Eternal Flame

Remembering Monroe Duncan, Cova’s First Celebrity Chef

I knew of Monroe Duncan before I knew Monroe Duncan. How could you care about good food, live in the region and not?

The iconic chef was larger-than-life, having been part of the area’s cuisine scene, off-and-on (mostly on) for decades.

His resume is as long as was his appetite for life: The Nation’s Room at the Golden Triangle, The Chamberlin Hotel, Simply Divine Dahlings, Suddenly Last Summer, Monroe’s Mocambo, The Blue Crab, Piranha – An Eating Frenzy, Todd Jurich’s Bistro and Smithfield Inn, but to name a few.

Along the way, he not only fed patrons, but other chef’s careers, too.

The chef, or Le Chef, the moniker he liked, died in June in his sleep in Chicago, where he had called home for the past few years. He was in his mid-70s.

His personal style and his cooking style were both forces to be reckoned with.

Monroe wore bright shirts and combat boots. He challenged himself, his staff, and the palate of Coastal Virginia. He pushed, and pushed hard. He was a fierce, roaring lion one minute, and a sweet, purring kitten the next.

His food was creative, utilizing local ingredients with classic techniques. There may have been others like him in other cities, but not here, not at the time.

 

A few years ago Monroe called me.

“Mary,” he said. He was from an age where gay men colloquially called other gay men Mary. “Let’s meet for lunch. You’ve written a cookbook, and I want you to help me write mine.”

We dined at Captain Groovy’s in Monroe’s beloved Ocean View. We talked, and planned. He gave me pages to look over. He worked on collecting recipes and stories. He put some on a blog, and continued to add to them over time.

I still have the stack of recipes he gave me from that first meeting, and I’ve picked a few that are quintessentially Monroe to share with you here.

One of the most compelling reasons I got into food, specifically food writing, as a career is because recipes are a time machine. They are the harbinger of memories through sight, smell and taste.

Monroe has passed, but his memory will not as long as we make his recipes, raise a glass, and remember.
 

 

Recipes from Le Chef

Editor’s note: these are Chef Duncan’s recipes in his own words; we’ve intentionally done minimal editing to remain true to his original version.

Caesar Salad for Two
Ingredients
2 to 3 hearts of romaine lettuce leaves
8 croutons
1 to 2 whole cloves garlic (to individual taste)
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-1⁄2 ounces red wine vinegar
1-1⁄2 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1-1⁄2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup powdered parmesan cheese
Anchovies
Egg yolk
Coleman’s dry mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste


1 large un-shellacked wooden salad bowl pre-seasoned with olive oil

Method
1. With a fork, crush the clove(s) of garlic in the bottom of the bowl, rubbing the garlic essence into the wood. Remove the excess shreds of the clove. Add a few grinds of fresh pepper into the bowl.

2.  Add the anchovies, and using the fork, transform the tiny fish fillets into a paste. If the anchovy is a bit stubborn, add a touch of vinegar to make the process more pliable.

3. Add the olive oil and wine vinegar. Blend thoroughly with the anchovy paste. To this mixture add the Coleman’s dry mustard, Worcestershire Sauce, and raw or coddled egg yolk. Blend until the dressing is smooth and creamy.

4. Add the fresh lemon juice and blend.

5. Add the chilled hearts of romaine lettuce leaves to the bowl, then the croutons. Sprinkle with powdered parmesan cheese, and toss until leaves are thoroughly coated. Do not toss more than 12 turns—the leaves will begin to bruise.

6. Aesthetically, stack the leaves in a helter-skelter fashion onto a thoroughly chilled plate. Sprinkle powdered parmesan atop the salad as lightly fallen snow. Serve at once. Pass the peppermill.

Notes:
To coddle an egg, immerse it at room temperature in shimmering water for a few minutes.

Prepare croutons from baguette or as we did in the nations, from white bread cut into triangles and deep fry them or sauté in butter till light brown. Bring them to room temperature before using.

 

Shrimp Scampi
Ingredients
8 U-12 (under 12 per pound) peeled, deveined tails-on green shrimp
3 tablespoons whole lightly salted butter
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 ounce dry sherry, stale flat champagne or dry white wine
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Method:
1. Heat the butter in a sauté pan on a réchaud. Add chopped garlic and parsley. Sauté until garlic is light brown.

2. Add shrimp, mushrooms and Sherry. Sauté until shrimp are perfectly done. Do not overcook. Shrimp need only turn pink and hot through.

3. Add lemon juice. Serve at once. For a different touch, sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese on top of the shrimp just before serving.

 

Cherries Jubilee

Ingredients
1 cup canned pitted dark sweet cherries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon. arrowroot
4 ounces Kirschwasser
1 pound vanilla ice cream

Method
1.  Drain cherries, reserving liquid.

2.  Into the 10-inch sauté pan over the réchaud’s butane flame, mix the sugar with the arrowroot and add the reserved juice and zest. Whisk this mixture until the arrowroot is dissolved. Bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

3. As the mixture thickens, add the cherries and simmer till hot. Again when you flame with the Kirschwasser, be sure to use the same method as you (do) with … Steak Dianne. As it flames, pour the Jubilee over the ice cream. The flame will quickly fade. Serve at once!

