It's a hot Friday morning at the McLean farmers market. By one of the vegetable stands, you spot a diminutive blond woman tugging a little red wagon overflowing with fresh produce. That is Vickie Reh, executive chef at D.C.'s almost rugged, nearly outdoorsy restaurant, Buck's Fishing and Camping.
If you go Buck's Fishing and Camping 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW 202-364-0777 Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Don't be misled by the restaurant name -- you won't find roasted hot dogs or s'mores on its menu. Reh is a very careful chef who comes by the restaurant's simple, superfresh American cooking quite honestly: She selects the best her favorite vendors offer and cooks the ingredients up gently, respectfully and without frills. "I cook using local ingredients," she said, "and my techniques combine French and Italian styles. I use the freshest ingredients, and I can't see using four ingredients when three will do. It's very Italian or country French ... I am a pretty simple cook."
For a Kansas native and someone honing her wine expertise, cooking here may seem somewhat puzzling. No hearty beef stews? No collection of pricey wines on the menu? Her path to this kitchen is not so extraordinary after all. In high school and college, she studied French and was an exchange student in France, becoming very involved with and passionate about French cooking. While there, she even worked for a Frenchman who preserved heirloom vegetables in jars, selling them alongside his confits and pates.
"I just got so involved with cooking and wine there," she said.
Back in the United States, Reh accepted a job with a local wine purveyor, and without any formal training, set about learning her wines. Today, she is in a small, blind-tasting wine group, where the aim is to identify what the wine is and from what vintage. Simultaneously, by traveling, watching cooking shows and reading cookbooks, Reh taught herself basic cooking skills.
To hone her talent, she often travels to France or Italy, focusing on learning all about single ingredients.
"I plan my trips around food," she said. "I planned a whole trip around salts in Brittany. I brought back a suitcase of salts. ... I spent a week in Rome's Campo dei Fiore so I could shop and cook."
She also described the goals of her latest wine trip to France: She attended a blending tasting in the Aube, the southern part of Champagne. She then continued her trip, following a specific soil type (kimmeridgian) rather than focusing on a region or a particular grape.
But if all this sounds very highbrow, Reh reverts to her Kansas roots in many of her recipes. Take the cottage cheese, for example, a favorite dish her grandmother taught her (see recipe below).
"This isn't her actual recipe," Reh said, "because I can't find it. But like her, I add the chives and heavy cream, then pair the cottage cheese with local vegetables, such as tomatoes and fire-roasted pepper strips." She added that serving the cottage cheese with fresh vegetables "tickles" her.
Does she have a signature dish? Yes, she said. The pork rillettes and the duck confit in winter. But in summer, you'll put your money on the cottage cheese-tomato appetizer, the menu's biggest surprise.
Q&A with chef Vickie Reh
What's your comfort food?
Chicken and rice soup; it's always in my fridge or freezer. On my days off, it's Asian food, especially Vietnamese. And good fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese and burgers.
What are your basic kitchen essentials?
At home, two ovens, a set of good knives, pans, good tongs, chef's spoons. I don't need all those gadgets like a garlic press. And I don't need a million knives either.
What's in your fridge?
I always have eggs in my fridge, usually from Will at Whitmore Farms. Best eggs in town. Also, currently berries from Westmoreland Berry Farm. Good to snack on when I get home.
Which chef do you admire most in the world?
Julia Child, Madeleine Kamman. I love Mario Batali, Rick Bayless, Judy Rogers ... they are all about traditional cooking.
Which are your favorite restaurants?
Huong Viet in Eden Center, Ray's Hell Burger, Restaurant Eve and the Bistro, Comet Ping Pong and Marcel's.
From the chef's kitchen
Makes about 3 cups
2 gallons skim milk
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup finely chopped chives or green onions
Baby heirloom tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
Fine quality extra virgin olive oil
Heat skim milk in a large saucepan until it reaches 120 degrees. Remove from the heat and pour in the vinegar, stirring for 1 to 2 minutes until the curd forms. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, pour the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined colander and let set 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, bundle the cheese up in the cheesecloth, and rinse under running water, squeezing as you go along. You may store it still wrapped in the cheesecloth or wrapped in plastic, if you do not plan to use it immediately. One hour before you plan to serve it, crumble it into bite-sized pieces, and add the salt and the chopped chives. Stir in the heavy cream without breaking the curd. You should stir it periodically until the liquid thickens and the mixture becomes creamy.
Serve it on 1/4 cup baby arugula garnished with heirloom tomatoes, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.