She’s 81 and Still Cookin’

Retire? Not this year. Since 1982, Anna Castillo has worked as a prep cook at the hotel restaurant that now houses Circle Bistro. Photograph by Matthew Worden.
Retire? Not this year. Since 1982, Anna Castillo has worked as a prep cook at the hotel restaurant that now houses Circle Bistro. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Mention retiring to Anna Castillo and she wrings her hands and shakes her head: “I can’t imagine it. What would I do?”

Since Christmas Day 1982, Castillo has spent five days a week as a prep cook at the hotel in DC’s Foggy Bottom that now houses the restaurant Circle Bistro.

Working alongside people a fraction of her age—executive chef Brendan Cox is 33—Castillo climbs atop a milk crate to press out hundreds of pounds of French fries. Then she scrubs mushrooms, picks peas, and trims green beans. “She’s like bing, bang, boom—the best prep cook I’ve ever had,” says Cox. “But if I ever leave, I don’t think I’d want to take her out of this environment. It’s so organic to her. This is much more her kitchen than it is mine.”

We sat down with Castillo, still wearing her kitchen whites and beloved fur-lined RocketDog clogs, to hear her story.

“I was born in Colombia. I come here in my twenties to work for a family at the house of the ambassador. I was supposed to go back in six months, but I met a man. I married him like the next week.

“My parents were country people. We plant all the vegetables; we have cows, horses, mules, donkeys. Children have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I was cutting wood—I mean big hacks—when I was probably six years old.

“After I got married, we lived in an apartment close by to Holy Rosary church on Third and F. My daughter was born in 1952. My son was born in 1954. At that time, I don’t work because my husband don’t want me to. Then he had a heart attack and died. So I had to work.

“Oh, it was so scary. But this lady at the Big Cheese in Georgetown, she hired me with no references or nothing. It was a small kitchen, but it was very popular at that time. We made everything—soups, sandwiches. It was easy for me because I was young and I want to learn. You might know Ann Amernick—she used to do desserts. I used to help her prep the stuff.

“I’d get up at 5 o’clock every morning and leave everything prepared for my children to have breakfast, and they would take the bus to school. Then I’d come in, make dinner early, and they are supposed to go to bed early. And I have to start back to work—work until 11 o’clock.

“Now I live in Alexandria with my son, and I only work in the mornings. I get up, do breakfast for my son and dog, take my shower, and come to work.

“I do a lot of exercise. I stand on my head, oh, for maybe five minutes. Every day, it’s the first thing I do. I get up from my bed and go right to the floor. I have a special towel for my head, and then my feet go up. That’s my time to relax.”

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