For all its benefits, Restaurant Week can be a fraught time for all involved. Customers, rightly, want a good dining experience and a good deal. Restaurants, rightly, want to fill seats during an otherwise slow month—the original purpose behind the promotion—and satisfy guests without losing money. Sometimes these interests conflict, and parties on both sides opt out. One such example is chef Dean Gold, co-owner of Dino’s Grotto in Shaw.
“As a longtime participant in it, I just don’t feel like it’s a great deal,” says Gold, who partook in the official Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) Restaurant Weeks for seven years at the original Dino in Cleveland Park.
Gold isn’t ignoring the summer promo entirely, offering an “anti-Restaurant Week” menu that he feels is fair to his customers: ten “tastes of Dino” for $35. Here, he speaks with us about his plans, thoughts on Restaurant Week, and how to find a good meal.
How have you seen Restaurant Week change?
At one point, it was a good thing. I really feel that it went away from restaurants like mine when it went to $35. Basically, the way people eat at my restaurant, $37 is what it takes to have three courses, so you’re saving two bucks. It’s just not that good of a deal.
Every purveyor puts out specials for Restaurant Week. You look at what they’re offering. People who specialize in wild salmon and are pushing it one week want to sell you the lousiest farm-raised salmon for Restaurant Week. Meat companies are putting deals on lesser cuts of conventional beef, when their point of pride is all-natural beef. During Restaurant Week they’re pushing conventional and really poor-quality cuts. If you’re doing Restaurant Week, you need to be able to put together a menu. Restaurants need the help.
When did you begin to see the change?
Probably about two years ago. We track our sales, and the bulk of Restaurant Week had just fallen off dramatically. We try and cobble together something that’s a really good deal for people, and if you don’t get a big bump, it’s not a good thing.
They [RAMW] have partnered with OpenTable, and if you’re not on OpenTable, it’s hard to get a bump from Restaurant Week. It cost us $2,000 a month [for OT]. Then it’s another $1,000 to be part of Restaurant Week, because we had to pay $500 to the Association and then another $500 to be part of the promotion [dues are based on the annual gross sales of the restaurant]. I finally got fed up with it and just said, hey, let’s be honest. It’s not a good deal.
Why do you think it’s less of a good deal now?
More and more people are doing it. You have a small group of people who do it right, with a full menu and so on. One comment today on a chat was if the restaurant doesn’t offer three choices, one of them being vegetarian, the restaurant isn’t doing right by Restaurant Week. I was like, “Whoa, three choices?” I don’t go to a restaurant for three choices. I might go for my favorite dish, but that’s not the way I dine in a restaurant.
It’s also part of the increase in the deal mentality—you have the LivingSocial, Groupon phenomenon. You’re bringing in people who like the culture of the deal sites, who aren’t going to pay full price. A lot of people are going to restaurants they wouldn’t go to because it’s Restaurant Week, which is part of the idea, but they’re less in tune with what those restaurants are doing.
Is there any way to tell at the outset if you’re going to have a good Restaurant Week experience in a restaurant?
You have to look at the menu. Look at their regular menu, and then look at what they’re offering you, and see if they match up. If the menu is very different, then you’re looking at a place that’s faking you out.
Did it used to be that more high-end restaurants participated, so diners felt they were really getting value?
More high-end restaurants are participating today than they used to. For the most part, it’s absolutely not what they’re doing on an everyday basis. It’s not what their food is about. There are restaurants that normally have very particular ingredients and offer really outstanding quality products, and then you come into Restaurant Week and it’s all very conventional.
If you had to go to a place for Restaurant Week, where would you choose?
Bastille; I think it’s really solid cooking. Very few restaurants are posting menus on the RAMW site, so it’s tough. Daikaya has an interesting approach, with a lot of different small plates. That, to me, because of the variety, would be a place I’d go.
The U Street neighborhood around Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) may be evolving, but many elements of the historic eatery remain the same. A line forms at noon for chili-drenched half-smokes; you might find anyone, from presidents to construction workers, sitting at the counter; and Bernadette “Peaches” Halton still makes the chili after 37 years. We caught up with the veteran cook responsible for Ben’s most famous dish after her shift—which starts at midnight and ends at 11 am—to talk about her career and her favorite comfort foods.
How did you start making the chili?
I started as a counter person after high school. One day, in ’79, the original owner [Ben Ali] asked me to mix the chili up and put the pot on the stove. I was pregnant with my son—the pots are very heavy, about five gallons. And since then I’ve been making the chili.
Do you have any favorite dishes you like to eat at Ben’s?
No! After 37 years? Well, if I do, my coworker Mary and I have some country bacon or sausage. Though if we were cooking crabs, I could eat them all the time. I love Mike’s Crab House near Annapolis for Buffalo shrimp, clams, and steamed crabs. I’ll also go down to Captain White on the Southwest waterfront and cook my own.
How have you kept the recipe a secret so long?
You just don’t tell anybody! Tell them it’s made with love.
Since you have breakfast at 11 in the morning after your shift, what’s your favorite thing to eat?
