Rhys Lewis

Executive Chef, Colonial Williamsburg

Tell us about Colonial Williamsburg’s Taste Studio, which includes A Chef’s Garden Tour & Tasting.

At Taste Studio, guests see what we make from start to finish. They see it, smell it, talk about it and taste it. It’s the full experience. What we are demonstrating is something new and innovative. A lot of our dishes are vegetable-driven and come from the gardens here. When we do our garden tours as part of A Chef’s Garden Tour & Tasting, we may pull up a carrot or a turnip or some herbs and bring it to the studio. Sometimes we use vegetables people don’t know about, like leafy greens or root vegetables, or we use edible flowers.

Since we are in the garden first, guests are mentally oriented to the food, so they are ready. This came about in mid-2013 when executive chef Travis Brust and I were out in the gardens learning how to grow and care for things in the gardens and bringing them back to our kitchen. The way people responded to us on the street got me thinking about how we could give people the whole food experience.

What do you like about working in the Taste Studio?

What is different about the Taste Studio is that our most experienced chefs are the ones executing the program, which gives guests the opportunity to talk to the top talent, our higher level chefs, including Travis Brust, Williamsburg Inn Executive Chef; Anthony Frank, Williamsburg Lodge Executive Chef; and Rodney Diehl, Colonial Williamsburg Pastry Chef. It’s very intimate. When I am in the Taste Studio as the chef, I am talking, cooking and interacting with the audience.

I like it. I like that I am making someone’s day. I like making the guests who are there happy. There is some value in that. Overall, the response has been really good. We have guests who are local and from out of town. One guest from North Carolina visits every weekend.

Early Americans ate from gardens, an experience you try to replicate. Do you think our ancestors had better eating habits than we do?

I believe that our American ancestors ate less sugar and refined or processed food products in their diets. The foods were organic and sourced locally in most cases. 

What can you tell me about the Wine, Wit and Wisdom program?

Wine is mysterious to people, so we try to unlock its secrets. We examine a range of topics and varietals such as cabernet and introduce samples of that wine from Chile, California or New Zealand to demonstrate that they taste completely different. We take a look at different wines around the world. It’s information-based and interactive, and we pair the wines with food or cheese to show how food pairings complement the wine. It’s very fun. People never tire of it.  

How did you become a chef and how did you end up at Colonial Williamsburg?

As a youth, I worked as a Boy Scout camp counselor, and was required to do a cooking demo once a week. I also worked in the restaurant business in high school, and there was always something exciting happening in the kitchen. Those experiences influenced my decision to pursue cooking as a profession and I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the top culinary schools in the world. I worked at resorts and in Europe and joined Colonial Williamsburg from 1984-1989, when I left to become executive chef at the American Club Resort in Kohler, Wisconsin. In 2006, I had the opportunity to return to the Williamsburg Lodge following its renovation. We’ve been working to strengthen Colonial Williamsburg as a destination not only for history, but for food and beverage, too, providing guests another reason to visit. I want Williamsburg to be a food and wine destination; history supported by cuisine.

In what ways has being a chef changed your relationship with food?   

It has made me seek comfort food from all over the globe. It has increased my appreciation for the source of food and the effort involved in farm fresh products. 

We discussed social dining. Do you think there is an added health benefit to eating in a social atmosphere?

I believe that eating food with family and friends is far better for you than eating alone. We all have memories of meals shared with others at special times or on a daily basis, providing a sense of belonging and well-being. These positive emotions may contribute to improved health. 

What are your tips for people who cook at home?

Pick simple recipes. Gather your friends. Put out some wine and cheese and bring the party into the kitchen. Give everyone an apron and put your guests to work helping prepare the meal. When you come to my house for dinner, we all work together and it’s so much fun. I love it.