Clay Hoss of Helen's
Images by: Larry Kong
Words by: Joseph Genest
“A lot of chefs can be nomadic, right?” says Clay Hoss, head chef at Helen’s. “They move from restaurant to restaurant. I want people to come in and feel comfortable when they see somebody. I want them to feel a part of something where they’re going to want to do special occasions here, or just pull up for a burger.”
Originally opening in 1912, Helen’s is one of Richmond, VA’s longest-running restaurants. Working under a rotation of chefs since 2005, Hoss took over as head chef in 2012. Stating that many of the chefs before him used the restaurant as a launchpad, Hoss took pride in wanting to stay for the long haul.

“I didn’t feel pressured to uphold some sort of status,” remarks Hoss on his start at Helen’s, citing a sense of comfortability with what he’d learned from his predecessors. “The goal was to not overthink it and just keep learning like everybody else.”

When Hoss took over, Richmond was at the very beginnings of emerging as a go-to food city in the Mid-Atlantic. Sticking to his instincts, his plan for Helen’s rotational menu of Southern cuisine was to “know what the customers like, what the owners want to see, and not try too hard.” 
This line of thinking led Helen’s to become one of the most well-respected in the city, gaining a reputation throughout the Mid-Atlantic as a favorite of local and visiting food connoisseurs alike. Hoss credits listening as the biggest skill that kept this reputation up, especially post-pandemic. After not being in the kitchen for six months, the “hard reset” forced Hoss to “simplify and recreate (his) balance.” 

“The pandemic was inspiring for me. Coming back and listening to what people wanted, what the regulars wanted. We’re a neighborhood restaurant with character, which is our goal to maintain every day.”
Post-pandemic, Hoss says people have been after things that are “familiar but also creative. The thing that’s going to last the longest is solid, delicious food.” 

Many of his personal go-to’s match this criteria, ranging from sandwich classics like Chiocca’s and Copolla’s to fine-dining favorites like Stella’s and Edo’s. One spot Hoss is particularly excited about continuing its growth is Adarra: a Basque restaurant that’s been featured in publications like Esquire and Bon Appetite.

“It’s a perfect fit to bring something that’s a staple people will crave every day,” Hoss says, citing that he’s known the team since beginning at Helen’s, praising its cooking as “incredibly precise in the way that it hits every time.”
Outside of Richmond, a lot of the food that Hoss seeks out includes French-influenced chefs like Thomas Keller, enjoying his concept of science as cooking because “it teaches me to make something vibrant and flavorful by using science, and what I’m actually working with.”
Hoss also enjoys other regional spots around North Carolina and New York, particularly “if it feels like a neighborhood spot.” When asked what memorable meal left an indelible impression on his life, he reminisces about a family trip to Milos, Greece as a teenager:

“The table was in their backyard with this screened-in porch on a hillside,” Hoss recalls, setting the scene of family around the plastic-covered table, “The first thing the host tells us is they killed their roosters that day for us. They got snails from the ocean. They made spinach pies, not necessarily spanakopita, but similar. Shrimps the size of your head. It felt like the most home-style meal I ever had at a restaurant.”

To maintain inspiration, Hoss first credits Helen’s employees for bringing in food to sample or encouraging him to try different restaurants around town. Throughout our conversation, the topic of what role a restaurant plays in a community was brought up several times, which Hoss credits as a venue for creating experiences and memories:
“People should walk away from something that’s not going to feel overly complicated. I want them to enjoy their experience. From the moment they get their food, they should be happy with what their eyes see and their nose smells…to feel like it was done a little bit better than what it read on the menu. I want them to take away happiness, a memory, for sure.”
If you'd like to experience Hoss's cooking, make a reservation at Helen's today for his take on contemporary Southern food: https://www.helensrva.com/
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