Keith Click has a passion for local ingredients at Wegmans

Wegmans’ executive chef Keith Click prefers hands-on work, so he tends to avoid his office at the sprawling store.

Food has a gravitational pull for Keith Click. He’s never far from it.

His job as executive chef of Wegmans’ Fredericksburg store requires enough planning and administrative work that he has an office somewhere on the second floor of the 150,000-square foot complex, but Click said he’d need a map to find it.

“I never want to be in the office,” he said. “You could come in on any day at any time and I may be over there at the coffee shop making coffee, or at any other station. I am very hands-on, and I love that.”

To schedule an interview, this reporter tracked him down at the salad bar, inspecting the offerings while taking a business call on his cellphone.

Click manages the many-faceted floor of Wegmans’ prepared-foods operation. This includes a coffee shop, sub shop, pizzeria, sushi bar and prepared-foods kitchen, where take-home meals and items for the salad and hot-foods bars are made.

In addition, he’s in charge of the 22-seat seafood bar, where visitors to the grocery store can order off a menu and enjoy beer or wine with their meal.

For someone like Click, a self-taught chef who has built his culinary knowledge through restaurant jobs and constant cooking at home and for friends, it’s kind of a playground, but also a job that has taught him a lot about the business side of running a kitchen.

“When I started here, I had a restaurant background, and I wondered, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be for me.’ I enjoyed that creativity and á-la-minute style cooking of the restaurant kitchen,” Click said. “But then I realized, I’m working with some of the best ingredients in the world here, and a lot of the restaurants I worked in couldn’t even source ingredients like this.”

He’s also appreciated the training Wegmans has given him over his career, which included a stint as sous chef in the Fredericksburg store before a few years working in the Woodbridge and Fairfax stores. He returned to Fredericksburg about a year ago as executive chef.

The Wegmans model marries a grocery store with a prepared-foods kitchen, sit-down seafood restaurant and full-color magazine. The result is a constant array of new recipes, dishes and suggestions to shoppers, based on seasonal ingredients, holidays and new offerings the store is carrying.

That keeps Click on top of a rotating menu of recipes that come from the company’s corporate office, but also leaves room for creativity.

On a recent spring day, the temperature dropped, and Click decided it was perfect weather for a hot ham and cheese sandwich.

So he went shopping in his own store—for farmstyle bread from the bakery, shredded taleggio and Gruyere cheeses from the cheese shop, and the store’s private-label jam and Dijon mustard. His kitchen team smoked fresh tomatoes to make a dipping sauce. The result was a grown-up grilled cheese that remains a popular special item at the seafood bar.

Click traces his love of food back to his childhood growing up in a large family.

“My mom was always in the kitchen. Both my parents worked, but she always seemed to have food ready,” he said. “Her food was very simple, but to this day, I cannot make anything that tastes the way she made it.”

Click decided to pursue a career in food because, “It kept me close to her. When she passed away, I said this is what I am going to do and I’m going to go all in and devote myself to a kitchen.”

Hunting, fishing and foraging have also been part of his life since childhood. In early spring, he was looking forward to finding ramps (a wild onion native to the eastern United States) and morels, and thinking about using pickled ramps in a softshell crab sandwich, to combine two local seasonal delicacies.

“Just knowing that those seasonal items are coming up gets me excited,” he said.

Click has always had a passion for local ingredients. Back in 2011, he worked with Spotsylvania’s Miller Farms to put on a series of farm-to-table meals cooked and served outside in the farm fields. He set up a mobile kitchen amid the Millers’ blackberry bushes one hot August morning and produced a five-course brunch.

He said that with a demanding job and two young children, he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like these days to work with local farmers on events like this, but it’s something he’d like to get back to, and he still enjoys long drives on backroads to discover local honey, cheese makers, breweries and farms.

“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what we have to offer here in Virginia,” he said. “If you don’t get out and visit some of these places, you’re going to miss this stuff.”

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