by Katherine Hafner
Courtney White and several of her employees huddle in the kitchen around a white dinner plate topped with fried sweetbread. They’re experimenting with a new dish: the sweetbread with shiitake mushrooms, fennel, shallots and a mustard sauce. The 31-year-old chef dips a finger into the sauce to taste and looks for a moment lost in thought, unsure of her verdict. “Chick-fil-A,” she says, joking.
Then an order comes in and she’s back to flipping meat on the grill. Cooking has always made White happiest, but these days she has a long list of responsibilities as the brains, and sweat, behind Blanca Food + Wine, one of the hottest new restaurants in Tidewater. White opened the French-inspired bistro last fall after stints cooking in New York and Charleston.
Blanca is tucked away in the Riverview neighborhood, sandwiched between a McDonald’s drive-through and a dry cleaner’s, on a section of Granby Street that has yet to gentrify. The area’s been yearning for new life for a long time, and with restaurants like Clementine’s – and now Blanca – it appears to be happening, if slowly.
The evolution has been a whirlwind for White, who moved back to the region just over a year ago before making the jump from line cook to restaurant owner. And she’s still working to figure everything out, from how to deal with wiring issues to how her style of cooking fits into the Norfolk food scene. One thing she knows, though, is she’s loving the crazy ride.
“Everybody told me … the hardest thing was going to be dealing with people,” she says. “I have found that to be the opposite. I have a very strong family and think I’ve just extended it here with employees: a giant, crazy, dysfunctional, awesome family.”
It’s an interesting turn of events considering that for a while she resisted the lifestyle, especially taking on the role of chef.
White grew up in Suffolk, the oldest of three. She graduated from Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. She says she always loved food and particularly looked fondly on spots like Holland’s Produce and the Bennett’s Creek Farm Market & Deli.
She gravitated toward food and working with her hands, but she never really thought of it as a career. Then, after graduating from the University of Virginia, she decided on a whim to follow a friend to the French Culinary Institute in New York. Despite being “a terrible culinary school student,” she says, she fell in love with the profession, especially after a six-month school program in Italy.
“There was a distinct shift in my life after that,” she says. “An ‘all in’ kind of thing.”
White moved back and lived with her parents for a time, working at Sushi Aka in Suffolk. Soon she moved back to New York but resisted becoming a chef.
“Restaurant work was terrifying to me,” she says.
She got a job as a recipe editor at the Food Network, and hated it. She moved to Vermont to grow and cook food on a farm, but fled after experiencing the winter there. She went back to New York to get her master’s in food policy from New York University. “All of this is me trying not to be a chef, trying not to be a chef,” she says, laughing. “I had a lot of doubt in myself and my abilities, how tough I am or how much I can withstand. It’s backbreaking work.
“All these tough things I was trying to balance out, see what would make me a happy person. To be honest, it is this. I actually live for chaos. I was trying to fight, I guess, destiny.”
White snagged a job at Rebelle, a wine bistro that had just opened and would eventually become Michelin-starred. After tiring of the hectic life in New York, she moved to Charleston to work at a James Beard Award winner, FIG, where she was the only female chef. Five months later she switched to Chez Nous, where she realized, she says, “you don’t have to be a crazy person to have a restaurant.”
“You can treat your staff with respect, you can do things nicely and don’t have to yell at the servers. All these things that make an environment a positive place to work.”
Early last year, sick of missing family events, White moved back to Tidewater. Not finding any restaurants she felt really suited her skills and culinary vision, she decided to open her own.
Wine bottles and cookbooks line the shelves of Blanca where visitors enter. A long white granite bar exposes an open kitchen and allows for lots of communication between cooks and customers. A small adjoining dining room has a few dozen more seats.
White says she purposefully bought a building that wouldn’t need a major renovation. The bathroom is in a building across the outdoor patio, which White is excited to make use of when the weather warms. She may even add a Sunday brunch if she can part with the day off.
Blanca’s menu is divided among snacks, dinner and dessert. A few items have been on since the beginning and are ordered often by regulars – the “hot olives” snack, the spaghetti al limone, the mussels.
White constantly tries to switch things up, making about five small adjustments a week. “I try to adhere to the French standards of, you can’t have two red wine sauces,” she says. “Everything has to shift if one thing changes.”
On a Thursday night in January, White had recently switched from rockfish to halibut and served the tender fish with a cauliflower puree and escarole. She usually offers a fish dish alongside hanger steak and a poultry option for the entrees.
Then there are things to be shared. Oh so rich was the roasted acorn squash appetizer, which came beneath a hunk of whipped goat cheese, watercress and hazelnuts. The cheese melted into the squash, then melted in my mouth. Simply scrumptious. A lavish lamb risotto was also mouthwatering.
White says she enjoys going to Michelin-starred restaurants, but “usually those places only get fun after three glasses of wine.” She wants her place to be the kind where you sink into a chair after a long day. The spaghetti al limone feels like the meal equivalent of that sentiment. White and her sous chef, Emily Meyers, experimented with the homemade pasta dish many times before settling on a refreshing sauce that includes lemon, light cream, Parmesan and butter.
White says she has been influenced by her travels in Italy and Spain – not just the food, but the culture of wine, small bites and long lunches. “Very rustic.”
For dessert, on offer is a dark, rich chocolate mousse offset with crème fraiche, inspired by a restaurant in New York she used to stop by when having a bad day. But even tastier in my opinion was the biscoff semifreddo, a semi-frozen cream with crushed cookies.
And general manager Dylan Powell has a wine pairing for everything.
“We’re all foodies, we’re all winos,” says server Alex Welch. “We feel good about it.”
“They’re all hospitality-driven,” White adds of her 10-person staff. “I think that’s what people can feel when they come in and why we’ve been popular. People can tell that we’re all happy too. I think that’s contagious.”
She says she still looks around in disbelief every once in a while, surprised that everything seems to be running smoothly.
“People are giving me money to do something that I love,” she says. “It’s wild.”