VIRGINIA BEACH — Hampton Roads is an area where perhaps most restaurant chefs are men, and of the executive and sous chefs that are women, there is an even smaller number who are young.
In this region, typically most women in the culinary arena own and/or work at catering companies versus being a restaurant chef.
However, 28-year-old Sam Reyes, sous chef at the Hunt Room in Virginia Beach, is poised to make her mark; from the commitment to using the best ingredients possible to the inclusion of the flavors from her native Guam, Reyes is determined to creatively challenge taste buds by pairing her homeland with Southern dishes.
“I’ve been researching Southern traditional cooking and try to incorporate my culture into what I cook but it’s still Southern inspired dishes,” Reyes said.
The weekly specials highlight the flavors of Guam; duck confit empanadas and a venison hand pie with a mango curry aioli are just two examples of the unique blend of cultures.
Put quite simply, “I cook what I crave and what I miss,” she said.
Growing up, Reyes was unsure what she wanted to do after finishing school.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do…I almost didn’t graduate high school, but then I took a culinary class as an elective, and that was the beginning of my career and I didn’t even know it,” Reyes said.
Shortly after high school she began an apprenticeship with Hilton Hotels, and worked there for six years.
“The biggest thing I struggled with in Guam was my age,” she said. “There were a lot of older cooks, and I was really young, so I had a lot of issues there but we were able to overcome those obstacles.”
Being a woman in a field that is heavily prevalent with men doesn’t bother her; “it’s been normal for me. It’s not something I think about,” she said.
Instead, Reyes constantly thinks about what kind of fresh elements to include in her dishes.
“Product is very important to me; I believe that if you start off cooking with great ingredients, then the end result is going to be great,” Reyes said. “I’d rather spend the extra $2 or $3 more to make the guest experience 10 times better.”
The food at the Hunt Room reflects this philosophy, and she describes the food as, “very seasonal; we’re changing the menu in the fall, and I’m trying to incorporate fruit into cocktails at the bar.”
Using her culinary creativity, Reyes is looking forward to putting her stamp on future menus.
“When I have a light bulb, I have to make something, and I have creative control in The Hunt Room,” she said. “I’ve always had a creative mindset, and now I’m able to explore that. Our corporate chef supports me through anything and it’s awesome.”
Additionally, Reyes works closely with Tarnished Truth Distillery, which is located a few steps away, to make sure her dishes pair well with the craft spirits.
“We have a Tarnished Truth steak sauce, which is sort of like A-1 Sauce, and the Ava vodka sauce that goes on shrimp, which is our No. 1 seller,” she said.
Looking toward the future, Reyes said, “I’ve been thinking about teaching because I was an apprentice and I want to give back.“