In the past couple of years, Richmond has seen an incredible growth of new restaurants. From coffee shops with lines out the door to upscale southern tapas bars, this city has birthed new culinary creations that are all worth trying. But let’s take a second to look back at a gem that never once got the spotlight it deserved. As you pass by the glam and grit of Richmond’s Shokoe Bottom and start to head out of the flood zone, nestled just under Church Hill is Aziza’s on Main. Here, chef Caleb Shriver and pizza chef, Chris Dowhan, have found their sweet spot.
Aziza’s is a delicate balance between European control and Southern creative improvisation. Jason Alley of Comfort says:
“Aziza’s is an awesome place downtown that blends a lot of different identities together well. The owner’s name is Rusty and she’s Lebanese, but you’ve never heard a more Southern accent in your life. For lunch, there’s a great wood-burning oven and the pizzas that come out of it are fantastic. You can get shit like bottarga, which is really pretty sexy. It’s by far the best pizza in the city.”
Caleb has lived in Richmond for around a year and a half now and has been cooking at Aziza’s for just under that. Chris is the opposite. He’s lived in Richmond for 24 years and been at the restaurant for just 6 months. Their combination and communication is awesome. We had the chance to sit down with two for some questions on food, opinion, and this great city.
NS: What’s your culinary experience before Azizas?
Caleb: I have been in kitchens since I was 17. In 2003 I graduated at The Coach House, a classic french style restaurant that also runs as an apprenticeship owned and operated by chef Kurt Flieschfresser in Oklahoma city. I moved to Chicago in 2008 and worked with chefs Homaro Cantu and Daryl Nash at Otom Restaurant. I then worked under chefs Jimmy Sneed and Geoff Rhyne at Sugar Toad in Naperville, IL.
Chris: Aside from cooking at home for myself and friends, I had no culinary restaurant experience before working at Aziza’s. I worked in one other restaurant as a server but had little more than my culinary experience at home as a starting point. Luckily that included a lot of time spent making pizza at home for friends, so working the brick oven at Aziza’s was a perfect match.
NS: What does Aziza’s represent to you?
Caleb: A small family owned restaurant with diverse styles and good food.
Chris: It’s a family owned, local business that supports a lot of other local purveyors. They love the food they make and it shows.
NS: What does food mean to you and how do you celebrate it?
Caleb: Food is a vital source to life, and I celebrate life with food.
Chris: Food is not only something that sustains us, but something that brings us together. Food is a reason to get together with friends and enjoy something made by either a friend or by someone at a restaurant that you love. I try to buy local as much as possible, which makes food also a celebration of the area and the hard work that the farmers have put into growing vegetables and raising animals.
NS to Chris: I know the passion that you have towards cooking, especially towards breads and baked goods. How do you translate this passion for bread into your work at Aziza’s? Aziza’s has an amazing brick oven. Over the past couple years I’ve really been drawn into bread baking, however there’s something unique and special about baking the way that Old World bakers did. Being able to try out different techniques with the oven has only made me feel more passionate about the process of baking breads and cooking in general. In many ways I feel as though passion was one of the only qualities I had that allowed me to have this job.
NS to Chris: What is it about breads that intrigue you so much? The process of making bread is an elegant one. Every detail counts. And no matter how precise I think I’ve been, the results always vary. I love that. No two boules or pizzas ever come out the same. I think that having such an endless number of variables and outcomes leaves me in awe of the process. Changing the tiniest measurement, temperature or time can significantly change the outcome. Learning how to manipulate the four or five ingredients in bread to get what you desire is challenging but fascinating.
NS: What is your opinion on the current trend of eating locally?
Caleb: From a economic and health stand point it’s great. I’m looking forward to it becoming less of a trend and more of a life style. It’s also more than just eating local though. We need to know that it comes from an honest source with morals of good husbandry, Organic Farming and more.
NS: How do you incorporate seasonal eating into the menu?
Caleb: It’s easy. The food comes into season and we source it and cook it.
NS: Do you see Richmond being an underrated food city?
Caleb: That depends on who’s rating it.
NS: What do you love most about Richmond?
Chris: Stepping away from food talk for a minute, my favorite part of Richmond has to be the outdoor activities it offers. Nestled in on the edge of the river are great mountain biking trails and an old bridge buttress set up for rock climbing. Richmond is just big enough to have some unique and interesting things going on, yet small enough that everything is accessible.
NS to Chris: What pie would you serve your friend if they came in to visit tonight? If they were vegan or vegetarian, I’d make them a black garlic, kale and caramelized onion pizza. For the others, I’d probably make a prosciutto and arugula pizza topped with chili flakes and parmesan.
NS: What do you see for the future of fast food in this country?
Caleb: Fast food will always have a clientele, and they will adapt to the trends (eat local). So it’s also good to know that the people cooking your food, have you in there best interest.
Aziza’s is located in downtown Richmond, Virginia at 2110 East Main Street. ph.804.344.1523 They also have the biggest, baddest, and best creme puffs we’ve ever had. Yes, they do carry-out.
Photographs by Cameron Lewis.