MARTINSVILLE – After working together all day long, Drs. Julie Brown and Shannon Zollinger still want to hang out together after work – and meals provide a backdrop for that.
The pair own The Eye Site in Collinsville. They recently got together for supper over a meal of bison chili and fresh-baked sourdough bread with accompaniments of shredded Mexican cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, green onions, jalapenos, limes and nachos. They cook this combination every now and then and call it a “chili bar.”
“We have some friends who are gluten-free,” so it’s a good make-ahead meal to prepare for them as well, Zollinger said.
Zollinger had a pragmatic, if not very glamorous, motivator for her careful search for the ideal chili recipe.
“I don’t like to be around my husband when he eats beans, so I thought there must be a beanless chili recipe,” she said.
When she comes across recipes, Zollinger likes to play around with them until she finds a version to her liking. With “Touchdown Chili” from allrecipes.com, she changed around the meats she used a few times until she hit upon a winner: bison (which she bought at Kroger).
“Bison adds this sweetness to it … which makes it perfect,” she said.
Additionally, bison is “leaner than beef. It has the same consistency, but a different flavor,” Brown said. The chili also can be made with chicken, she added.
Zollinger said she particularly likes the chili meal because “it’s nice to have something to make ahead of time.” Time is always an issue for her these days – she has a 3-year-old, Hayden, and an 18-month old, Audrey.
“They keep me busy,” she said. “I’m still in survivor mode” trying to get everything at home done.
Despite the hectic lifestyle having two toddlers creates, “I love being a mom. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
She and her family, which includes husband Jeff Hook, live in Greensboro, North Carolina. They each have a long commute to work each day; he works in Cary, North Carolina, so living in Greensboro was the middle ground.
Adding her long drive from work every day to her family obligations, “I try to find the simple things … that taste amazing” for dinner, she said.
Brown, 32, an Ohio native, and Zollinger, 34, who is from California, became friends when they met as students in the optometry school at Ohio State University. “We bonded over our love for Ohio State football and of course food,” Zollinger said. “We’re both foodies. We love our food.”
“We always joked, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool’” to end up working together, Zollinger said. After their graduation in 2009, they made that daydream a reality.
The friends learned about Virginia when Zollinger’s husband was working for James Hardy Building Products in Pulaski.
“We wanted to be close by, because we were best friends,” Brown said. Her husband, Frank Manguerra, worked in Roanoke.
The friends bought The Eye Site in Collinsville in 2013, and Brown’s husband left Roanoke to work there with them.
The friends occasionally take cooking classes together, such as a recent class on Parisian cooking at Sur La Table in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A few years ago, they took a trip to France together, and while there, took a day-long cooking class. They learned to cook duck in Bonne.
“Everybody thinks of duck as poultry, but duck is cooked like steak,” Brown said. “I never would have thought to cook a bird like meat.”
That includes that the cuts of duck can be cooked like steak is, such as medium rare or well done.
Zollinger laughed when she recounted a dinner at a restaurant back in the United States. After she placed an order for duck, including how she wanted it cooked, the impressed waiter told her, “In 10 years, no one’s ever ordered it properly.”
Also in the French cooking class, they learned that “shallots are better than onions,” Brown said, and “butter is the best ingredient in the world,” Zollinger added.
Also, it was in France when they decided to take the plunge to go into business together in Virginia. They decided to name that business “Les Yeux,” which means “Eyes” in French. Although the name “The Eye Site” is used in public and is on the sign, “Les Yeux” is the official name on the LLC.
The pair love working together, they said – but not only that, “We try to hang out outside work every couple of weeks,” Brown said.
When they do, they’ll make dinner, with some favorites being lasagna, seafood chowder or Brown’s family’s traditional spaghetti.
“We try to come up with a theme of what we want to make” and work around that, Brown said.
“Food brings people together. If you’re one of those people who enjoy having people around,” a meal is the way to do it, Zollinger said.