The Shack is Serving Up Tradition and Elegance in Staunton
Chef Ian Boden knows that to live in Appalachia you have to respect the land.
Tucked into the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, Staunton, Virginia, is known for its stunning mountain vistas and small-town charm. It’s also known for harsher winters and short growing seasons.
“The [Shenandoah] Valley and Appalachia are a melting pot, and are the original melting pot of the US,” explained Boden, chef and owner of The Shack, a modern cuisine restaurant in Staunton that has become synonymous with local, farm fresh food. “It’s not just Scots Irish, either, which is what most people think of. There was a huge wave of Hungarian, Russian, and Polish immigrants who settled here. All of the things that I associate with cooking, and that I grew up with, resonate here.”
Boden, whose heritage is Russian and Hungarian Jew, is a two-time James Beard–nominated chef who saw The Shack as a way to connect with his roots.
“The Shack itself was kind of built out of frustration,” Boden laughed. “I first opened the Staunton Grocery in ’06 and ran it for about five years, and made all of the mistakes you’re supposed to make as a chef. I moved to Charlottesville and was a chef at another restaurant, but after doing things my way for so long and developing what hospitality and a restaurant should be like, doing that for someone else was challenging. So, I reopened the space under its new name, The Shack. It had 14 seats when it first opened, and we only turned the dining room once a night. I was the only one in the kitchen.”
From 2013, when The Shack reopened, to today, the dining experience has remained fairly consistent. The restaurant, with its small footprint and minimal seating, still only services a handful of tables at a time. But now, they turn the dining room twice a night instead and Boden has help in the kitchen.
“On our third night in service, Joshua Ozersky, who at the time was a regular food contributor with Esquire, came in,” Boden recounted. “He said, ‘You’re stupid if you change [The Shack] from the way it is.’ And so I didn’t.”
The Shack is mesmerizing from the moment you step foot into the space, which is roughly the size of a double car garage. Black and white photos line the walls—of families huddled together in kitchens or proudly standing in front of their homes—and you get a sense that you’re walking into someone’s home kitchen rather than a restaurant that serves four- and five-course meals with wine accompaniments to match. Your journey continues as you sit down at an unassuming table and your server expertly walks you through the evening’s dinner menu, which changes weekly. Ingredients like whippoorwill peas, sunchokes, and fermented Aleppo chilis are included in their rundown, cluing the diner in that they’re about to experience a true culinary masterpiece—and it makes return guests thankful that Boden listened to Ozersky’s advice almost a decade ago.
Guests have the option of choosing a four- or five-course menu. The dinner typically begins with an off-menu amuse-bouche—a small, special treat from the kitchen to awaken your palate—and ends with an off-menu dessert like truffles infused with seasonal fruits or carrots cleverly disguised as candied gels. In between, guests can customize their dining experience, with each course having two options for them to choose from. The entire meal takes roughly two hours from start to finish, and it’s both an exquisite culinary experience and an education on what makes the Shenandoah region’s food so special.
“This time of the year, we are finishing the last harvest for the region—the last hard squashes and pumpkins,” Boden said, detailing what guests may find on a winter menu. “Because of the way we cook, we are putting up, preserving, freezing, canning. The whole dining room is full of fruit right now that we are processing for the winter. When produce is inexpensive and plentiful, we make the most of it and preserve it for winter. Just like they did back in the day.”
Boden, with his Russian and Hungarian heritage, along with his wife, whose family is from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, treat The Shack’s menu as an amalgamation of the two cuisines, both of which have a big emphasis on “making do” and preserving for later.
“Fermentation and preservation are a huge part of cooking in the Valley,” he said. “Because the growing season is short and the winters are cold and harsh, it’s important to preserve.”
Even in the winter, when gardens are dormant, guests can still experience the local flavors that are unique to the region because of how diligently The Shack team stores up for the colder months. The menu remains colorful and varied, with produce, fruits, and vegetables that diners wouldn’t expect to find on a menu in December. The ten pounds of excess rhubarb that was harvested in May may find its way to the winter menu as a rhubarb dashi—savory, acidic, and bright. Rockfish, straight from local waters, might be lightly pickled and grilled alongside preserved vegetables and butter poached fingerling potatoes. Or truffle mushrooms may get worked into a matzo dough and served alongside guinea hen stew for a soup that will warm both body and soul.
“One of the important things, as far as people dining here, is to have a connection with what we’re doing,” Boden said.
That connection—with food and with the land that grows it—is what makes The Shack a true joy to experience. At The Shack, you may eat ingredients that are out of your comfort zone, but somewhere in the back of your mind, your memory lets you know that the flavors are familiar and they’re inviting you on a journey.