James Beard Award-winning chef RJ Cooper has a reputation for pushing boundaries: At his Rogue 24 in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, diners choose between 16- and 24-course tasting menus. Next up: Gypsy Soul, a casual ode to regional dining in Merrifield with a sprawling rooftop grill. We caught up over raw carrots—Cooper is currently dieting—and talked about tattoos, bourbon, and his pet corgi.
Energy source: “It used to be Red Bull with chocolate. Now it’s coffee.”
Bourbon: “Black Maple Hill from Kentucky. It’s not Pappy Van Winkle, so it’s affordable, and it’s just as good.”
Restaurant: “My favorite super-fine dining is the Inn at Little Washington. It’s a very magical, Disney World place. Also magical: Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit.”
Takeout: “I have a soft spot for really bad Chinese food—greasy, starchy almond chicken from any place I can find on my phone.”
Currently craving . . . “I’m on a diet. I haven’t had chocolate in seven weeks. The kitchen crew used to eat a two-pound bag of almond M&M’s every day.”
Ice-cream flavor: “Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, man—c’mon.”
Day trip: “A motorcycle trip through the George Washington National Forest.”
Tattoo: “I have so many! My Rogue tattoo means a lot to me because I got it three days before my open-heart surgery.”
Always in the home fridge: “Soy milk, so many berries, and a bunch of protein drinks.”
Pet: “Rebecca the Corgi Princess of McLean. She’s 11.”
Breakfast dish: “I haven’t eaten it since I started my diet, but I really like the quiche at Baked & Wired in Georgetown.”
Healthy snack: “A protein shake and raw carrots.”
Fast food: “Wendy’s triple burger with lettuce, tomato, onions, bacon, and fried onion rings on top, all crushed down.”
Four people I’d like to invite to dinner: “Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson, Jerry Garcia, and Jerry Seinfeld. I’d serve pot brownies. “
Condiment: “If I’m at Daikaya, I like togarashi spice on everything. If it’s a burger, Thousand Island dressing. For French fries, mayonnaise.”
Restaurant music: “When we’re working, it’s whoever gets to the radio first. I’m a big jam-band guy and will put on the Dead, and everyone else is like, ‘Arrrrrrgh.’ ”
Restaurant I’d like to open: “The first chef-driven biker bar. It would have rock ’n’ roll, stripper poles, Miller High Life, and lots of smoked meats.”
Artists: “Warhol. I love the depth and energy, the wackiness. I love Dalí, and I really want to know what drugs he was on.”
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Once upon a time, the late, lauded chef Jean-Louis Palladin, maestro of the landmark Jean-Louis at the Watergate, said that if Francis Layrle cooked in a restaurant he’d be “number one” in Washington. Layrle’s longtime close friend, Daniel Boulud, also holds his culinary skills in high regard. But Layrle wasn’t free to manage a restaurant kitchen. He already had a day job, and a night job, as chef de cuisine at the French Embassy. His talents were shared only with an elite group—the succession of eight ambassadors he served over 35 years, their wives, and their influential guests.
Fortunately for Washington, the story is different today. Layrle left the embassy in 2006, and cooked here and there. Now you can find him six days a week in La Piquette, a cozy bistro on Macomb Street in the heart of Cleveland Park. His ways with the casual classics on his large chalkboard menu pack in guests on a regular basis. This week he’ll introduce lunch Wednesday through Friday, as well as weekend brunch.
Layrle couldn’t be happier. “I love the neighborhood,” he says. “I know it very well. It is a real neighborhood. It’s a great feeling to see customers talking to each other, table to table. The people here appreciate food.” He warmly recalls an encounter that happened just the other day. “I was opening the restaurant, and a woman drove by, stopped, and said, ‘Thank you for being here.’ I love it.”
Layrle came to Washington in 1973, fresh out of serving his required stint in the French military. Before that he had attended cooking school and worked in kitchens near his native Gascony. A general hand-picked him to cook during his military service, and later told him about the embassy job. Layrle went to Paris, auditioned, and three weeks later began working in the elegant French residence on Kalorama Road.
When he moved to Washington, Layrle met and became close friends with Boulud, who had also just arrived from France. Boulud, now an internationally acclaimed chef, prepared meals for the DC-based French ambassador of the European Commission.“We helped each other out,” says Layrle. They cooked together during their time off, building a bond that remains strong. Layrle still talks often with Boulud, who is slated to open his first Washington restaurant, at CityCenterDC, in June, according to Layrle. “He’s hoping not to have the welcome here that Michel Richard had in New York,” Layrle says. But he’s certain that won’t happen. He also predicts that he and Boulud will do “something together” in the bustling open kitchen at Piquette.
