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Catching Up with Chef Sydney Meers of Stove

Meers opening his "Ham House." Photo Credit: Blake McCluney

It had been some time since I’d visited Stove in Portsmouth and I was feeling the need for some local Southern hospitality. So, I decided to seek out chef and owner Sydney Meers.

Ready with coffee and croissants, Syd welcomes me into his humble restaurant as if no time had passed since our last conversation a few years prior.

Stove has undergone a makeover – new décor and blue paint adorn the walls. Meers plans to reupholster the chairs, too. His excitement and love for the establishment resonates from within him. And the public seems to feel the same. In 2016, Meers was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic making him the first Hampton Roads chef in forty years to receive the nomination. Though he didn’t make it past the semi-finals, Meers’ outlook remains positive: “That means I am one of the twenty best chefs in the nine-state area!” Post-nomination, Meers says, that he hasn’t changed but business has. He shares, “All of the sudden people were flooding in.” He says some people, “real foodies,” have traveled from Richmond or even Washington just to eat at Stove.

Interestingly, Meers shares that there are few people that come to him asking to learn to cook despite nearby cooking schools. To combat this, Meers teaches classes to the public. He also joined the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization devoted to documenting food culture of the American south, to share his ham aging processes.

The “Ham House” could have a story all its own. It is situated just a few hundred feet from the front doors of the restaurant. Fling open the doors, and your senses are quickly engulfed by a smoky sweetness. All throughout the rafters, the hams almost glitter as they suspend from ropes waiting to be salted or sliced. The art is something Meers admits many chefs today do not practice.

One of Meers’ recent projects includes writing. He hopes to finish his first cookbook in the next few months. He perches himself at the front table by the bar with his computer and cranks away. He says, “You’d think being here all the time that’s not a good idea well, when I’m closed this is a totally different place.” Meers will be sifting through nearly a thousand recipes he has collected over the decades to select the perfect ones for his book.

When Meers isn’t cooking or writing, he’s tinkering in the garden, tending to his bees, salting his hams, or painting. In fact, Stove is almost entirely decorated in Meers’ ironic, political, and often amusing and always colorful artwork. The air usually smells of freshly baked bread and during business hours, the kitchen orchestrates a whir of organized commotion. It is like stepping into another dimension; one that oddly feels like home.

Meers says he doesn’t necessarily change with the season because there aren’t really seasons anymore. He jokes, “Did we have a winter? Nah, we had a couple of cold days. That’s it. That’s winter.” He says he was actually able to continue growing many of his herbs from last year. Availability drives the menu at Stove. During my visit, he was preparing fresh strawberry ice cream and freshly caught soft shell crabs for brunch the next day.

What keeps him going? Meers says, his desire to continue in the business is deeply rooted in the familial ties he has to food. He grew up helping family members in their restaurants and often prepared meals alongside his grandmother and grandfather back in Mississippi. He says, “It’s fun, that’s the real thing. I’m doing a job and I’m having fun…Technically, I’m old enough to retire. How boring would that be? Then what do you do?”

Between sips of coffee, Meers jumps up to take a phone call. He mentioned filming. Could Meers be engaging in yet another exciting venture? We'll just have to wait and see!

To learn more about Stove, visit their website or follow them on Twitter @stoverestaurant.