A salad or some Ethiopian food, injera. My coworker makes me a house salad with lettuce, tomato, green peppers, and onions, sometimes avocado, and a dressing with hot sauce and lemon.
Celebrity photos line the walls at Ben’s. Who were the best to meet?
I’m really not big on celebrities, but I did meet Eddie Levert, Gerry Levert’s father. Also Mary J. Blige, Wendy Williams, Tyrese. I’d just left [when President Obama visited], but they called me and told me and I was like, “Tell him I say, ‘What’s up?’ ”
In the decade since his landmark restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, opened in New York’s Hudson Valley, Dan Barber has emerged as one of the most recognizable figures in the farm-to-table movement. He’s delivered TED Talks on sustainable farming, penned op-eds for the New York Times, and currently serves on President Obama’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. But in his new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the James Beard Award-winning chef challenges food lovers to think beyond the farmers market and embrace what he calls a “new pattern of eating.”
“The third plate is not a literal plate of food,” says Barber, who will discuss the book at Politics & Prose on Monday, June 16. “It’s a metaphor for a way of eating.”
If the first plate is the traditional American meal—more meat, fewer vegetables—and the second plate is a locally sourced variation on the first, Barber’s third plate represents a new food architecture. It’s about showcasing grains, vegetables, and the “entirety of the agricultural landscape”—not just protein.
“We use the expression ‘nose-to-tail’ eating of an animal,” he says. “We should also be including the nose-to-tail eating of an entire farm.”
We spoke with Barber about the limitations of the farm-to-table movement, his hopes for a new agricultural system, and the changes we can make on our plates.
What does the third plate mean, and how is it different from farm-to-table?
The third plate is not a literal plate of food. It’s a metaphor for a way of eating. We tend to simplify our food choices down to very convenient labels, like ‘local’ and ‘organic,’ and then bumper-sticker slogans like ‘eat green.’ In some ways the third plate is another label, but it’s a label—an attempt, anyway—to articulate a pattern of eating that brings all of these elements together. None of our simplistic ideas about farm-to-table cooking are making an on-the-ground statement for the future of really good food. While farm-to-table has gone viral and become an exciting social movement, you still have an industrial food system that’s gaining ground and getting bigger, not smaller.
What I came to realize through the research of this book is that we need to look at this a little differently. It’s not a rejection of farm-to-table at all. I’m a card-carrying member of the movement. I have a farm-to-table restaurant, and I have a family farm, so I’ve got a skin in the game. I’m really looking at this in a hardheaded way and saying that from what I understand, we need to dig a lot deeper.
What specific changes does that entail for the different segments of our food system?
I think the largest shift we need to make is a cultural one—away from a protein-centric plate of food; the eight-ounce steak or fish that predominates our expectation for lunch and dinner seven days a week. That’s something that unfortunately has become inculcated; it is American cuisine. It’s an agricultural anomaly because we’ve been able to support it based on a lot of different factors. Unfortunately we’re exporting that philosophy, that way of eating, to the rest of the world.
What we have to do is turn that protein-centric plate of food on its head, and eat the entirety of the farm landscape. We use the expression “nose-to-tail” eating of an animal. We should also include nose-to-tail eating of a farm. That includes less-desired grains and even cover crops, and to a certain extent, vegetables. The farm-to-table movement calls on us to eat a lot more vegetables from small family farms—I’m not looking at that as closely, in part because vegetable production is about 6 percent of our landscape. Grains and legumes, but mostly grains, are anywhere from 70 to 80 percent. So if we’re really talking about changing agriculture, we’ve got to start with grain agriculture, because it’s the dominant force in our system. The way we eat is to a certain extent determined by how we treat our grains.
You’ve written and spoken a lot about these issues for years now. When did you decide to write a book about it?
I started out being really excited about a couple of ingredients—wheat was one of them, luckily. I say “luckily” because I didn’t understand how grain was the dominant force of the entire food system.
I started searching out these incredible-tasting things, like wheat, and figuring out how they were grown or raised. What I realized in the research was that I was asking the wrong question. I was asking about a specific ingredient, and what I kept getting pointed to was a whole system of farming. I kept getting pointed to soil, which is why it takes up so much of the book. All roads led to healthy soil. Sort of like Russian dolls, it kept unfolding into larger and larger issues—dealing with the systems and community and history and culture. I saw a plate of food as connecting in all these ways I didn’t understand intuitively.
Part of the reason farm-to-table has taken off is because it seems simple, but what you’re proposing in The Third Plate is much more holistic, and involves every part of food culture. Where do you think change needs to start in order for it to be effective? Or does it need to happen on all these fronts at once?
What you’re saying is that my book is very complicated. I understand that, and it’s what I struggle with: How does the message become universal? And you’re right, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the farm-to-table movement because it’s direct and connected. It’s a refreshing idea without being too complicated.
The issue here is that the reality of farm-to-table is not direct and connected. The farmer services the table. There’s a through-line to go to the farmers market and buy something local and shake the hand of the farmer; there’s something very satisfying about that. But that’s a very passive system.
