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Executing a memorable wine dinner is a team sport at The Boathouse at Short Pump

The Boathouse wine dinner demo day
Posted at 12:52 PM, Apr 22, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- When most people go out to eat in Richmond, they typically interact with just a handful of people. Beyond the host who greets you at the door and the server and/or bartender who takes care of you during your visit, there is often not an opportunity to meet the wide variety of people involved in getting your meal to your table.

The Boathouse at Short Pump recently invited me to preview its upcoming The Chef and Sommelier Wine Dinner to help raise the veil on its process and introduce the community to some of the people involved.

People like:

  • Lee Hendrickson (The Chef)
  • Michael Avery (The Sommelier)
  • Laura Silva (The Planner)
  • Robert Nelson (The Chief Chef)
  • Kim Zicopula Harrison (The Megaphone)
  • Kyle Healy (The Strategist)
  • Colin Healy (The Money Man)
  • Kevin Healy (The Boss)

Some of those involved people listed above shared their roles in the process and their thoughts about how restaurants and food fit into the greater community.
The Sommelier

Michael Avery knows a lot about alcohol. So much so, the Beverage Director for the HOUSEpitality Family (the company that owns The Boathouse, Casa del Barco, and Island Shrimp Co.) is a certified sommelier, a certified beer server (level one of cicerone training), and earned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) levels 1 and 2 for spirits.

Don't worry, I had to Google what all that means too.

It means the man knows his stuff.

But before all that as a teenager in high school, Avery worked in the kitchen at McDonald's, washed dishes, delivered pizza, and even wore a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup costume and waved at potential customers. At age 19, he joined HOUSEpitality as a busser at the company's first restaurant — Sunday's Restaurant and Tavern in Midlothian.

Now as Beverage Director, his role at a special event wine dinner is crucial.

"It is my job to find wines to pair with each course of the chef's menu," Avery said. "Chef and I have a quick meeting after the menu has been sent to discuss the flavor profiles of each dish. I then reach out to a wine rep or two and set up a tasting of potential wines. Sometimes there are 15+ wines to go through in a single tasting."

At the tasting demonstration I attended in March, Avery stood behind the bar and offered several choices to sip with each bite that emerged from Chef Lee Hendrickson's open kitchen.

The Boathouse wine dinner demo day
Beverage Director Michael Avery awaits the next dish from Chef Lee Hendrickson as Director of Marketing Kim Zicopula Harrison takes photos of the food.

As to not sway the jury's opinion, Avery tended to save his preferred choice until after the Healys, Chef Nelson, Silva, and Harrison offered theirs.

Sometimes group members were in total agreement. Other tastes prompted belly-to-the-bar debates.

"My favorite part of the process leading up to the wine dinner is getting the initial reactions to the food and wine pairings from our group during the wine dinner demo session," Avery said.

It showed.

Swirling the wine and sharing knowledge between sips, Avery seemed in his element.

One of the pours, a Hakkaisan Junmai Daiginjo Sake, was the drink Avery said he most looked forward to serving both to us and at the April wine dinner.

"We are featuring sake for the first time since we re-introduced our wine dinner program last Summer. I get to talk about a new subject and hopefully be part of a new experience for our wine dinner guests," he said.

It's that wine dinner experience that Kim Zicopula Harrison likes to call best kept secret in Richmond.

The Megaphone

As Director of Marketing for the HOUSEpitality Family Restaurant Group, Zicopula Harrison primary responsibilities are to let people know about what's going on across the company.

That includes social media, email, menu design, photography, public relations, and "other duties as assigned," she noted.

Like so many others in the industry, her first job was in a restaurant, and, after career twists and turns, she found her way back to food and hospitality.

"It was during COVID when I felt a strong calling to return to my roots. Seeing the toll the pandemic took on restaurants in particular was heartbreaking, and I knew my unique background and skillset would translate well to the industry," she said. "In the spring of 2021, as if the universe aligned, I came across an opportunity to come on board with HOUSEpitality Family as their new Marketing Director and haven’t looked back!”

Zicopula Harrison said she particularly enjoyed the special events - like wine dinners — she shares with the community.

"This truly is a collaboration across many teams within our group, and I always leave our planning meetings and demos inspired by the creativity that springs forth from my colleagues. And when I chat with our guests on the night of the event, it is always a pleasure to hear how much they’re enjoying the experience and getting to engage with The Boathouse in a new way. One guest even told us that since seatings are very limited, the wine dinner series is the 'best kept secret' in Richmond - music to my ears!"

The Boathouse April Wine dinner

Laura Silva helps that secret come to life

The Planner

Like Avery, Silva began her HOUSEpitality career at the company's first restaurant.

"I was in school studying Fashion Merchandising at VCU and had never worked for a restaurant before. I heard this spot only 20 minutes away from the city was a great place to work during Summer break. What started as a serving job to earn college spending money turned into a career for me," she said. "I would often work weddings and event shifts and learned I loved the organization and hospitality I was able to bring to our clients."

Now, as Director of Events, Silva is in charge of those special occasions, including wine dinners across the company's Central Virginia locations. 

Lucky me, I met Silva at The Boathouse in Short Pump on one of her favorite days of the year.

