Center for Rural Culture
New Producer: Curds and Whey RVA
By Katie Hoffman
The story of Curds and Whey RVA begins in Staten Island, New York, in the 1960s. John Ernst was just a kid working in a deli. Little did he know that he and his siblings—2 sisters and 3 brothers—would later end up running that deli themselves.
“We did everything,” he says, offering a long list. “Customer service, catering, cutting deli meats, stocking shelves, you name it.” Of course, part of that included making classic Italian deli foods, which John now sells through Curds and Whey RVA, here in Richmond. John has been delighting customers in the Richmond area for the past 25-plus years with his culinary creations—first as a chef, and now as a food entrepreneur—and we’re excited to have had him join the Fall Line Farms and Local Roots community, adding to our list of top-notch producers.
NORTH TO SOUTH
John first came to Richmond in the early 1990s. His brother-in-law had become the head chef at a restaurant on Broad Street called Pasta Luna, and he invited John to come be his right hand man. John moved south from New York, and a few months later found himself the head chef when his brother-in-law quit. For the next nine years, John's stellar dishes kept customers coming in for more.
A brief stint at Lakewood senior living followed, where John served as executive chef. Ever curious about food, he noticed the delicious spoonbread made by one of the ladies who had worked in the kitchen there for 25 years. “She gave me the recipe,” John says. “It’s totally traditionally Southern. At first, I made it just for fun. I made it because I liked it. Now, it’s one of my best sellers!” The inclusion of this classic Southern dish amongst all of the Staten Island fare is just proof of John’s culinary curiosity and his knowledge that a good recipe is a good recipe—no matter on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line he finds it!
After leaving Lakewood, John was owner and head chef at A Cappella, a German-Italian restaurant inside the Patrick Henry Inn in Richmond’s Church Hill. He then served as the Food Service Director at St. Christopher’s School for ten years. Curds and Whey RVA had been a sideline for the past 6 years until this past June, when he took the business full-time. Now, he works out of the kitchen at the Bishop Ireton Center in Southside Richomnd and sells his delectable food through several local outlets, including Fall Line Farms and Local Roots.
John’s hand-stretched mozzarella cheese has already proven popular with FLF&LR members. And with good reason. If you’re used to grocery store mozzarella, then you know that it can be bland and rubbery. Not so with this cheese. The Curds and Whey RVA version is much more flavorful, with a soft, wonderfully creamy texture. It has just the right touch of salinity, and a cheesiness that grocery store versions lack. If you slice some and leave it out for about 15 minutes, it’s perfect with tomatoes and basil in a caprese salad. It’s also delicious melted on a pizza or a hot sandwich. This is no ordinary mozzarella!
“I make the cheese myself,” John says proudly, “I stretch it by hand. I use a particular type of curd to make it. It’s best when it’s been out about 15 minutes. That brings out the creaminess.”
This mozzarella (which John pronounces “Moot-zah-rell,” with a slightly trilled “r”) is also different in the way that it’s packaged. Because it’s in a sturdy plastic container, you don’t have to rewrap it after each use, and it’s easy to slice. You can cut what you want and just leave the rest in the tub. The shelf life is two weeks, but it will be long gone before you need to worry about an expiration date!
MORE ITALIAN DELI CLASSICS
Lucky for us, spoonbread and mozzarella appear on up on the Fall Line Farms and Local Roots buying pages. And even luckier, Curds and Whey RVA offers pre-prepared classic Italian deli foods. There are delicious heat-and-serve hero sandwiches. There’s lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, and baked ziti with marinara sauce. All of these are made from scratch and come ready to heat up and serve. If you like to cook for yourself but also need a head start, you can buy fresh marinara sauce or fire-roasted peppers. And for dessert, you can choose a lovely chocolate mousse or some delectable tiramisu.
The Curds and Whey RVA version of tiramisu is the same one that pleased diners at Past Luna and A Cappella. This dessert is fabulously rich, but surprisingly light on the tongue—another achievement of culinary balance. No one flavor overpowers the others. John says that his recipe came from Ferraro’s in Little Italy, by way of a former employee of that establishment who taught him to make it. It is indeed a mouth-watering little taste of Italy and the perfect ending to a great meal, especially with a cup of coffee—or, better yet, expresso or cappucino.
The tiramisu shows John’s mastery of complicated dishes. But the mark of a good chef is an equal mastery of simple foods. Curds and Whey RVA’s Staten Island potato salad and Staten Island macaroni salad, sold by the pound, are simply wonderful. Again, John takes care with not only the ingredients, but also the method. “The potatoes need to be warm when you make the salad,” he says. “And you don’t want to overdo anything.” While some prepared salads are too salty or mayonnaise-y or onion-y, these are just right. These are perfect sides for a Curds and Whey RVA sandwich. They will also pair well with foods from other producers in our community. Think grass-fed burgers or freshly steamed shrimp.
Graciousness and a real desire to treat people to great food are hallmarks of the Curds and Whey RVA style. John had shared some of his handmade mozzarella with our own Market Manager, Becky Lillywhite. She loved it, declaring that “it is even better than [her] own!” John had been looking for a way to have an online presence for Curds and Whey RVA. Becky, having tasted his cheese, suggested that he consider joining our cooperative.
“Becky showed up just when I needed her,” says John, smiling. “If you’re good to people, if you put it out there, it’s gonna come back to you.” Looks like Curds and Whey RVA showed up just at the right time for our members, too.