Ten years ago, I don’t know that a lot of people could have described what farm-to-table was. It was a much more complicated subject than we give it credit for today. It’s been simplified, in part because it’s been so successful. My problem with it is that we’ve enrobed ourselves with the notion—let me put this closer to home—I have held up the farm-to-table flag in a way that says, “This is the answer to our industrialized food system. This is the answer to the future of great eating and good agriculture.” In fact that’s not true, because we’re using the farmers market just like we would a supermarket. We’re choosing the ingredients we most want to eat. While that purchase is a lot better than selecting from commodified agriculture, it’s ultimately about us choosing the cream of the crop—like the asparagus and peas that I got from the farmers market the other day. These crops are really specialty crops. We need to start diversifying our plates in ways that economize a farmer’s decisions. There’s a whole suite of choices there that we don’t support.
I went to a farmer who grows fantastic wheat, Klaas Martens, and stood in the middle of 2,000 acres. I saw very little wheat. I saw rye and buckwheat and millet and leguminous crops such as kidney beans. I wasn’t buying any of that stuff. Most of it was either plowed into the ground for cover crop or fed to animals. We’re using those soil-building crops by eating meat, which is inefficient. If there were a market for them, you would improve the ecology of a farm, and also economize those crops for a farmer. As of now those are sunk costs. Part of the reason that a lot of ingredients are so expensive—part of the reason the wheat I was buying was so expensive—is because of the dozens and dozens of other crops this farmer treated as sunk costs. So I was paying a lot for the wheat because he needed to rotate in ten different crops to get the right fertility for his soil. That’s not an intelligent or efficient way to think about the future of a food system.
The question is: Are we creating an economy for that farmer to make the right decisions? Right now, we are doing very little. And yet we’re still claiming, or I’m still claiming as a farm-to-table chef, that I am supporting the local farmer. You are to a certain extent, but you’re also not.
If farms need to change the way they farm, what government policies can be implemented to further the mission?
There are quite a few levers here. One from the book that strikes me as broadening the definition of farm-to-table is the land-grant university system. This is the wholesale sellout that has been occurring for the past 30 years.
That’s just one. A lot of legislation has stood in the way of good farming becoming part of the American landscape. Midsize farms are something I mention in the book, but not enough. The small family farmer, which we tend to associate with this movement, has done well since farm-to-table became the successful social movement I talked about earlier. But large industrial farms—the ones that essentially grow the corn and the soy and the wheat—continue to get larger and do quite well. It’s the ones in the middle—something like 40 percent of our farmland is in this range—that are getting squeezed.
The distribution system in this country, through Washington legislation, favors large agriculture and large interests. I’m not talking about supporting the mom and pop who pack up a pickup truck and drive to a farmers market. They don’t need our tax dollars because they have a direct market. It’s the midsize family farms who are too big to pack up a pickup truck but too small for the Walmart-ification of the food system. They need help. And there are political levers to pull, especially with the cost of distribution, because it’s not about the yield they’re producing. They’re producing a lot. They can’t economize getting their product to market because there’s so much that stands in the way of diversification. We’ve enacted laws that favor a very small diet of essentially corn and soy and wheat. We need to diversify because, as I said, we need to look at a better food system, and we need government intervention to help keep those costs competitive with the industrial entities that predominate our food-growing ways.
One of the anecdotes in the book that I most enjoyed was about the late DC chef Jean-Louis Palladin giving you your first taste of foie gras in a restaurant. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how the landscape of food in DC has changed since then.
I don’t know DC well enough, but I know that Jean-Louis did a lot to update the food scene there. What I’m always struck by when I’m in DC is the farmers markets and the quality of farming that’s happening around DC—and always has. The Shenandoah Valley is something that I’m totally envious of because of the quality of what’s produced there. Jean-Louis as a Washingtonian influenced the farm-to-table movement and the pursuit of great cooking in ways that haven’t gotten enough credit, and are probably more profound than anyone who has ever cooked in the country.
Which celebrity chef-restaurateur has the biggest presence in Washington? If you’re thinking José Andrés, that’s partially right. The other, lesser-known, answer: Richard Sandoval, who claims the same number of eateries in the area as Andrés between Masa 14, two locations of El Centro D.F., Zengo, Ambar, La Sandia, the recently opened Toro Toro, and two more officially on the way. The Mexico City-born toque owns over 30 restaurants worldwide, but has opened more in Washington than any other city in the world, from Denver to Dubai, with the help of partners like Kaz Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro) and Ivan Iracanin. We spoke with Sandoval about why he’s picked Washington, what’s coming next—maybe more than you think—and the keys to a successful restaurant.
You’ve made Washington home to more of your restaurants than any other city. Why?
I like to build where I have a presence, and Washington has been very good to our restaurants. We’ve built a sense of community there, and feel very at home. We prefer to grow in markets where we have a presence in the community and people enjoy what we do.
Your restaurants are in a number of neighborhoods across Washington. How do you pick the areas?
We were very successful when we opened Masa 14, and 14th Street was just up-and-coming. People get scared when more restaurants come in, but if you’re good at what you do, more restaurants and people come to the area. We like to go into neighborhoods that are just evolving. Once you get into a neighborhood that’s completely evolved, like 14th Street now, rents have doubled. Even if it takes longer for your business to evolve, we like to be the first to develop the area and set trends.
