Frank Maragos nearly passed up a scholarship to culinary school, but his father stepped in. He’d let his own opportunities slip by, and he wanted more for his son. So, he took him to school in Rhode Island, found him a place to live and a car.

“Then he turned around and drove away,” Maragos said, “and there I was.”

“There” was Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts, a pivot point for a young chef who’d already spent half his life in the kitchen. He paid the bills testing recipes for none other than Julia Child and land a job at The Inn at Little Washington, sharing spatulas with the best in the business. It shows in his elegant, yet comfortable Culpeper restaurant, Foti’s.

When it opened in 2005, critics noticed, penning their praises in publications like The New York Times, the Washingtonian and USA Today. The place “just had a great vibe,” Maragos said. But when the economy failed, so did the fanfare.

That, it turns out, was a good thing.

“I live up to my guests now. Each one is my critic,” he said. “I get to cook without the feeling that I have to maintain a rating or review. That’s a good place to be after 30 years.”

It all started in North Dakota, where Maragos grew up. He spent springs and summers on the farm that belonged to his mother’s family, and colder months with his paternal grandparents, who owned a slaughterhouse, butcher shop and restaurant. There, he rolled tobacco, stocked citrus and helped his grandmother—“yia-yia”—make sprawling meals.

“I think I was bred to be a chef,” he said.

That inherent ability came through in creations like the Byzantine dish with grilled shrimp, tomatoes and feta that won him the scholarship to Johnson & Wales.

As a student, he said, he “lied through his teeth” to get a job baking pastries, working hours before he punched in so he wasn’t discovered. He became a recipe tester for a mystery chef, whose identity surfaced when he looked up to see the tall woman who’d been asking about his pancetta. It was Julia Child.

Their paths kept crossing, Maragos said, even after he moved on to The Inn at Little Washington. As executive sous chef, he shared the kitchen with culinary greats like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Michel Roux.

“It was an amazing opportunity I’ll cherish forever,” Maragos said of his time at the coveted restaurant at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I got to cook for my idols.”

At the Inn, he met politicians, stars like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, and someone else—his future wife, Sue Wilson, who also worked there. When they left to open Foti’s, they took sommelier Tyler Packwood and years of experience with them.

They searched for a site from Northern Virginia to Charlottesville, and settled on Culpeper for its quaint feel. It reminded Maragos of home. Foti’s remained where it opened, on East Davis Street, for a decade, but moved three years ago. The new, smaller space has a more vibrant dining room, comfortable bar and energy that draws people in.

A European-inspired menu offers sandwiches and salmon, burgers and steaks. There’s a grilled tenderloin with black truffle risotto, and brandy-buttered scallops with miso-spiked cauliflower.

An in-kitchen table, gives diners a private experience. They can choose from the menu or have Maragos make something special for them. His personal touch extends to his staff—“I want them to know I have their backs”—and to the area, where he supports fundraisers and local farms.

“You can’t be part of a community and only take,” Maragos said. “People need to support the people who support them. You’ve got to love thy neighbor … and cook for them, too.”

Lisa Chinn Marvashti is the Assistant Director of Media and Public Relations at the University of Mary Washington. She can be reached at 540/623-4125;

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