January 9, 2018
Faces of Fauquier: Chef likes ‘community of people’
Photo/Don Del Rosso
At age 9, Kevin Whitener started working with his father at a pharmacy grill in Washington, D.C. He came to Fauquier and opened The Rail Stop in 1982.
It’s fun putting people together, and I’m good at it. I wouldn’t ever say I’m the best cook in the world, but I like having a community of people. Except at the post office, a lot people don’t get to know each other in a small town.
Early and intense exposure to the restaurant business convinced him to follow his bliss.
In the 1960s, Kevin Whitener’s father — a former Air Force mess sergeant — purchased the concession to run a grill for a pharmacy on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
“I was 9 years old when I started working there, doing dishes,” recalls Mr. Whitener, the weekday breakfast chef at the Old Salem Cafe in Marshall.
Along the way, his father and others taught him to cook and run a kitchen.
“You work with tons of people,” Mr. Whitener, 61, says of the experience. “You just pick up a little from everybody.
“I just liked it. It’s just something I always wanted to do.”
Mr. Whitener worked 15 years for his father, before opening The Rail Stop restaurant in The Plains in 1982.
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, The Rail Stop proved far more successful than he could’ve imagined.
“It was almost too busy,” says Mr. Whitener, who described the Main Street restaurant as a “meat-and-potatoes,” family-friendly place.
He seemed to live there during the last years of his ownership.
“I was always there,” says Mr. Whitener, who with his former wife moved to Fauquier in 1975. “Seven years straight, 120 hours a week, no days off. It was way too much stress.”
Despite the grueling schedule, he had no plans to sell The Rail Stop — until a local Realtor representing actor Robert Duvall, who owns a farm near The Plains, visited him at the restaurant.
“He sent Jim Wiley in and he asked if I would set a price,” says Mr. Whitener, who put a $350,000 price tag on the restaurant, the building and the adjoining storefront that currently houses The Bittersweet Garden, a home and garden accessories shop.
“He wanted to do a restaurant,” Mr. Whitener says of the Academy Award winner. “I wasn’t looking to sell it. But, at that point, I was getting tired.”
Mr. Duvall bought The Rail Stop and real estate in 1998, ultimately paying $348,000, according to Mr. Whitener.
“Someone stole the (restaurant’s) sign, so they deducted that off the 350,000.”
Negotiations got dicey at times, Mr. Whitener remembers.
“My lawyer and his lawyer didn’t get along at all,” he says, laughing.
The actor turned The Rail Stop it into an upscale restaurant before later selling it to Tom Kee, his business partner and chef.
“People said they wanted fancier,” Mr. Whitener says matter-of-factly of the change.
Before joining the Old Salem Cafe in 2014, he built log homes for about a year and then managed the Fauquier Livestock Grill near Marshall and the Leesburg Restaurant (which later closed).
In some ways, the Marshall restaurant reminds him of The Rail Stop when he had it.
“You knew if people were having a bad day or a good day, or if you could help them and they could help you. Everybody really worked together.
“It was a good, small-town restaurant. It was fun.”
Even so, Mr. Whitener has no desire to own a restaurant again.
He likes the certainty of his cafe schedule (5 to 11:30 a.m. weekdays) because it provides a clear beginning and end to the work day but still gives him a chance to talk with and get to know customers.
“It’s the people,” Mr. Whitener says about perhaps his favorite part of the job.
Near The Plains
Breakfast chef, Old Salem Cafe, Marshall, 2014-present; Leesburg Restaurant, kitchen manager, 2011-14; chef/manager, Fauquier Livestock Exchange Grill, 2000-11; log home builder, 1998-2000; chef/owner, Rail Stop restaurant, The Plains, 1982-98.
• Why do you do the job?
I love it. You get to know a lot of people. It’s fun putting people together, and I’m good at it. I wouldn’t ever say I’m the best cook in the world, but I like having a community of people. Except at the post office, a lot people don’t get to know each other in a small town.
Divorced; two grown children (a third died in 2013 in a traffic accident); two grandchildren.
Sherwood High School, Md., 1974.
• Civic involvement
Driver, The Plains Volunteer Fire Company, 1982-93.
• How long have you lived in Fauquier?
About 43 years.
• Why do you live here?
I like the people. I feel very much at home here.
• How do you describe this county?
Beautiful landscape. A lot of nice, smart, independent people that I’ve gotten to know over the years; friendly.
• What would you change about Fauquier?
I would like to see more local people involved with decisions the county makes. I think the county’s open for suggestions, but I think people need to get involved.
I’d like to see more safe bike trails, or even horse trails, so we can have bikers and horse people riding their horses to areas and be safe to shop.
Nobody rides a horse to go shop anymore. Nobody rides up and says, “Hey, I’m going to tie up my horse out here.” They used to do it in The Plains.
• What do you do for fun?
Work around the house. I had chickens, but the fox killed all of those. Try to do the garden, but it doesn’t always work out quite right. My driveway’s two miles long. Try to work on that when I can. Pretty much stay low key.
• What’s your favorite place in Fauquier?
Home. I love just being home. If I’m there I have no desire to go anywhere. It’s funny. Sometimes you can have two or three days at home and you almost forget how to talk, because you don’t talk to anybody.
• What will Fauquier be like in 10 years?
I think it’s going to end up a lot like Prince William. I think it’s going to grow up. If they don’t get a good control and a good plan, things are going to slip through. We’re lucky that Haymarket’s in Prince William. But it could happen in Fauquier. It could happen here in Marshall, if they find water.
• Favorite TV show?
“A Place to Call Home”
• Favorite movie?
“The Man from Snowy River”
• Favorite book?
“The Complete Stories of Ambrose Bierce.”
• Favorite vacation spot?
• Favorite food?
I don’t have a preference. I haven’t met a food I didn’t like. I just like good food. I’m always open to try new things.
• What is the best advice you have ever received? From whom?
Gene DeMichaels. Just be careful with people that have wealth, because not all of them are always as nice as they could be.
• Who’s your hero and why?
My brother Ronnie. He went into the Army in the late ’70s as a medic with the special forces. I think he did four consecutive tours in Vietnam. He saw a lot. He did his job; he just kept going.
• What would you do if you won $5 million in the lottery?
Just try to do the best for my kids. Help people with their education. I think education is something everybody needs help with.
Set up some type of fund for scholarships — not only for the smartest people in the world. Sometimes the dumbest people, because they need more help than the smartest. I think there’s a lot of people don’t get help that they need.
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yaklubowsky · January 11, 2018 at 1:18 pm
For years, my Upperville chum Paul Hasse and I would meet regularly at the Fauquier Livestock Grill for breakfast.
It was the most wonderful sort of authentic place and nothing was more true or sincere than Kevin and his spectacular morning meals. When he came out of the kitchen to deliver the victuals, he would always stay to see if you liked it (you always did) and made every customer feel like an old friend.
Much was lost in that awful fire, but the disappearance of our most awesomely quirky and quirkily awesome grill -- where Kevin held court with a rare and warm dignity --was about the most heartbreaking of all.
Paul and I meet now at what we call the New Old Salem, and indulge ourselves in the bounty of their griddle.
And while the quirky platonic form of cowboy/workman's grill lasts only in our memories, we still get the royal welcome from the king of country breakfasts, and that is a life-affirming thing in these days and times.
Thank you Kevin, please don't ever stop holding court.
Yak Lubowsky, Warrenton
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