How do you decide which existing concepts, like Toro Toro (originally in Dubai), to bring here?
Fortunately and unfortunately, when I started my career in New York City 17 years ago, it would have been easier if I did Maya and then just more Mayas. But I took a different approach. I go into neighborhoods and cities, and I try to understand what the community needs instead of saying ‘I have Maya, copy and paste it here.’ We go into an area and try to understand the demographic, and then I develop a concept and build the restaurant around that. That’s how I ended up with nine different brands.
What’s up next for Washington?
Mango Tree is the next for DC, opening in City Center in December. I’m very, very excited for that restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. When I met the owners of Mango Tree I thought the food was amazing, but I wanted to bring another element to it, more of a dining experience with music, design, lighting, and food. Kind of what I did for Mexican you’ll see there; an elevated style.
Tell me a bit about your upcoming Mexican spot in Shaw, and how it’ll be different than the two El Centro locations.
It’s going to be very similar to El Centro, but a little bit smaller. As far as the menu, we’ll probably have a larger emphasis on tacos, with a global taco section where I want to incorporate ingredients from other countries. Our beverage program will be similar, we’ll have a lot of infused tequila, but we’ll put a larger emphasis on mezcal.
If you could open any kind of restaurant in DC, not necessarily realistic, what would you do and where would it be?
The next thing I want to introduce in Washington is Peruvian. You see a lot of chicken rotisseries, but you haven’t seen a real Peruvian restaurant. I think I’d do it in Georgetown, actually. At Toro Toro we have some dishes, but this would be classic Peruvian with my modern twist; a big ceviche bar, dishes using their chilies, the many kinds of potatoes and stews. I’m talking about it to somebody, so don’t be surprised if we announce it!
A number of your restaurants have the fusion elements, and it can be tough to do well. Do you have rules when it comes to making fusion dishes or menus?
Yes, absolutely. You always hear the saying ‘fusion is confusion.’ In order to put cuisines together they have to have some similarities. For example, I could never fuse Mexican and Italian; there aren’t similarities as far as ingredients or flavor profiles. But then you look at Mexican and Asian cuisine, and they use similar grains, chilies, sweet-and-spicy flavors. Those cuisines you can meld.
Washington has seen a growing number of top chefs and international restaurateurs like yourself seeking a presence here. What do you think of the trend?
I think in the coming years we’ll see a lot more big-name chefs, but I also think we’ll get to a point where the market could get saturated. They’ll be more careful as to where they open and when they open. In the last two years the market was maybe underserved, and now it’s getting to the point of … it won’t be over-saturated, but I think we have to be careful.
Your restaurants often have an entertainment factor, whether it’s DJs, dancing, or a separate lounge. What’s the importance of having that element?
As the dining scene changed in the last ten years with the recession, it was difficult. You had to develop other ways for people to stay in your restaurant, have fun, and spend money. If people are eating and drinking, and then have to go to another venue, we thought ‘why can’t we create that in one place?’ You’d have dinner, go to the basement, have drinks and DJs. You always have nightclub people who want to open restaurants, and they fail because they don’t understand the dynamic of a restaurant. And then you have restaurateurs who say ‘these people who open lounges make so much money, let’s do that,’ and so they take the restaurant, hire a DJ, and they think that’s it. I think the most important piece is that we’re food-driven. If people keep coming back for your food and service in the restaurant, you’re never going to lose that.
If Washington has a quintessential chef/host, it’s Mike Isabella. He’s known to throw some of the city’s hottest parties for industry insiders and guests alike, whether at Graffiato’s monthly Industry Takeover, impromptu after-parties following culinary events, or more formal gatherings such as Wednesday’s James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour at Kapnos.
We caught up with Isabella as he prepared for the five-course feast alongside guest chefs he personally tapped for the event—an impressive roster including locals Scott Drewno, Victor Albisu, and Haidar Karoum, as well as Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov and Kevin Spraga, current James Beard Best Chef Northeast nominee Jamie Bissonnette, and Chris Ford, a former local pastry chef transplanted to Bouchon Bakery in Los Angeles. In his element, Isabella joked with the team as they prepared octopus with bone marrow and duck foie gras kabobs, made the rounds once guests started to pour in, and invited the entire 100-plus party to Kapnos’s bar after the three-hour meal for more drinks.
Here, Isabella talks his favorite place to drink margaritas with visiting celebrity chefs, dinner party go-tos (they involve cheese and truffles), and the three guests he’d most like to have over for dinner.
You’re one of DC’s biggest chef/hosts. How did you come into that role?
The one thing is that it’s not about me. It’s about building up this great culinary scene in Washington, and also getting people who might not travel to Boston or Philly to try the other chefs’ food. Local chefs get to meet the out-of-town chefs, and it just opens up more doors for all of us. I just really enjoy it.
What are some of your favorite spots to take visiting chefs?