"I enjoy getting to be involved in what we call the demo day," she said talking about the day the chef and sommelier initially demonstrate menu options. "We love bouncing ideas around at this meeting/demo and we always have fun.  Many of these folks have worked together for years and we enjoy celebrating the ideas and innovation from the team. Not many folks get to have a wine and food tasting with work friends during a typical Thursday work day."

She's right.

I officially took the day off from work to participate in this demo day. By the end, I had to walk around Short Pump Town Center and shop before driving home for the day.

Silva said these wine dinners provided an opportunity for the staff to come together and wow customers with something out of the ordinary.

"These events allow our team opportunities to work on innovating and showcasing their talents for our guests while collaborating on something a bit outside of our day-to-day responsibilities," she said. "Hands down my favorite moment during our wine dinners is after the final course, when our chef invites the back of house team into the dining room to thank them for their support. Our guests will often give the team a boisterous round of applause.  I can see the pride on the faces of the crew."

Pride has to be what Kevin Healy feels whenever he walks into one of his restaurants

The Boss

Kevin Healy opened what is now The Boathouse at Sunday Park in 1988.

More than 35 years later, he now runs a mini Richmond restaurant empire with four Boathouse locations, two Casa Del Barco locations, and an Island Shrimp Co. along the James River.

Healy and his sons Colin and Kyle sat next to each other along The Boathouse bar during the demo day tasting I attended.

The Boathouse wine dinner demo day
Michael Avery talks wine with Colin Healy and Chef Lee goes over the menu with Kevin Healy, Kyle Healy, and Robert Nelson.

Though it went unsaid, I felt that our opinions on the wine and food pairings were considered, but Kevin Healy's opinion really mattered.

Not by anything he said or did particularly, but more due to the attention his responses were given.

It makes sense. He's the boss!

In addition to the restaurants he oversees, one must assume Kevin Healy takes pride in some of his fellow HOUSEpitality Family executives — his sons.

The Strategist and The Money Man

Kevin Healy's eldest son Kyle Healy is the company's Director of Strategy.

No joke!

"My first job was working in the family restaurant picking up trash, bussing tables, bartending events," he said. "I [later] developed a love of comedy and decided to move to New York to work in entertainment. I started as a barker, selling tickets in Times Square, and eventually landed an internship at the Colbert Report on Comedy Central."

Healy followed Colbert when the host moved from Comedy Central to The Late Show on CBS.

But after five years in the Big Apple, Healy moved his family back to Richmond to join his family's business where he oversees the marketing and event sales departments.

On this day though, he's sitting next to me with the tough job of "official tasters."

During our demo day tasting, three dishes stood out to him:

  • Hamachi Crudo - Pickled chilis l passion fruit gel | sriracha granita l scallion l yuzu
  • Butter Poached Lobster Tail - Paddlefish caviar l celery leaf l sambuca cream l onion ash
  • Za'atar Crusted Lamb Loin - Sumac yogurt | house pickle | dukkah | saffron oil

He suspects dinner guests will enjoy them too.

The Boathouse April Wine dinner
Hamachi Crudo - Pickled chilis l passion fruit gel | sriracha granita l scallion l yuzu

"It's fun watching our chef and beverage director go around talking to tables. A lot of their job is behind the scenes, so it's nice seeing them receive praise for "the perfect bite" or "the perfect sip" from guests in person," he said. "These dinners are a chance for our team to flex their culinary muscles and maybe do some research into a new ingredient or technique they've been wanting to try. Then that knowledge gets passed on to our staff, and the guests who get to learn while enjoying a great meal."

Of course, at the end of the day, it's that meal (and wine) that can make or break the evening.

"I particularly enjoy when something pushes me out of my comfort zone, and then turns out to be amazing," HOUSEpitality Chief Financial Officer and Kevin's other son Colin Healy shared. "At a recent wine dinner, we featured a beef carpaccio, and many guests mentioned it was their first time considering such a dish, yet they loved it! The best thing about experiences like these is that they bring together like-minded individuals who are open to exploring new culinary boundaries and trying new things. A wine dinner isn't the occasion for cheeseburgers and fries; it's an opportunity for culinary exploration!"

Colin said, and I agreed, that one of the best parts of his job was serving as an official wine and food taster for these wine dinners.

"When it comes to wine dinners, we like our Chefs to have creative control while providing input where necessary," he said. "Our Culinary Director, Robert Nelson, oversees menu development and has been with the company for almost 15 years. Recently, Chef Lee, one of our newer chefs, led the tasting we participated in, showcasing his remarkable ability to create outstanding menus."

The Boathouse April Wine dinner
Butter Poached Lobster Tail - Paddlefish caviar l celery leaf l sambuca cream l onion ash

Nelson, who has been with the company for more than a decade, said he enjoyed wine dinners as it allowed him a chance to watch his chefs shine beyond the day-to-day menu.

"Right now I am so lucky to have a great team that includes Lee [Hendrickson] and I get to work with him as he and the rest of the chefs push to the next level," he said.

So what about Chef Lee Hendrickson?

It seems Chef Lee is too busy making sure this dinner comes off without a hitch to read his email and respond to my questions!

For those interested in what wines were chosen to pair with the dishes, here is a peak at the menu:

Screenshot 2024-04-20 213145.png

Like what you see? There may be a few seats still available for The Chef and The Winemaker Wine Dinner on Thursday, April 25 at The Boathouse in Short Pump.

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