young chef brings passion to Cafe Nights

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

Chef Seth Wells makes a chutney
Chef Seth Wells, 22, carmelizes raisins, shallots, garlic and vinegar to make a chutney for his grilled beef shoulder tender for Cafe Nights at Woodstock Cafe & Shoppes. Rich Cooley/Daily

Wells cuts a fresh rabbit
Wells, formerly of Belmont, N.C., cuts a fresh rabbit in the kitchen at Woodstock Cafe & Shoppes in preparation of a grilled rabbit croustade featuring housemade baguette, red pepper sofrito and kalamata olive dust. Rich Cooley/Daily

Wells slices a pear
Wells slices a pear, which is used in his chutney sauce for a grilled beef shoulder tender. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK -- Take an overflowing cup of youthful passion, add a cup of classical training, a pinch of creativity, a sprinkle of derring-do and a dash of a genuine desire to please, and you've got Seth Wells, the chef whipping up culinary delights at the Cafe Nights at Woodstock Cafe.

The 22-year-old North Carolina native has been working for CrossRoads Catering just shy of a year. The company operates out of Woodstock Cafe & Shoppes, at 117 S. Main St.

Together, the operations produce Cafe Nights wine dinners on Fridays and Saturdays.

This month's menu features grilled rabbit croustade, a salad of mixed greens grown on a Fort Valley farm with powdered olive oil, cod poached in Keemun tea, braised shanks of pork raised on a Mt. Jackson farm, pan-seared duck breast and confit of duck legs, watermelon consommé and cherry crepes.

Wells grew up in Belmont, N.C., watching and helping his grandmother and great-aunt cook. He worked in a pizza parlor in high school.

"[I] just really liked the kitchen environment," Wells said. "My family has always come together when there's food on the table."

After high school, he headed off to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, N.C., where he realized cooking would be his life's study and work.

Wells met CrossRoads owner Paje Cross through his college roommate.

After graduating from the culinary program in 2007, Wells headed out west, doing corporate cooking at ski resorts and Glacier National Park.

While Johnson & Wales taught him the basis of all cuisines, from international to Old World, Wells likes to mix it up.

"I enjoy cooking French," he said sitting in a table in the cafe recently. "I enjoy cooking Spanish and Asian foods more than everything else. I like to incorporate a little of everything in there."

That's why Wells is such a fan of fusion, whereby he can bring two disparate cuisines together.

And while the Cafe Nights aren't devoted to molecular gastronomy, Wells does incorporate to a degree the technique of breaking food down into its molecular level. Hence, the powdered olive oil for the mixed-greens salad.

Molecular gastronomy is a big trend these days, Wells said.

"Not because people aren't pleased with what they're doing," he said. "As somebody who works in the kitchen every day, it's like being a student. Every day, you learn something new. People are just taking it a step further. You can never learn everything there is to know about cooking.

"People are just stepping out of the boundaries and stepping out of the box and experimenting. [Molecular gastronomy] is like a science project almost. [It's] taking traditional things and making them that much more exotic. It's just about having fun when it comes down to it, and enjoying what you do and taking it a step further."

Molecular gastronomy is a way to introduce both diners to something they've never had before, and chefs to something they've never cooked before.

Also in vogue today is "fresh and local," Wells said. And, it's something he tries to bring to his kitchen. He and his sous chef, Kurt Baier, get their pork from Mt. Jackson farmer -- and District 2 Supervisor -- Steve Baker, their produce from Passage Creek Farm in Fort Valley and their other meat from Crabill's Meats in Toms Brook.

"There's a level of comfort there for the customer," Wells said. "They know where things are coming from and they know who's producing them."

While he doesn't own a TV, he keeps up with his favorite chefs -- Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria -- through cookbooks and the Internet. The Food Network has broadened viewers' culinary imaginations, Wells said.

"There's restaurants out there and people out there, they enjoy cooking and put everything they've got into it for you to enjoy," he said. "They've done so much to [put] the picture of a professional chef into the mind of children. People look up to, you know, Emeril [Lagasse] because of what he's doing. I think that's great. It opens people's eyes; you can have a career in cooking if you enjoy that at home. You can do this professionally and enjoy yourself while you're doing it."

Wells would advise young people considering a culinary career to go for it.

"Whatever is in your way, figure out a way to get around it," he said. "If you don't take it upon yourself to go do something, it's never going to get done, and it's just a lost dream."

One of his favorite aspects of Cafe Nights is the chance to bring unique foods to the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

"I've had a chance to introduce things to our customers here you're not going to find in any other restaurants, such as sweetbreads," Wells said. "It's always nice to see the reaction of somebody, they would have never tried this and it turns out they really enjoyed it."

Those in the cooking world are starting to realize it's not about their food, it's about the customers at the tables, Wells said.

"It's about them enjoying your passion," he said. "When people leave here, I want them to remember everything that they had. For me, if you can remember what you had at a meal three years ago, it was good."

Wells' immediate goal is to keep Cafe Nights going, and he has dreams of possibly learning and working in France, Italy or Spain, and to "become more knowledgeable of cooking in general because I enjoy it so much. The options are endless with it."

Cafe Night diners include people who've eaten in fine restaurants all over the world, said Coe Sherrard, who with his wife Jean owns Woodstock Cafe & Shoppes.

"We get the biggest charge when somebody comes in from D.C., and by the third course, they're calling us over, saying, 'Wow, this is amazing,'" he said.

Wells has a devotee in John Linaburg, who frequently attends Cafe Nights with his wife, Ebbie.

"He's a phenomenal young man, and we've enjoyed his culinary expertise for as long as he's been there now," Linaburg said. "It's a source of great pleasure for us whenever we go. If somebody told me I would eat sweetbreads, I would not, but because of the work that Seth does, I trust him with my palate, and so, the last wine dinner we were at, he had sweetbreads and pork belly ... it was excellent."

Linaburg is also impressed by Wells' willingness to share recipes with diners.

"He's just an amazing young man," Linaburg said.

Reservations are available from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Cafe Nights. Seating is limited but walk-ins are accepted when possible. Wine and beer service is available during dinner as well as a menu that changes weekly. For more information, go online to www.cafeshoppes.com or call 459-8888 for reservations.

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