At Home With . . . Urbana’s John Critchley

What do chefs, bartenders, and servers cook at home on their days off? Every other week, we'll pop into a restaurant employee's house to find out.

Lamb and roasted vegetables get warmed on the grill and later paired with Asiago-thickened polenta. Photographs by Chris Leaman.

>>Click here to see more photos of Critchley in action and his finished dishes.

For more than two years area chefs graciously accepted our Frugal Foodie challenge: cook a meal—steak dinner for four, a tailgate for ten—on a tight budget.

As we shopped and cooked, I peppered the chefs with questions about how often and what they cooked at home. As they sliced, diced, boiled, and sautéed, I noticed who worked fastidiously and neatly and who whirled through my small kitchen like the Tasmanian Devil, leaving grease in unreachable places. I wondered how each chef was in his or her own home and worried about the quality of my equipment or the size of my kitchen.

So we’ve decided to turn the tables and see what chefs, bartenders, and restaurant staff are like in their own homes. No budget. No parameters on the number of diners or style of meal. When unleashed from the restaurant, what do they make?

John Critchley, the new chef at Urbana in DC’s Dupont Circle, agreed to let me hover in his kitchen while he cooked on one of his Mondays off. When I arrive, a bone-in leg of lamb—rubbed with a mix of grains of paradise, rosemary, cinnamon, dried ginger, and salt—is slow-roasting on his charcoal grill. A mix of squash, onion, and peppers are neatly sliced, waiting to be added to the grill, and cheese, crackers, olives, and hummus are on the counter for noshing.

We head outside and Critchley adds the dry vegetables to the grill. He explains he’ll season them when they’re done in about a half hour; if the vegetables are first tossed with oil, the open flame would just singe them. I asked if he’s worried they’ll stick. No, he says. He doesn’t clean the grill, which means it’s well seasoned, or virtually non-stick.

While we wait for the vegetables, we stand around the kitchen counter, throwing a stuffed toy to Critchley’s puppy, Zoe, and chatting. I ask Critchley and his wife, Justine, about their cooking habits while their ten-week-old son sits atop the counter.

Critchley is quick to point out that Justine is a good cook. Slow-cooking must be popular in the Critchley household because she rattles off several crock-pot dishes—pork butt, Bolognese sauce—that she’s fond of making. She also teases her husband, telling me that when she asks him how to do something he sends her to his reference library “so he won’t stunt my personal growth.”

After checking out Critchley’s library of cookbooks, which includes books in Catalan and classic volumes unearthed at garage sales, he removes the lamb, which had been roasting for just over three hours, and takes the vegetables from the grill. He lets the lamb rest and keeps the veggies warm in the oven while finishing a soft polenta he mixes with milk and butter. He grates Asiago cheese into the polenta; tosses the vegetables with oil, Champagne vinegar, salt, and pepper; and slices the lamb. He works efficiently and neatly, moving a baking pan under the cutting board to catch the little bit of lamb juice.

Critchley kindly invites me to stay for dinner, but I’ve invaded their home for long enough. After a quick sample, I leave them to enjoy a delicious, simple dinner—perfect for a busy chef with a young family.

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