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'Gypsy chef' Laura Fonner finds her home at Common House

The self-proclaimed “gypsy chef” has found her “forever home.”

Laura Fonner has settled down as head chef at Common House, a private social club on West Market Street in downtown Charlottesville. While she started the second week of December, she waited to publicly announce the move until her new menu was finalized on Jan. 9.

The news may come as a surprise to those following Fonner’s story. The culinary nomad spent years working in different kitchens. She started out at Blue Bird Cafe at the age of 14 and later worked at Duner’s and Harvest Moon Catering and consulted for other restaurateurs in the area before opening Siren, a seafood restaurant in Vinegar Hill Shopping Center that was to be entirely her own. Siren opened in 2021 as part of Hunter Smith’s Champion Hospitality Group, and Fonner took full ownership of the restaurant in February of 2023. But as Smith’s restaurant empire began to fall apart later that year, Fonner said she discovered Smith had saddled her with thousands of dollars of debt. Siren closed in July.

A month later, amid a very public feud with Smith, Fonner said she had partnered with local businessman J.R. Hadley, a longtime friend, to open a new restaurant in the old Passiflora space on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, a Latin eatery that had itself once been part of Smith’s empire.

The as-yet-unnamed restaurant was to be her new home. Work began on throwing out the remnants of Passiflora. The windows were plastered with Fonner’s name. Then Will Richey died.

Richey was a force in the Charlottesville restaurant world and owned not only Duner’s but Bebedero, Whiskey Jar and Revolutionary Soup. He died in a car accident on Owensville Road outside Charlottesville in the early morning hours of Dec. 12. He was on his way home from Duner’s. Albemarle County police said officers were dispatched to the scene around 1:21 a.m. Richey, who was not wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 47 years old. He was survived by his two children.

“Life comes at you fast,” Fonner told The Daily Progress, sitting in the library at Common House. “It changes things.”

She said things happen that make you reevaluate what’s important, and Richey’s death was one of them. After hearing of his death, she said she thought of her own children — ages 20, 11 and 9 — she thought about those weeks after Siren closed finding whatever work she could in other people’s kitchens — “I’ve had more jobs during these past six months than I’ve had in my entire life,” she said with a laugh — she thought about how the work on the new restaurant still wasn’t complete, wouldn’t be complete for some time.

She sent Hadley an email.

Bouncing around from kitchen to kitchen “here, there and everywhere,” she had landed a gig helping the kitchen at Common House. Common House was so impressed with her work, it had floated a full-time positions for her. She had accepted.

It took Hadley two weeks to respond.

But when he did, “he gave me his blessing,” she said. “There’s no ill will there. He understood. He got it.” Hadley did not respond to a Daily Progress request for an interview.

Common House, Fonners said, offered what her career as a gypsy chef never could: structure, a schedule and security.

“This is the first not-reckless move I’ve made in a while,” joked Fonner. “I’m a grown-up now.”

Common House, which had been without an executive chef since mid-September, was thrilled with her decision.

“Chef Fonner brings a rare enthusiasm and authenticity to our team, and it shows in her food,” hospitality director at the club Joe Scala told The Daily Progress via email. “Our menu is more vibrant, but is also accessible enough to inspire daily cravings, harmonizing with the rhythms of the club. Some guests dine everyday, and some use it to celebrate special occasions.”

Common House No. 1 in Charlottesville — the base for a chain of social clubs with existing locations in Richmond, Virginia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and an under-construction space in New Orleans, Louisiana — had hired David Root last year to lead its kitchen. Root is the former owner of the Hairy Lobster in Portland, Oregon, and executive chef at Breckenridge Distillery in Breckenridge, Colorado. He is also the husband of Melissa Root, a pastry chef and chocolatier known as one of the original cast members of Netflix’s “School of Chocolate.” The Roots moved to the Charlottesville area after Melissa Root took a job as pastry chef at Farmington Country Club outside the city. When David Root left the club in September after an injury, Hunter Garvin, chef de cuisine at Common House Richmond, took over the Charlottesville kitchen in the interim.

With all that transition, Fonner thought it best to get her menu prepared and printed before announcing her arrival.

That new menu, Fonner said, is full of “everyday food done well.”

Cooking for a club where members drop in throughout the day to eat, drink, work, read and socialize is different from cooking for a restaurant where patrons drop by for one thing and one thing only. And Fonner, who compares herself to the adorably chaotic fish Dory from Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” seems perfectly suited to meet the changing needs, and necessary disorder, of that clientele.

Fonner, who did not attend culinary school, said she works by one philosophy: “Food doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be perfectly done."

The club’s simple morning menu contains pastries, an egg pita wrap and honey vanilla labneh, a Mediterranean strained yogurt that was served as a dessert at Fonner’s Siren. There is not much variation between the midday and evening menus, as both include several of Fonner’s “crazy and comfortable” creations such as a steak frites wrap, barbecue jackfruit grilled cheese, Wagyu pigs in a biscuit and, her favorite, “Mom’s meatloaf panini.” Who is mom? “I am mom,” Fonner said.

The only additions to the dinner menu are a bistro steak and eggplant moussaka, a Greek-style lasagna.

The social club is also kicking off a “Burger Night” on Thursdays, offering a smashburger, fries and a beer for $10. Fonner said she would like to expand on the idea and eventually start a “drive-thru fast food” night.

While Common House’s services are typically reserved for members, Fonner said she has worked with management to make the club more accessible to those who may not want or need a full membership but wouldn’t mind a full plate of food.

“I tell people my door is always open,” she said. “I want to keep it that way here.”

After Charlottesville restaurant week, running this year from Jan. 29 through Feb. 4, Common House will begin serving Saturday brunch to the public. Both members and nonmembers can get a taste of Fonner’s fare, including a savory, steak-stuffed French toast, compressed cantaloupe and a beurre blanc that incorporates ketchup, Fonner’s favorite ingredient (don’t tell the French.)

Fonner said she has always tried to be involved and accessible in the community throughout her career. While working at Duner’s, she partnered with local chefs and farmers, who donated excess food to Fonner who in turn transformed it into meals for People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, or PACEM, a nonprofit group that serves the city’s homeless community. Fonner routinely refers to herself as “poor,” she clearly sees herself as an advocate for the working class, and so it’s no surprise she said she could never see herself working for some of Charlottesville’s more exclusive clubs such as tony Farmington or nearby Boar’s Head Resort.

She found Common House to be “a space to work but also to meet people, it’s more than what it puts off to the community.” Common House, with its younger clientele, regular open houses, lively events and eclectic decor, is much more open than the closed clubs of the past.

“It feels like I’m serving family here,” said Fonner. “I see a lot of the Duner’s customers’ children here.”

The Saturday brunch is a good example, she said, of management’s willingness to compromise and benefit all parties.

“Common House has always been ready to adapt to and represent whomever intersects with us, from our team to our members and guests,” said Scala. “Ultimately the club highlights what’s nice about where we live, and Laura Fonner is one of those things.”


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