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    A preordained career and a heavenly menu

    Jeffery Witte is the culinary director at the Airlie Center in Warrenton. Photos Courtesy/Dianne Murphy
    Cooking in a dreamlike setting is Jeffrey Witte, culinary director at Airlie Center in Warrenton.

    Surrounded by acres of lawns, flowers, and trees – and with a robust culinary garden with a diverse array of vegetables, herbs and fruit – Witte is free to create truly sublime dishes. As he explained, ingredients are fresh and seasonal, and in the case of produce, just picked from out back. Other ingredients Witte sources locally, including meats and poultry.

    In Witte’s case, becoming a chef must have been preordained from the beginning. He grew up in a California household where meals, home-cooked by an attentive mother, framed his earliest memories.

    “I was always interested in cooking,” he said. “My mom was a stay-at-home mother, and cooked for us such dishes as fried catfish and grits. There was a sense of family with food on the table, and that instilled in me a love of food.”

    As a result, he worked in a series of Los Angeles restaurants, including the late fine-dining destination, La Vie en Rose, which earned its reputation for its high level of service and rustic ambiance. Then after he spent one semester enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, studying for an engineering degree, Witte departed, and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena.

    But his eventual move to Virginia, and more specifically, to Airlie, was clearly the result of good fortune. “I came to Airlie for my externship,” he said. And that was the major turning point in his life.

    After graduation, he came back and later interviewed with the head chef. “We got along very well from the start,” he said. “We did a lot to elevate the quality of the cuisine here.” He added that early chefs had not really been trained to create and serve meals at the conference center level. “We developed a network with local farmers and artisans,” he added, the results of which show up in the four-star menu that Witte and his culinary team, leading the culinary department over the years, have developed and now feature for both conference guests and the upscale dining facility, The Garden Bistro, which recently opened to the general public.

    Witte describes his style as “eclectic” – for example, a tongue-biting ice cream composed of ground chilies poised next to a scoop of mouth-cooling peppermint ice cream made from fresh mint – citing that much of his inspiration comes from the local farmers and food projects carried on at Airlie. He also attributed his ethnic creations to his international travels and to his growing up in Los Angeles, a culturally diverse city.

    While his ice creams are heavenly, Witte said he probably is best known for his citrus-cured pork hearts. Pork hearts? Well, he explained, the strips look like jerky, and the youngsters who have eaten them love them. “But when they find out what it is, they say ‘yuck,’” he said.

    But pork hearts aside, Witte’s menu is totally gastronomically appealing, from such dishes as a garden beet salad with chevre mousse to a butter-sautéed veal sirloin with a locally grown mushroom demi-glace. A basket of bread will appear, and perhaps the spreads will be honey butter and a locally made fruit jam. Who wouldn’t swoon over such food?

    Airlie Center, 6809 Airlie Road, Warrenton. 540-347-1300.

    Dark chocolate granola with a fresh plum

    This is a power-house breakfast item that can also double up as a healthy, energizing mid-day meal.

    Serves 4.

    ½ cup rolled oats
    1 tablespoon flax seeds
    ¼ cup sliced almonds
    1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
    1 tablespoon honey
    4 ounces dark chocolate (63%)
    2 cups nonfat Greek yogurt
    1 large black plum
    Mint leaves for garnish

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
    Combine oats, flax and almonds in a bowl. Stir in butter and honey. Spread out on a nonstick sauté pan and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and let cool.
    Melt the chocolate over a double boiler and reserve one-quarter of the finished granola. Pour the chocolate into the remaining three-quarters of granola, stir to coat, and chill until firm. Break granola into small chunks and mix in one-quarter of the reserved granola.
    Slice the plum into wedges approximately one-quarter-inch thick. Place ½ cup yogurt into the bottom of a small bowl and top with the plums and then granola. Garnish with mint and serve.

    The Airlie Center provides the perfect backdrop for Witte's menu, such as this Harvest Dinner last year in the garden.
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