Daikaya’s great, Toki’s great. I take them to a lot of the main chefs’ restaurants around the city. Obviously everyone wants to stop by a José Andrés restaurant, like Jaleo. Del Campo is one of my favorites. I like to mix it up between people who have longevity, who’ve been in the city a long time, and people who are doing something a little different.
What about favorite bars?
Derek [Brown] has three great bars right here [Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill, and Southern Efficiency]. If it’s late-night we go to All Souls. When Angelo [ Sosa] came out last summer I took him to Cantina Marina. I love it; it’s one of my favorite places to go. You’re outside on the water, nothing special; you just get a Corona and a margarita and hang out on the Potomac.
What is it like opening your kitchen to other chefs?
I enjoy it; I’ve never been one of those guys that’s like, “I’m not telling you what goes on in my world.” I like to open the doors. It’s cooking—we all cook; I want to have fun and have these guys feel like they’re at home.
Do you have any rituals for when chefs come into town?
We usually drink bourbon! I love a Michter’s Rye. We’ll see where we end up today. If Le Diplomate was open, I’d bring them to get a nice big [shellfish] plateau and just chill out because it’s a nice day.
Do you and your fellow DC chefs ever get together and cook in your spare time?
We usually do for playoff games, like the Super Bowl, which is probably the biggest. Scott [ Drewno] likes to make bratwurst, we’ll do wings and a few kinds of chili, salsas, and guacamole. When we have people over, we like to do truffled grilled cheese. It’s a mix of truffled cheese, pecorino tartufo, and a little mozzarella, and then I shave a bunch of black truffles in it and on top. A lot of us like the classic, simple food we grew up with, but being chefs we have the ability to get our hands on some really good products.
What are your go-to dishes and drinks for when guests come over in warm weather?
In summertime, my wife likes to make white sangria with peaches and basil. On the Fourth of July we’ll do a green chili and red chili, or go to Red Apron and get different types of hot dogs and sausages.
What’s the best host gift you’ve ever received?
Expensive Champagne. I don’t get too many gifts!
Do you have any dos or don’ts when it comes to hosting?
I always try to say less is more. You get all these ideas, whether you’re cooking with a bunch of chefs or cooking at home for people. I try to make everything very simple, with a very few items.
Where’s your favorite place to be a guest?
I love going out to eat. Obviously from the service side the best is Marcel’s, where we go once or twice a year. They treat us like a king and queen over there. Their service is amazing.
Who taught you how to be a good host?
My wife always enjoys having people over, and cooks everything from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. We’ve been doing that for years; it’s how you get friends together. She definitely does most of the cooking. I’ll help out a little bit here and there, but the menu planning and most of the cooking comes from her.
If you could have three people over for dinner, living or dead, who would it be and what would you cook?
I’d want to have a fun dinner. I’d probably invite Daniel Tosh, Rob Dyrdek from MTV, and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) president Dana White. I’d definitely make some classic pasta, and you have to do steak when you have a guy like Dana White over. Maybe we’d start out with caviar, go into a pasta course, a meat, and of course the wife’s rum baba. She makes an infamous rum baba.
Of all the Irish pubs in Washington, few boast the longevity and history of the Dubliner. Founder Danny Coleman opened the doors of the Capitol Hill institution in 1974, and has been serving pints of Guinness to guests—including President Obama and other notables—for 40 years. The pub and adjoining hotel are also grounds for one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington, which attracts up to 5,000 revelers each year (who tend to make their way through an impressive 100-plus kegs).
Danny’s son Gavin Coleman has taken over the day-to-day operations, and along with his father plans to roll out a few new features after the holiday. In addition to an expanded collection of rare Irish whiskeys, guests will find one of the biggest menu revisions in the past four decades. While the classics like fish and chips and shepherd’s pie will remain, Gavin says about 40 percent of the dishes will change. Here the father-and-son duo talk about St. Patrick’s days past, pouring Guinness for the President, and their go-to hangover remedies.
Tell us about the first St. Patrick’s Day at the Dubliner 40 years ago.
Danny Coleman: It was March 17, 1974. I’d just opened, and this neighborhood was a little rough at the time. I was very nervous, because I didn’t know if anyone would show up! But we hired an Irish band and opened at 8 o’clock in the morning, and for the first hour we sold beer for 17 cents. Guess what? There were hundreds of people there. I did that for four or five years, but then I’d come in the next day and there’d be people sleeping in the doorway still drunk from the night before. Now we open at 10 and don’t sell beer for 17 cents.
What was the most eventful St. Patrick’s Day celebration?
Gavin Coleman: Without a doubt, it was two years ago when Obama came to visit. We had no advance notice, only about 15 or 20 minutes, when a Secret Service agent found me to let me know the President was on his way. That was amazing. Obama also has a cousin in Ireland whom he saw on a state visit, and they had a pint in the local pub. He brought over his cousin, Henry Healy, and the owner of the pub. Ever since then they still come in during the week of St. Patrick’s Day.
When you heard Obama was coming, what was your first thought?
