Ask five different people what food is distinctive of Hampton Roads and you’ll get five different answers. Maybe it’s she-crab soup, or fried seafood, or perhaps something eccentric like boiled peanuts. There’s no definitive answer, and while the area is known for so many things, food isn’t exactly one of them. Pair that lack of a signature food with a largely transient military population and the international influences that inevitably follow, and you could argue that there isn’t a cohesive culinary identity at all. Josh Gregory, Nic Hagen, David Hannah, Travis Lindblad, Forrest Warren, and Joshua Fitzwater would disagree, and they’ve come together to form The Alt Bite in order to tackle that very issue.
So what exactly is The Alt Bite? It’s equal parts therapy mixed with Abraham Lincoln-esque “team of rivals” level discussions about everything in the culinary world, from cooking techniques to business practices, even what should be expected from a contemporary restaurant experience. The group came together over a few beers one night when they realized that they could join their talents together to tell the story of Hampton Roads cuisine and, quite simply, to make some damn good food. Hagen said that part of the purpose of this collaboration is to “learn different techniques from each other; certain spices I now use that I hadn’t used before. It’s about learning and respecting each other.”
Each member brings their own culinary strengths and professional background to the group. Brian Wegener is the Executive Chef at Esoteric in Virginia Beach. Nic Hagen is the owner and chef at homeGrown in Portsmouth. Josh Gregory is the chef at Supper in Ghent. Forrest Warren is the chef at Smoke BBQ in Newport News. David Hannah is the Executive Chef at Press 626 in Norfolk. Travis Lindblad is the chef at The Corner Bistro in Poquoson. There’s even Joshua Fitzwater, editor and publisher of the Hampton Roads food magazine Southern Grit, but what truly unites them all is a willingness to push back against traditional approaches in the kitchen and be outspoken in their beliefs.
For example, Hannah asserts he was fired from a local restaurant for wanting to change the food culture in the eatery and use more locally sourced products. Hagan routinely posts his frustrations with local food media on social media. In one instance, he refused media coverage because the reporter wanted to do a story on his restaurant, but had not come in to eat the food. Fitzwater published an article slamming most tapas restaurants in the area for being overpriced and not sourced well, contrary to the cuisine’s Spanish roots. Though he received heavy backlash from some of the businesses he critiqued, his words were precient. Within a year, several of the mentioned locations had permanently closed. Lindblad, known as the “Vegan Slayer,” earned a reputation as a provocateur for cooking all his greens in bacon fat. Fitzwater and Gregory co-wrote an article on the Cotton Southern Bistro, a popular restaurant that several local media outlets had fawned over. In it, they pointedly stressed how mistaken the other critics were in their favorable reviews, going so far as to publish photographic evidence that Cotton’s biscuits were not made from scratch, but were instead premade by Pillsbury. And Wegner? He served time in jail for a drug offense years ago and discovered his passion for cooking while incarcerated.
“All of the chefs have a blue collar vibe to them,” Fitzwater said. “They’re self-made with a passion for food. These aren’t the guys who are being reported on in traditional media. They aren’t being written about, they’re not in a position to pay for the exposure.” The Alt Bite is threading the needle with their shared interest in celebrating local food sources, making things from scratch, and perhaps most importantly, using their talents to create authentic dishes without cutting any corners.
There is a sense of community between the chefs, and as they cook each meal, they are beginning to delve into what Hampton Roads food is, even if it’s still difficult to articulate at this point. The process of creating a culinary identity started almost a decade ago when these chefs were just starting their careers and has continued as they refine their craft. “It’s cool and frustrating that we don’t know what the food scene is,” Gregory said. “This area is a mix of a group of transients and people who have lived here their whole lives. We’re figuring it out now who we are.”
As new chefs are being churned out in cookie cutter fashion from culinary schools with visions of Top Chef contracts in mind, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people who have the work ethic to start at the bottom and work their way up to Executive Chef. “Ultimately, it’s becoming a smaller segment of the culinary world who respect this world,” said Gregory. “The guys that want to work, that’s who we want to bring into the culture. We want to this to continue to grow. It’s hard to do it with one person, but now there’s a group of people who are working together, and there’s comfort in that.”
Over the past decade, patrons have changed the way they view their restaurant experience as well. Gregory admitted that social media has created a better customer, which in turns forces chefs to be better. “The customer is smarter, more focused, and better educated.” Hannah agreed, “It’s more competitive. You’ve got to step up your game and be more inventive. You have to stand out as a chef.”
The Alt Bite’s first event, The Mixtape Dinners: Volume 1, is a collaborative dinner taking place at Esoteric on August 13. The ticketed event will feature seven courses featuring dishes like sugar beet mignonette, tomato concasse, risotto, fried ravioli, and jerk chicken mousse. The vibe of the night is definitively hip hop—the marketing photos mimic classic Death Row Records album covers. Local impresario Charlie Rasputin will also make an appearance as MC for the evening.
For all the inventiveness of this initial offering, their sights are set higher than just hosting dinners. “We want to do something like Cook It Raw, but we want to do that in a more centralized area,” Gregory said, referencing the avant garde culinary movement focused on low-tech sourcing methods and the social, environmental, and cultural ramifications of food.
Each member of Alt Bite is proud of their outsider status. They are cooking approachable, delicious, Southern food, and are proud of their defiance. Gregory summed it up best, “We’re against the bullshit.”
The Alt Bite will host a seven-course collaborative dinner entitled The Mixtape Dinners: Volume 1 at Esoteric on Sunday, August 13. Doors open at 6 PM, dinner to follow at 7 PM. $60 per person, tickets available at squareup.com/store/thealtbite. Follow the collective at facebook.com/thealtbite.
Photography by Joshua Fitzwater