For now, he’s focused on his menu of bistro dishes, which he describes as comfort food in touch with the seasons. Winter stars include cassoulet, duck confit, and Gascony’s signature garbure, a soup of duck confit, cabbage, beans, and prosciutto. He sources pork sausage from a man in West Virginia whose son provided herbs for him at the French Embassy. For spring and summer Layrle is planning lighter fare: chicken with crawfish deglazed in Armagnac, calamari, soft-shell crabs, and crabcakes. “We make ours with lobster mousse inside, and they are crispy on the outside,” he says.
La Piquette is owned by Bruno Fortin and Cyrille Brenac, who also own Bistrot Lepic and Wine Bar, just above Georgetown. Layrle says the trio have known one another for years, including during his post-embassy forays into catering and his more than two years as chef with Potomac’s Bezu, now closed. He advised Fortin and Brenac on La Piquette, and they hired him to run the kitchen when the eatery opened in November. Still, don’t call Layrle “chef.” He doesn’t like the term.
“I never wanted to be a chef,” he says. “I like to cook. I don’t like the term chef. It’s rude. I have a name—Francis.” He laughed when asked about whether to use his last name. “It’s too hard to pronounce.” Together we tried to figure out the phonetic spelling—(La-eer-lyl)—and then he repeated, “Just call me Francis.”
Tapas to go? During an interview at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, José Andrés told Vanity Fair he’ll be involved with fast-food restaurants very soon.
“I’ve been saying for a while that more and more chefs, we need to be [better at] influencing how to feed the many,” says Andrés. “We only feed the few. I don’t mean only on hunger issues, which I love to see the food community very involved in, solving the hunger and obesity issues in America and overseas, but I believe there’s an opportunity for chefs to have more of a say in how we’re going to feed the vast majority of this planet. You achieve that through the fast-food restaurants.”
Andrés goes on to tell the interviewer how chefs such as Bobby Flay and Steve Ells (founder of Chipotle) have been able to run successful fast-food concepts coming from a cooking background, as opposed to a strictly corporate approach.
“So I’m going to tell you, José wants to contribute to that, creating a fast-food restaurant. Which one? I cannot tell you yet. But will you see me doing fast-food restaurants in the next year, year and a half? Yes.”
Andrés has long been involved in charities like DC Central Kitchen that provide meals to many, and has floated ideas about fast food in the past, including healthier options at sports stadiums. Andrés has already dipped his toes in the quick-grab waters with his food truck, Pepe, which will start serving Spanish flauta sandwiches and soups again soon after a winter hiatus. He also recently launched a José Andrés product line with items such as potato chips that could come in very handy in a fast-food setting. Can we expect drive-through gazpacho and the McHamburguesa in 2016? We’ll keep you posted.
Zentan chef Jennifer Nguyen will compete in the first episode of the new Food Network series Beat Bobby Flay, which airs March 3.
The premise of the show is a mix of the ingredient-based challenges on Iron Chef and Throwdown With Bobby Flay, in which he engages in a cookoff with chefs known for a signature dish such as a po’ boy or chili. The first round of the culinary competition features two toques who compete to create a dish using a secret ingredient of Flay’s choice. A special guest like Giada De Laurentiis or Scott Conant picks the best candidate to try to out-cook Flay in the final challenge. The visiting chef cooks his or her signature dish, which is only revealed to the celeb toque at the beginning of the round. If he fails to concoct a tastier version, the visitor can claim they “beat Bobby Flay”—though they still have to pack their knives and go.
The sneak peek episode pits Nguyen against chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche in Louisville, Kentucky. Celebrity judges include the star chef’s chef Jonathan Waxman and the Food Network’s Sunny Anderson. Tune in at 10 to cheer for the local toque.
In case you were otherwise occupied over Valentine’s/Presidents’ Day Weekend, chef Bryan Voltaggio has been making culinary moves. After a series of hints and tweets about a new restaurant called Aggio, the toque debuted the Italian-inspired spot on Valentine’s Day. The new restaurant-within-a-restaurant is located inside Range, though it boasts a separate menu and a white-tablecloth aesthetic.
While a pre-opening promotional video for the spot shows Voltaggio requesting a post-service meal of spaghetti and meatballs, the opening lineup goes well beyond red sauce. Voltaggio tweeted a menu that shows a six-course tasting option, riffs on classic dishes such as calamari Bolognese and prawns fra diavolo over buckwheat polenta, and an $89 Florentine steak for two with sea urchin. The next time you can try it out is Wednesday night; reservations are being taken separately from Range through Aggio’s phone line and OpenTable.