GC: That day it was, “Where am I going to put him?” We were already open for St. Patrick’s Day, and he came around 12:30 when the Dubliner was already full. I was pretty proud he’d chosen us. We found out after that the White House had taken a poll about where he should go, and so it felt like recognition for everything my father and I have put into it for the past 40 years.
What are some other highlights from the past four decades?
DC: When there was a lot of trouble in Ireland, President Clinton wanted to make sure he helped negotiate the peace process. He’d invite people from both sides—Catholics and Protestants—and they all stayed in the hotel here and drank in the Dubliner. Even though the perception was that there’s a big war going on in Ireland, they were over here drinking Guinness together. I always felt we were an important part of the peace process, because they could come over here and talk to each other without getting ridiculed by their neighbors. It’s too bad the rest of Capitol Hill doesn’t work [that way], as well.
Not many restaurants in DC have been open for 40 years. What’s your key to success?
DC: You have to have the service disposition and personality. You have to care that people are having a really good time, without concern about who they are or how much money they’re spending. You can’t fake it.
GC: I took over the day-to-day operations ten years ago, and people ask, “Is your dad retired?” And I’m always like “No, he’ll be in soon.” You never really retire from doing this. He still does what he did 40 years ago: comes in and talks to people. It’s a family restaurant, and that’s how it’ll continue to be run.
What’s your recommended hangover remedy for after St. Patrick’s Day?
GC: A pint of Guinness. It’s the best way to do it. That and an Irish country breakfast.
DC: Yep, hair of the dog. Back in the day I would overindulge on occasion—which I don’t do anymore—and my motto was, “Only an amateur is sober enough to have a hangover.”
Mary Beall Adler’s memoir of life and bagels is a Washington book like no other. Since she opened Georgetown Bagelry on M Street in 1981, her customers have included the White House, Congress, and more of the powerful, rich, and famous. At her River Road shop the teenage private school children of the elite line up daily for their favorite—sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches—and her bagels are served at Politics & Prose, La Mano Coffee Bar, and Qualia Coffee. Adler’s compelling book tells a tale beyond bagel-baking, too, one that will resonate with women in particular. Within the pages of Who Scooped My Bagel?, amid baking tips and the inspiring keys to her success, is an account of a trip to hell and back, a horror story of marital distress, physical abuse, alcoholism, abortion, divorce, and debt.
It spirals way down before it rises up—but the book ends upbeat, with a “recipe for contentment.”
Adler is clear about the turning point, when she realized that everything was at stake—her family, and the business she had built with the husband who made her fear for her life. It comes after a particularly bad episode: Adler’s husband is in jail, and she is at home, pregnant and with a 1½-year-old. Still, 24,000 bagels had to be made that day. “I went into the factory office, sat down in [her husband] Razz’s chair, took a deep breath, became still, and began listening for direction,” she writes. “I prayed. By remaining still and breathing deeply, I could feel my own heartbeat. When I listened quietly, my heart told me what to do.”
Adler’s business instincts and passion for baking bagels guided her as she took control of Georgetown Bagelry and kept it on track despite the turmoil around her. “I am good at making bagels; I am great at making mistakes,” she writes. Adler divorced, got custody of her three children, split off one business for her ex-husband, and ultimately moved Georgetown Bagelry from its first home on M Street to its Bethesda location, which produces between 400 and 450 dozen bagels a day.
Adler eventually remarried. Her children are now in their twenties, and she has three stepchildren. She is a former gymnast and athletic coach, and in addition to running the bagelry, she teaches “meditative spinning.”
New Year’s Day was one of her two busiest days of the year (the other is Yom Kippur). We talked to her the morning after.
When and how did you decide to write such a revealing book?
I love to write. I decided I need to put this out there to get it behind me. I’m glad I did it now. It was very scary. I edited out at least 30,000 words, just trying to keep it clean and sharp. I told my publishers it was good that I stopped when I did, because after publication more things came out of the woodwork.
Did you have second thoughts about putting into the book the details of your personal life?
No. It was very emotional.
Did you pass the manuscript by your children?
No. They have since read it—Lucien immediately. He’s in Afghanistan with the Marines. He was so proud. He wrote me, “Mom, I know that is just a super small part of the story.” My son Badger skipped through the bagel parts and just read the personal stuff. My daughter read it in one night and just cried. I kept it my story and honored them at the same time.
What comes through is that even when you were in the depths of hell, you managed to keep your business running.
My mother was a Christian Science practitioner for 35 years. I grew up with a strong metaphysical background. I had this capability of transcending what’s physically here and going to this spiritual place that’s in a different sphere. Also, I had a lot of support from the people in Georgetown who knew me for years and years. They knew what was going on. I spent a lot of time at the West Side Club [operated by Alcoholics Anonymous].
In the book you write about your husband’s alcoholism. Were you an alcoholic, too?
No, but I was self-medicating. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
What else did you rely on for survival?
Keep moving, one foot in front of the other, without even having a huge plan in place, doing whatever seems to be the next obvious thing—for the business, the kids. Just one little step.
Do you recognize the importance of asking for help?
It’s still hard for me to do. I was so ashamed of my marriage. Nobody in my family had ever been divorced. It just got worse and worse because I didn’t ask for help. But I had this profound love for my children. I really have to work on asking for what I need, but we don’t always know what that is.
