“I’m curious: What is it that makes you want to profile me?”
Johnny Monis’s question took me by surprise.
In the past five years, no chef in Washington has been more celebrated by critics, more sought-after by diners, or more envied by his peers than Monis, who at age 24 opened his marquee restaurant, Komi, and quickly vaulted into the stratosphere of elite American chefs. A 14-table temple to Monis’s interpretation of Greek cooking, Komi is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the region. Food & Wine declared Monis one of America’s best new chefs in 2007, and he has twice been a finalist for the coveted James Beard Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
Why did I want to write about him? Why wouldn’t I want to write about him? As a profile subject, Monis was a no-brainer.
The only person who didn’t agree was Monis.
Compared with many of today’s press-hungry restaurateurs, Monis, 33, is a recluse. He doesn’t come out of the kitchen to glad-hand patrons. He’ll pose for the occasional photo with food worshipers who have waited weeks for a table, but that’s the only time he lifts the dining-room ban on cameras. Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet, once tweeted in ecstasy over her dinner at Komi, but she did it from the restroom, says one of her dining companions.
Monis also doesn’t write cookbooks. He doesn’t lend his name to a line of kitchenware. Unlike some of his four-star peers—and many of the three-stars—he’s never been a contestant on Iron Chef or a judge on Chopped or a challenger on any of the food-as-combat reality shows. When Monis is in the restaurant, as he is every day it’s open, Tuesday through Saturday, he’s working, frequently on the line.
That Monis isn’t flitting among his tables, promoting his food and by extension himself, is partly what makes him so compelling. He has become Washington’s most revered and elusive master chef, the anti-celebrity in a restaurant scene that at times seems to value personality and buzz more than skill.
I first approached Monis about a profile in August of last year, as he was preparing to shutter the restaurant during his annual two-week vacation. Closing a dining room that long, even in the summer doldrums, is practically unheard of, and Monis’s peers debate whether it’s an act of stupidity or hubris.
“We tend to be press-shy, but I’m willing to consider your request,” Monis said in an e-mail, which one of his employees told me was his preferred method of communication with outsiders. “May I sleep on it?”
He slept on it for ten months.
Monis doesn’t yearn to talk. Nor does he need to. A table at Komi—the restaurant can accommodate only 40 patrons at a time—is one of the hardest to get in Washington. Reservations are taken one month to the day in advance. The privilege will set you back $135, or $205 with wine pairings, before tax and tip.
Komi has no written menu. Dinner begins with a procession of about 15 small, light dishes—mezzethakia—some of which are designed to be eaten within seconds of being brought to the table and in one bite. Servers explain the fragile morsels in hushed tones: “Spoonful of uni on a local pear, drenched in kaffir-lime juice.” You half expect them to bow.
The meal moves on to bigger appetizers, sometimes a pasta course—Monis worked with a chicken farmer in Potomac to develop the precise mixture of clover, grass, and insects that results in the richest, densest egg yolks possible for his handmade pastas. Entrées are communal, usually roast suckling pig or goat, occasionally a veal rib chop or a whole fish, and diners are invited to pile the meat on top of warm pitas, which they hold in their hands and slather with Greek-inspired condiments.
Three hours elapse by the time dessert arrives. Sweet finishes have never been Komi’s strong suit. Monis keeps the offerings simple, as with vermouth-poached citrus, tiny chocolates and gelées, or comfort food that echoes his upbringing; Greek doughnuts have been a hit with critics.
Among his competition, Monis and his tiny restaurant have inspired equal parts admiration and jealousy. One food critic told me, “If you asked ten chefs, ‘What is your dream setup?,’ nine of them will say, ‘Something like Komi.’ ” It’s a culinary house of worship in which the chef is high priest, the cooks and waiters are his acolytes, and the menu is the liturgy that patrons dutifully follow.
Monis has talked to reporters about food. Why he favors cold-smoked trout roe, for instance: “. . . great texture . . . and it’s versatile.” Why he’s philosophically opposed to putting salt and pepper shakers on the table: “We want people to trust that their food is going to be seasoned when they walk in.” If a patron requests more seasoning, it means the cooks misfired. “I want to know what table, what seat number, what dish.”
He’ll talk about “the nicest knife I’ve ever put in my hands,” the Misono UX10 Gyutou, a Western-style chef’s knife made to exacting Japanese standards that retails for upward of $300. He’ll admit his favorite junk food: barbecue Fritos. His favorite splurge: white truffles. He’ll even name his odd pet peeve: “I very much dislike when people rip into the plastic wrap covering something—when they make a hole and dig in. It takes seconds to just unwrap something properly.”
But ask Monis about Monis, or about why he cooks, and he clams up.