By Cassandra Landry

Let me tell you, people absolutely remember the little whirring sound of a disposable camera film advance. 

The first time I did it at ChefsFeed Indie Week in Richmond, heads whipped around like I'd blown a nostalgic 90s-era dog whistle. Not surprising? How out of practice I felt in considering a moment's worth from behind a viewfinder, lest I wasted a precious frame. Here's the best of the bunch. 

Creative Director Blake Smith in his natural habitat. Getting from San Francisco to Richmond turns out to be a bit of a slog, but luckily, the Middle Seat Gods took pity on us and we were spared any armrest battles with strangers. Blake likes windows, I like aisles—mostly so I don't have to straddle sleeping people in order to get to the bathroom. This maneuver has landed me enough very uncomfortable surprise eye contact that I've learned my lesson.

 

(Ah, yes, I remember how to use these things now! Maybe not!) It might not look like it, but this is a picture of Seattle chef Jeffrey Vance and Blake in front of a 24-hr diner, after we ran into Vance in the lobby while checking our bedraggled-ass selves in at the hotel. The guy at the front desk told us about this place, and we set off into the very, very quiet night to find sustenance. What we found was a dimly-lit dining room and a 45-minute wait for questionable French toast and very sad grits. We weren't bothered though, because Vance is a hoot.

 

RVA has some of the most incredible art I've ever seen, plastered over walls and sidewalks and hidden in alleyways. We had a few hours to kill before line-up, so we tried to cram in as much as we could. Also, it was hot as hell this day. You know, the kind of heat where you can be casually talking to someone but also you are also unpleasantly tracking the movements of every current of sweat on your body? Cool!

 

Like I said, it was hot. In a moment of pre-dinner calm, here's Kyirisan's Chef Tim Ma checking in on his latest restaurant opening POOLSIDE (is that when you know you've made it?) and CFIW Master of Ceremonies Grover Smith. Lotta Smiths on this trip. Vinatería's Mimi Weissenborn is off to the side there—it was her 30th birthday weekend. 

 

A moment of appreciation for this excellent swimwear. 

 

Blake took this one, after the Friday night dinner had ended and everyone headed to a nearby bar to unwind and eat fried things. Oddly, though Chef Brett Cooper of Aster and I share a city and I've written about him plenty of times, this was the first time we ever met face to face. Sometimes, you gotta fly to Richmond to meet your neighbors. 

 

Listen: The breakfast of champions will forever be donuts, and no one can tell me otherwise. This was the early hours of the chefs' day off, where they explore the host city and swap stories from their own kitchens, so donuts right off the bat was an excellent sign. That's pastry genius James Kubie of Coquette in New Orleans with the purposeful reach. Later, he would explain to me how Sour Patch Kids are made and my life would be changed forever.

 

THIS BUS, you guys. This bus coughed to a halt in front of our hotel on Saturday morning, ready to ferry us to the mighty Rappahannock river, and very soon we found out two things: the bus service had sent this bus by mistake, and this was the very last trip this bus would ever make before heading to that great parking lot in the sky. The interior featured a potent aromatic blend of 30-plus years of cigarette smoke and urine; the overhead compartments flapped wildly every time we took a turn. It was all worth it to bear witness to its swan song: a trip down a residential country lane that might be more accurately called a "dirt footpath," low-hanging branches groaning as they dragged the length of the bus windows and potholes rattling the nation's brightest culinary talents a few inches out of their seats. 

A lesser driver would have turned around. This man was our champion.  

 

Okay, so what you can't see here were hundreds of little river fish nibbling every available inch of skin. But like, in a nice way? In a relaxing, this-is-basically-a-spa kind of way? 

 

This photo makes me feel all kinds of sappy about how amazing humans can be. Maybe there was something in that magical Rappahannock water, but by the crab boil on Saturday night, it became clear that this group had always been hurtling through space and time towards each other. Maybe it was the sunset. I think there's something in my eye. 

 

This is the last picture we took before the big all-hands dinner extravaganza on Sunday night. Suffice it to say it's no easy feat wrangling 20-plus chefs—and this crew was so happy to be wrangled that they made a damn trophy to commemorate it. There was even a little golden chef perched on top. Lesson: It turns out you can make a trophy that says whatever you want, even in a strange new city, in less than an afternoon. It felt like the kind of advice that might come in handy someday. 

 

ChefsFeed Indie Week closes out 2018 in Pittsburgh, Denver, and Portland, OR—there's still time to get your tickets, here—and we'll be unveiling a new slate of cities soon for 2019. Each CFIW features three ridiculously moving dinners from chefs all over the country at the height of their creative game. It's an unparalleled chance to understand the people behind the beautiful food of our time—get any further behind the scenes and you'd be on the line alongside 'em.