You say making a great bagel requires love and passion, but what else?
Not changing the recipe. High-quality flour, which I blend. When the economy bites the dust, don’t cut corners.
Are there bagel seasons?
For us, now, no; it’s steady year-round. It used to be summers were slow, but not anymore. Our core market is teenagers, and they are repeat customers forever.
What seems to be Washington’s favorite bagel?
Everything and cinnamon-raisin. We’re starting to sell a whole lot of whole-wheat ET [bagel shop code for “everything”].
Who buys what? Do women buy different from men, children from adults?
Everybody buys the same thing, but the kids all buy bacon, egg, and cheese. That’s the big sandwich.
If a customer asks to have a bagel scooped, will you scoop it?
Absolutely. I scoop them all the time. I love the crunchiness.
In a town filled with power restaurants, Bourbon Steak reigns among the top. The Four Seasons spot opened its doors in 2009 and is well-known among food lovers and people watchers alike, having played host to visiting Hollywood elite and the Obamas on their 20th anniversary. Now Michael Mina, the celebrity chef-restaurateur behind it all, is in town for the restaurant’s fifth anniversary celebration. We spoke with the toque about his future in Washington, catering to celebs, and philosophy on managing 19 restaurants.
We’re coming up on Bourbon Steak’s five-year anniversary. Has it grown in the way you originally expected?
I would say, knock on wood (in a very positive way), even more so. I remember when we opened people in DC were positive, but the one thing they kept saying was ‘why a steakhouse?’ And I kept saying: just because the word ‘steak’ is in the name doesn’t mean we’re limited to that. A big part of what we tried to achieve—and are still trying to achieve—is to be a great restaurant, not just a steakhouse.
Do you think DC is a more steakhouse-friendly town than others?
The word ‘steak’ in the title helps in any city. Often when you have larger parties that can’t decide where to go, they’ll lean towards a steak restaurant. There are definitely nights in San Francisco when Bourbon Steak will do more covers than Michael Mina. I wouldn’t say it’s a DC-related. People love steak all over the United States.
What is your all-time favorite kind of steak?
It’s called the rib cap. It’s a very limited cut. You know when you go out for an old school prime rib, and there’s a little piece on top that’s always overcooked? That cut when you butcher it out—before you cook the ribeye—is called the rib cap. It’s as tender as a filet, with the flavor of a ribeye.
If you could design your dream meal at Bourbon Steak, what you order?
I’ll usually start with shellfish, like a tasting platter on ice. When I’m with people I’ll do a steak tartar and a tuna tartar, so they can taste the difference. And there’s a dish on the [DC] menu right now from chef John Critchley that’s a rockfish tagine. It’s a little unexpected; he pressure-cooks pine nuts so they’re like beans, and it’s a really fun play on a tagine. And then I’ll always do the rib cap, a truffle mac and cheese, and about three or four seasonal sides. Dessert is the Macallan custard with beignets.
What do you see for Bourbon Steak DC in the next five years?
I think that Bourbon Steak DC is constantly evolving. When restaurants start to mature—and usually the five-year time is the time when the restaurant starts to settle in and have its own personality—your job is to grow it. We have the great outdoor bar there, and we’re trying to cover part of it so we can use it more months out of the year. That’s one big goal for us over the next couple of years.
With 19 restaurants in the Mina Group, what’s your approach to reviews, both from professional critics and online forums like Yelp?
My philosophy has always been that it’s really important to look at all your Yelp scores, to read your reviews, and be in tune to what they are. The easy way out is to say ‘people don’t know what they’re talking about.’ There’s always room to improve in a restaurant. A restaurant is better or worse every day than it was the day before. It’s impossible not to be, because it’s human. The way to make it better is to keep pushing, keep everyone on their toes and thinking. A lot of times when you get a bad review, you say to yourself ‘wow, they’re not pushing.’ Having said that, there are times when I don’t believe reviews, when people start taking personal shots at you.
I was really bothered early on by people taking shots at chefs for expanding to more than one restaurant. I thought it was really unfair that you’d have a ‘restaurateur’—who nine times out of ten was a lawyer who’d taken advantage of a chef—and they had multiple restaurants and were geniuses. Yet when a chef did it, it wasn’t right. Now you see chefs have done it, and the food in this country is continuing to get better. There are great restaurateurs too, don’t get me wrong, and I won’t disagree that it’s tough to do multiple restaurants early on. But as you build, young talented people come to work for you, all the sudden you’re learning from them. If I’d never gone out and done more than one restaurant, my food wouldn’t be as good as it is today. I’ve learned a lot from people who work for me.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young chef with aspirations to own multiple places, what would you say?
I’d say the whole focus needs to be growing people around you, and keeping a core of people together. You’ll never be able to do it all yourself. And how to keep people around you is sharing everything. I worked for a couple chefs early on who you couldn’t get a recipe from, and it makes no sense. It’s all about transparency.
Bourbon Steak DC is known as a popular celebrity go-to. Is there a key to catering to celebrity clientele?
