There are few more satisfying moments than your first bite of a Stuffin’ Muffin’ from Merroir. The dish is a creation of Pete Woods, the “Food Guru” of Merroir, Rappahannock Oyster Company’s flagship tasting room. It is one of the items featured on the Virginia’s River Realm Foodie Guide.
When did you first become interested in pursuing a culinary career?
I do everything I do because of my mother. I was the youngest of 7 and always cooked with her. We made lots of bread and pies and we watched Julia Childs every afternoon. She died when I was a teenager. I remember being 11 years old and having lunch with her in an Italian market. She knew then and told me, “You need to really think about going to culinary school…I don’t know what it is, but you’ve got something about food and you really need to do something about it.”
Where did you wind up going to school?
I was born and raised in Philadelphia. I worked from time I was 11 at the Jersey Shore flipping burgers. My family always worked with food. I eventually went to The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill Academy. There was a big food renaissance in Philadelphia around 1974. I started school in 1979 and was the youngest in my class, graduating in 1980.
After you received your degree, where did your work take you?
Princeton was one of my first jobs. I then moved to Virginia, where I lived and worked until 2005. I opened up the Sheraton Park South hotel in 1986. I also worked at Buckheads, Graffiti Grille, Southern Culture, and helped open up the original River City Diner downtown and Awful Arthurs. I grew a habit of opening restaurants and then moving on to another one.
I moved to Denver after my dad passed away. I reconnected with an old high school friend who came to be my wife, Maggie McNeal. I moved out to Denver in 2006 and we got married in 2007. I worked at Tony’s’ Meat Market in Denver as the seafood manager. As the purchasing agent, I was invited to go to an oyster tasting hosted by Ryan and Travis Croxton, the co-owners of Rappahannock Oysters. It was almost snowed out, but I went anyways. That was early 2011. Travis and Ryan invited me to visit Merroir and by June, I had moved to Virginia to help bring their concept to life.
Merroir was really just a bait shop in the beginning. The location had formerly been a marina, much of which had been washed away by Isabel and Ernesto. It turned into the headquarters of Rappahannock Oysters. I opened up the tasting room within a month. There were Just three bar stools, three beer taps, and an outside grill. Our first day was July 15. We just served raw and roasted oysters and clams at first. We definitely wanted to primarily work with as much local ingredients as we could. Eventually we added shrimp and crabs to the menu.
Merroir’s crab cakes are pretty well known, how did that recipe come to be?
I use a recipe I’ve known since I was 11 years old. It’s my mother’s family recipe. There is no bread. She used to sell them in Goshen in Jersey on the weekends. We use crab from a Virginia picker and packer from Seaford, Graham and Rollins. It’s the best around. I used to get 10 lbs of crab meat on a Friday for the weekend back then and I would worry I wouldn’t use it all before Sunday. Today, I get 50-120 lbs a week and I always worry I’ll run out.
How long did it take to develop the entire Merroir menu?
I took about three years to get it all down on the menu. We slowly kept adding stuff by always having specials and experimenting with local food. We eventually expanded the kitchen and bar to make room for more comfortable cooking and seating.
Stuffing was a staple of our Thanksgivings in Philadelphia. We would reuse everything for days. The morning after Thanksgiving, my mom would turn the stuffing into thin pancakes, add a slab of scrapple and serve them with a fried egg. The next morning, she would turn the remaining stuffing into muffins by adding milk, eggs, and baking powder. Everything else would be added to make a cream sauce, which included lots and lots of oysters. She would pour the cream sauce over the muffins. That’s how you knew Thanksgiving was over.
At Merroir, our stuffing is made with old fashioned butter, onions, celery, and bacon seasoning. I use a half a gallon of Rappahannock oysters to make the cream sauce. I use an ice cream scoop to cook the muffins fresh on the grill for every order. At the end, I pour our oyster cream sauce over top.
Other than the food, what do you love about Virginia’s River Realm?
On a September or October day, you get a northern breeze and south western breeze, and the fall is just absolutely beautiful. I used to come down here all the time when I lived in Richmond. I had a boat here when it was a marina. I love restoring antique boats and here, there is so much history behind every boat. The water sustains the people here and always has. My boat is 60 years old. I like to honor that. You have visit Merroir and our new outdoor bar made from an old deadrise boat named Ruby.