Just on the heels of Aggio’s debut, the Baltimore Sun reports a second location for Charm City at 616 Water Street. The Inner Harbor space is currently occupied by Tatu Asian Grill at Power Plant Live, which will relocate within the complex. Look for an opening by mid-spring, which will make a third Voltaggio spot for Maryland, along with Volt and Family Meal in Frederick.
Chef Mike Isabella may be a Jersey boy at heart, but he’s showing plenty of interest in the Old Dominion State. The toque announced plans for a Kapnos spinoff, Kapnos Taverna, in Ballston this summer. Next, he’s teaming up with Rappahannock Oyster Company’s Travis Croxton and Hilda Staples, who’s already a partner at Graffiato, for a Richmond branch of his popular Penn Quarter Italian eatery.
The new Graffiato will be housed in the historic building at 123 West Broad Street, formerly the home of Popkin Tavern. As at the original, you’ll find pasta and pizza from a wood-burning oven; we’re guessing the calamari-topped Jersey Shore pie and chicken with pepperoni sauce will migrate with the concept. Also in the works: more Prosecco on tap.
Kapnos Taverna isn’t Isabella’s only Ballston project. The chef has teamed up with the Ballston Business Improvement District for a Top Chef-esque competition to find Ballston’s “next great restaurateur.” Aspiring Ballston restaurant owners will submit online applications to the BID, and the most promising applicants will be asked for a business plan. The finalists will go on to participate in various events to demonstrate their skills, including Taste of Arlington. Isabella and the BID plan to select a winner by the end of June. The prize: a year of free restaurant space on the first floor of the Brookfield Office Properties building at 110 North Glebe Road. Let’s keep our fingers crossed Tom and Padma make an appearance somewhere.
Earlier this week, word came that Liam LaCivita, chef/partner at Liberty Tavern, Lyon Hall, and Northside Social, would leave his longtime post at the Arlington trio. His replacement: chef Matt Hill, who’ll step in as executive chef starting immediately.
Hill acted as the opening chef de cuisine at Range, and worked closely alongside Bryan Voltaggio before departing in mid-January. Prior to joining the team he spent nine years with the Charlie Palmer Group. Liberty Tavern sous chef Miljohn Dimaano has been promoted to chef de cuisine for the American restaurant. There’s no word yet on where LaCivita will turn up, but we hope to see his cooking soon.
On Wednesday, only one day after New York magazine knocked down chef Michel Richard with a tepid review of his just-opened New York restaurant, the New York Times came along and kicked him in the ribs. Hard. The review by Pete Wells is what the professionals call “savage.” It gave no stars and rated Villard Michel Richard only “fair.” If there’s any remote silver lining, it’s that in the process of reviewing the New York restaurant, Wells came to Washington to try out Richard’s DC eatery, Central, and liked it quite a lot. Ironic? Of course.
Wells leaves no bone unpicked in his review of Villard. The word “awful” appears. It is the kind of review people read out loud to one another, due to sentences like, “If Villard Michel Richard doesn’t make it as a restaurant, it could open as the Museum of Unappetizing Brown Sauces.” Ouch. And it gets worse: “If soldiers had killed Escoffier’s family in front of him and then forced him to make dinner, this is what he would have cooked.”
One of the more famous quotes ascribed to John F. Kennedy—“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm”—didn’t commend the District’s political climate. But when it comes to eating and drinking, “Southern efficiency” isn’t a negative reference. In the literal sense it’s the name of the newest Shaw bar from Derek Brown and Rappahannock Oyster Co.’s Travis Croxton, who also recently opened the oyster-cocktail den Eat the Rich next door to sherry-heavy Mockingbird Hill. More figuratively, the pullquote name means a down home vibe for Brown’s third venture in the burgeoning neighborhood.
Once the spot at 1841 Seventh Street, Northwest soft-opens on Friday, you’ll be able to sip over 30 Southern whiskies, jarred and on-tap cocktails (think a mix of smoked cola and white whiskey), house-made apple-celery soda, and brews from below the Mason-Dixon line. Columbia Room vet J.P. Fetherston helms the bar, while Eat the Rich’s Julien Shapiro dishes up plates inspired by Southern diners and lunch counters like deviled eggs, fried catfish, and peanut soup.
According to a release from the restaurant, you’ll be able to get a sneak-peek of the concept during a “Southern Whiskey 101” class, held on Wednesday and Thursday evening. Each of two nightly sessions will cover the history and production of one of the South’s greatest exports, as well as tastings of “classic and unusual whiskies” from Kentucky to the Carolinas.