You want to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they’ll let you know if they want a special meal. We always offer for the chef to cook for them. It’s ‘here’s the menu, the chef would love to cook for you as well if you’d like that.’ Sometimes they’ll say yes, and other times they’ll say no and based on how they order—if they order really light—we’ll send out a little something. Otherwise we’ll usually send out one course in the middle, and leave it at that.
You just opened Bourbon Steak & Pub in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium. Will you have Redskins specials when they play?
It’s all about who’s into football, so I would invite José [Andrés] to come cook with me; I’m inviting chefs to every game. When we’re playing against other teams it’ll be a combination of dishes from there, and what the team is known for. For The Hogs [a nickname for the Redskins offensive line] I’d do a whole pig, and then I’d do some regional dishes, like soft shell crab or a Maryland crab dish and a San Francisco-style crab dish.
Is Bourbon Steak & Pub a one-time venture, or can we hope for one in DC?
It’s a one-time venture now, but you never know where life takes you. Right now Bourbon Steak DC is such a big restaurant in terms of volume, plus we did the two restaurants in Baltimore. I’ll tell you the one comment I get constantly is ‘when are you going to bring Pabu to Washington?’ That would be one that I feel would fit, but I don’t have any plans of doing it now.
If you could open any kind of restaurant in the world, and it could be be completely outrageous, what would it be like?
Since it can be fictional, it would be on a beach. I’d be able to get products from all over the world, and it would be all no-shoes, tables in the sand. There would be only two ways you could cook: live-fire, and everything else would be raw.
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.”
New BLT Steak toque Jeremy Shelton has cooked at the restaurant for just under a month, but we’re already seeing changes on the steakhouse menu. The toque arrived from Miami, having cooked at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta and a branch of Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak. We spoke with the avid hunting fan about his ideal steakhouse dinner, making moist turkey (it’s almost Thanksgiving, after all), and what he’d like to cook for the First Couple.
What’s your ideal BLT Steak meal?
I’d probably go with the classics and have tuna tartare to start, then the rib eye with the bone marrow, and finish off with the peanut butter mousse. It doesn’t get much better than that.
You’ve been described as a “Wagyu master.” How do you become one?
Those were certainly not my words! Right now we have three main cuts, and we’ve put on a Wagyu strip—it’s probably an eight, nine grade if you want to put it on the scale—and it’s all Australian Wagyu. I’m trying to get ahold of some American Wagyu. We’re really looking to add some cuts at a more reasonable price, so you don’t have to go out and spend $90 just to eat a Wagyu steak.
If you really want to splurge, what’s the best Wagyu you can get in the States?
That’s definitely the Japanese A5 Wagyu, hands down. It all depends on how you serve it, but BLT Steak [in New York] sells it at $25 an ounce with a four-ounce minimum, and that’s probably along the lines of what we’ll do. It’s just so rich and fatty and decadent that you can’t eat too much of it.
You worked at Scarpetta. Will we see Italian influences on the menu?
Scarpetta was one of those dream restaurants where everything seemed perfect. The chef’s name was Mike Pirolo, and he was a large influence on me in terms of molding my career. I shifted from being a cook to more of a chef that thinks outside the box, and makes things better wherever I am. That was one of my best restaurant experiences, and I fell in love with pasta. The beauty of Italian food is that it’s so simple and straightforward, and very ingredient-based. Still, I want to make sure what we’re doing stays true to the concept of the restaurant.
What are some of the new dishes you’re excited about?
We have a cobia dish right now with cauliflower purée, uni, and finger limes. It’s ash-crusted: basically scallions that we put it in the 1,200-degree broiler until they’re completely charred, and then grind it all up and crust the top of the cobia with that ash. You think it’s going to taste burnt, but it just has this earthy, savory flavor to it. It works really well with the cobia, because it’s such a fatty fish. And then we have the finger-lime vinaigrette, which is like a caviar that pops in your mouth.
What are some of the things you’ll do with the bar menu?
We’re looking to get a more snack-based bar menu going—not something that’s just easy to share at happy hour, but more through the course of the night. We’re basically trying to revamp the entire thing. We talked about making jerky, and it’s something I love to do, I just want to make sure we do it in a way that’s true to the concept of the restaurant. You don’t want businessmen coming in and sitting down to eat a piece of jerky.
The Obamas have been know to drop by BLT Steak. If they came in tomorrow and you could make anything, what would it be?
One of the things I have on the blackboard menu now is a confit pork shank. It’s confited for three and a half hours in lard—I know that doesn’t sound so appealing—and then it’s deep-fried. We braise it in a caramelized onion jus to order, and it’s served over polenta with gremolata on top. It’s so good.
Since we’re coming up on Thanksgiving, what’s your tip for moist turkey?
You have to keep checking it, and when you think it might be done, it probably is. You have to go with your gut instinct, and don’t be afraid to undercook it. Once you overcook it, it becomes dry, but if it’s undercooked you can always cut into it and throw it back in the oven for a little bit. I think it’s also best for the anatomy of the bird to separate the legs and the thighs from the breast and roast the breast separately.