 

Tributes to Le Chef

Editor’s note: we reached out to folks who worked with, dined with, or were influenced by Chef Duncan; here is a sampling.

[Monroe] taught me the bounty of the seasons and the Chesapeake Bay, how to interact with customers and the value of an experienced waitstaff. Monroe was much more than a chef; he was larger-than-life, a mother, father and mentor all rolled into one.

Bobby Huber, chef/owner
Bobbywood (to open Autumn 2014)
Norfolk


In the late 60s I met Monroe and a number of his friends, all of whom worked at a place that I had never heard of, The Nations Room. These guys would sit outside at the concrete tables at my father’s bar (which would later become the venerable Ship’s Cabin in Ocean View) and eat crabs, shrimp and iced tea. I can’t recall ever having a more lively group.

[Later] we became friends and would often visit each other’s restaurants. I was always amazed at his food preparations. I would ask him how to prepare a dish, and he would teach me. When I decided to introduce sautéed dishes to my menu, I sent my cooks to Monroe; he would sometimes show up in my kitchen to coach.

Without him , I don't know where I would have gone for inspiration and direction. The most memorable occasion was when we were creating a new oyster dish which eventually became Oyster’s Bingo. We tasted many versions, and when we got it right, I wrote him a check and asked that he not mention that it was his recipe; he never said a word.

Monroe’s mind never stopped. He always wanted to create something new. As recently as the Thursday before he died, we had emailed each other about the possibility of him writing a cook book. Needless to say, I was shocked when I learned of his death. Monroe was bigger-than-life.

Joe Hoggard, restaurateur
(The former) Ship’s Cabin
Norfolk

 

There is so much to say about Monroe and how much of a mentor he was to me. I first met Monroe in 1986 when he was the food and beverage director at the Chamberlin Hotel, and he offered me the sous chef position fresh out of culinary school. [We worked together again later at] Monroe’s Mocambo.

The things Monroe taught me were to educate my palate and learn the technique and your culinary profession can go anywhere. There were so many crazy times working for him in the kitchen. He would scream and carry on and call us everything in the book. His passions for food, quality, consistency and creativity were most important to him.

Thank you, Monroe, for everything you have taught me and being there for the last 28 years. I will miss you and always remember the great times we had in the kitchen.

Tim Brown, chef/owner
Hook-U-Up-Gourmet
Cape Charles


It was 1985. I was just graduating Culinary Institute of America and looking for a gig on the East Coast. [Monroe] flew me down for a weekend to interview at the Chamberlin Hotel. It was the beginning of an education that lasted almost 30 years.

I soon learned his panache and polish in the dining room mirrored his demand for the highest quality food, exciting menus and hard work.

I fell in love with professional food service that weekend, and it’s all Monroe’s fault. We will all miss him.

Patrick Reed, chef/instructor
Virginia Beach Technical and Career Educational Center


There are so many memories and moments, but if I were to choose just one it would be when he was working the dining room at Todd Jurich’s Bistro (this was later in his career) and he was doing tableside cooking at the time, I believe his entrecôte of steak “Diane.”

I was cooking in the kitchen, which is open to the dining room so I could see him flaming the dish. I looked up, and at the same time a patron walked by, and from my angle it appeared the person was on fire.  I rushed out [and Monroe] looked up and said, ‘Darling, I haven’t caught anyone on fire all week.’ Well the whole dining room applauded, and the queen herself was once again on stage.

Todd Jurich, chef/owner
Todd Jurich’s Bistro
Norfolk

 

It was 1979, a time of change for all; good times were abundant. [We] were driving down Granby Street when we saw Suddenly Last Summer [but] found the door locked. Through the window I saw him and knocked to get his attention. I begged, ‘Let us in, we are starving.’ He laughed and said come on in, even though he did not open until 5.

He fixed the best omelet I ever had, hot rolls and strawberry jam. He asked my name, and I said Helen Elizabeth Taliaferro. Too ordinary, he laughed, and said, ‘You are my Queen Helene,’ and to this day I remain the same.

He was my best friend for 35 years through thick and thin. It was love at first bite.

Helen Taliaferro
Friend, patron


I would see Monroe around at food shows, and of course his usual haunts. He was my kind of guy: a punk rock chef! He wore combat boots for pete’s aake! As time went on and my career grew, so did Monroe’s legend. The man was royalty to us kids coming up in the business. He was fusion before fusion was cool.

Jeff Brown, chef/owner
Cotton Southern Bistro
Chesapeake, Virginia Beach


[We] first went to Suddenly Last Summer in the early 1980s, and he served some of the best food I had ever eaten, anywhere. [Later I really got to know Monroe.] He would call out of the blue and say, ‘Hey, Sugar, want to go to lunch?’

Once when Monroe called, I was driving down Brambleton Avenue. ‘Let’s meet at Saigon One!’ was the greeting. When I arrived, he was seated at a table of Norfolk police officers—all, obviously, old friends. Together, we feasted on sizzling Vietnamese pancake and pho.

On his birthday this year, March 11, we had our last Facebook chat. I told him [my husband], Gary, was making a Caesar salad in his honor. ‘It will be even better than those created tableside at the Nation’s Room!’ he proclaimed.

Jane Gardner, former television news anchor
Friend, patron
 

Categories: Dish