Tuscarora Mills’ Kevin Malone: Early pioneer in Loudoun lacavore movement
Fast forward 20 years to 2005 – Jennifer Prentice coins the word “locavore” for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about shopping from the local foodshed (another new word).
Malone, as usual, was ahead of the curve. It’s simply the right thing to do, he says, even if it adds to costs and complicates deliveries. “Our commitment to the community extends to the scores of local farmers, growers and producers who are the mainstay of our menu.”
Another fast forward to today. Tuskies has been pleasing Northern Virginia locavores for 30 years and Malone has added South Street Under (started as a bakery in 2000, grew into a must-try sandwich spot), Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville (2003), Fire Works (2007, wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and craft beers) and Fire Works in Arlington (2010). Tuskies, Magnolias and Fire Works will be offering, from July 23 to Aug. 2, a special Farm-to-Fork menu featuring dishes concocted from 70 percent Loudoun-grown-and-raised farm food, all under the auspices of the fourth Farm to Fork Loudoun. The three have participated every year.
In Malone’s thinking, the farm-to-table concept isn’t once a year. It’s all the time. The website promises, “We are a major supporter of the ‘buy local’ movement and throughout the year, our menu boasts the products of several dozen local growers, cheese makers, wineries, farmers and livestock producers.” The menu routinely includes choices of local lamb, cheese, eggs, beef, chicken, sausage and all kinds of picked-that-day produce.
Of course, if Mother Nature keeps your customers away, that just-picked-this-morning romaine lettuce, arugula and kale can go bad pretty fast. That’s a risk he’s willing to take, Malone said. “Last year we had the worst weather in 28 years – no diners, then spoiled produce. The worst for cost comes in July and August,” he notes.
Fresh and local can be taken to extremes. Malone remembers the day he “followed a guy out. He said, ‘I hear you buy local.’ He was holding a snapping turtle by the tail. I bought it, alive. I told him I’d give him $20 if you don’t bring one of these back again.” No snapping turtle soup on the Tuskies menu – he (carefully) transported the turtle to a pond on Shelburne Glebe Road. He likes to think its offspring are still thriving there and thanking him.
Fresh and local includes beer and wine. Tuskies offers a carefully crafted wine trail map of Loudoun, and waives the corkage fee for a diner who brings his own bottle of a Loudoun vintage. Its 21 beer taps include local craft beers.
Malone, born in the District of Columbia, raised in Annandale and now a Loudoun devotee, started out as a bartender. He was mixing his parents’ cocktails when he was 13. He remembers asking his mother, “Can I taste that? I decided to show off and drank the whole thing. I never took another drink till I was 21.”
After high school, he managed to sign on as a bartender at Valle’s Steakhouse in Springfield and pretty soon was promoted to head bartender. Finally old enough to drink what he was mixing, he moved into restaurant management.
Then fate struck in the form of a working mill in Leesburg that was about to shut down. Malone decided Leesburg needed a restaurant and committed to preserve the massive timber frame structure that he had picked up and moved intact some 300 feet to its current site at the corner of Loudoun and Harrison streets. The original power belts, lifts, pulleys, engines and grain scale (still working) are still there, part of the history and ambiance. That all added to the cost, he admits, “But it was so unique, you had to conserve it.”
The late Bruce Brownell – Malone calls him the genius behind the project – made it all happen. “His ideas were just fantastic.”
In the early 2000s, Brownell was back in Malone’s office with a new “great idea.” He’d just bought the old mill right on the W&OD in Purcellville.
Malone did some math and replied, "It’s an amazing building, so much potential. Call me back when Purcellville has more people than cows.”
He came back, Malone recalled, sat down in front of the solid cherry bar in Tuskies’ front room, and said, “I counted. There are more people than cows.”
Magnolias at the Mill opened in 2003 with Malone’s brother Shawn as part owner and manager.
Hiring the right chef is key to the success of any restaurant, Malone said. “You’re looking for people with passion, people who live and breathe cooking and who are also open to trying new things, who are into the local economy, who support local foods.”
But those are the same people who can have a lot of ego wrapped around their creations – they don’t always take suggestions or criticism well.
Malone seeks out the chefs who have the passion but park the ego. Patrick Dinh has been the chef at Tuskies since 1993, just the third chef who has ruled the kitchen there. Malone interviewed 10 chef hopefuls before putting Dinh on the payroll and he’s now part owner of Fire Works.
Malone operates by a set of principles. One of the foremost is “Never experiment on your customers. Patrick experiments on me. I’ll try [his new creation], then we will talk about it.” And Patrick doesn’t have the ego roadblock. If Malone says the dish isn’t working for him, Dinh takes the feedback and goes back to the kitchen to fine tune the recipe.
Another principle: “The number one thing to be a good restaurant is to be profitable, because you have to stay in business.
A corollary: “The most expensive thing out there is an unhappy customer.” One day several years ago, he overheard an exchange between the then-chef and a waitress. Her customers had asked her to cut their steak in half and serve it on two plates. “They have a knife,” the chef retorted, “They can split it themselves.”
Malone called him in the next day and let him go. “You have a lot of talent,” he told him, “but your attitude is not our attitude.”
Another principle – don’t get lazy. Grow. Innovate. Try new things. He takes all his chefs on culinary outings to see what others are doing. A recent jaunt was to Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore where chef Spike Gjerde is a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.
Finally, take good care of your people and don’t micro-manage. They know their jobs, they can figure out the schedule. At any given moment the Malone family of eateries employs 300 or more people and more than a few have been there 20 years plus. Several, including his wine expert and one of the bartenders, have been there since the day Tuskies opened.
The locavores are pleased.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of LOUDOUNER.