Southern Efficiency. 1841 Seventh St., NW. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 12:30; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 1:30; Sunday 5 to 11:30.
Former White House chef John Moeller served three presidents during his stint in the kitchen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from 1992 to 2005: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In that time he saw the expansion of American cuisine, the effects of 9/11, and the rising political role of chefs. All of that and more is detailed in his new memoir/cookbook, Dining at the White House. We spoke with the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, native about First Families’ likes and dislikes, cooking for picky foreign dignitaries, and the dish that won over both a Democratic and a Republican President.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting together this memoir/cookbook?
The most challenging part is laying it out and constructing a story and letting it flow. I was then able to throw in a lot of historical information, so I could combine historical facts with the story. Once we started doing that, the fun part was reliving the whole thing again.
George H.W. Bush banned broccoli from his menus. Were there ever other blacklisted foods?
Not really. We heard more about the favorites. As time went by, we incorporated a lot of vegetables into the menus. The ’90s were a fun time. We were going through a revolution in terms of cuisine, and there were a lot of new products. Chelsea [Clinton] didn’t like mushrooms, so we tried to stay away from those. The Clintons loved artichokes. Actually, all the families did.
You served both Bush administrations and the Clintons. Who had the most adventurous tastes?
I would probably say Bush Sr. They were very well-traveled, and we never wrote up menus ahead of time. We did that for the other Bushes and the Clintons. For Bush Sr., we just knew the parameters of things. There was the whole broccoli thing, but if you see everything they did eat, it outweighed everything else. I came from French kitchens and did everything I’d normally do—calf’s liver, oysters on the half shell, a Japanese-themed meal with sushi rolls and miso soup. When you’re cooking for the same people every day, you’re always looking for more things to work with.
How much creative license do you have as a White House chef, versus cooking from a canon of pre-approved recipes?
There’re two aspects of it. You’re basically a private chef cooking for the family. You learn what their likes and dislikes are, you write down notes, look at every plate that comes back; they push carrots to the side, they don’t like peas, etc. You try different things, but you have to know the parameters to work around. The other aspect is officially writing for state dinners and events. We’re officially a banquet house. There are no two menus that are exactly the same. I could work with local ingredients, seasonal ingredients. That’s the beauty of cooking—you look for inspiration everywhere.
What were the most interesting likes or dislikes you were told about?
Foreign dignitaries would come in, and I’d wait for their dietary restrictions, allergies, or preferences to start writing menus. The most unusual was the Prime Minister of Italy. He came in about ten years ago. The form said, “Does not like garlic, onions, and tomatoes.” I thought, “You have to be kidding! He can’t be Italian!” I think I made chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes.
You have a section in the book dedicated to 9/11. How did you see security change when it came to food?
Security in the property changed, and that also affected the food. We have ways of getting food in there—there’re no trucks backing up to the White House on a daily basis—so we had to go pick things up. We had a meeting with the Secret Service and FBI in the weeks after 9/11 looking at everything we do. There’s no harm done now, but they basically said, “We have reason to believe they’ll try to deliver something through the food network.” We changed our way of procuring food and how we did things.
How do you think the role of the White House chef has changed in the past eight years?
From the time I went in and came out, it became more political. Do you remember what happened the day after president-elect Clinton became President Clinton? A letter was sent by Alice Waters, plus a petition signed by other chefs. It primarily said, “It’s time we have an American chef in the White House.” One of the reasons I was picked was that I was American with a French background.
You have a great story in the book about the adventures of finding fresh dover sole for Nancy Reagan when she visited. Did you field other interesting requests?
I wasn’t going to serve the former First Lady a frozen piece of sole! You just have to put out fires sometimes. There’ve been a number of times when I had to run out and pick things up just to make meals happen. Once the First Lady and President Clinton were heading out for church on a Sunday morning about 10:30, and she turns to the usher and says, “We’ll be back in an hour with about 20 for brunch.” I can’t remember half the things I did—an egg soufflé, maybe—but you just have produce it and make it happen. You need a wide range of cooking abilities so you can satisfy their needs.
Did you notice a difference in taste between Republicans and Democrats?
No, they’re all pretty hungry people. One winter day in ’96 I did a Pennsylvania Dutch-style chicken pot pie, where you cook the noodles into it. I love it, and it’s very flavorful. I made it for President Clinton, and found him over the bowl, wolfing it down. I could see the top of his eyeballs. He gave me the thumbs up and said, “This is the kind of food I like.” It became part of the rotation. Ironically, when George W. Bush came in, I made the same style of pot pie. I found him leaning over the bowl; he gave me a thumbs up and said almost the exact same thing: “John, this is the kind of food I like.”