Emilie’s, one of DC’s most buzzed-about new restaurants, has lost its rising star chef Kevin Tien just eight months after opening. Tien’s business partner and majority equity owner Sam Shoja will continue to operate the Capitol Hill restaurant. He’s brought in Hamilton Johnson—who was most recently chef de cuisine at the Eaton hotel’s American Son—to lead the kitchen. Tien and Shoja were also partners in Hot Lola’s, but the Ballston fried chicken sandwich spot is now only run by Tien.
“We basically had a mutual agreement to go our separate ways,” says Shoja, who also owns local Jinya Ramen Bar franchises. “We want to go toward a different type of restaurant… a different direction, different food, different management style and systems.”
Tien did not respond to requests for comment. Meanwhile, investor Johann Moonesinghe declined to share specifics about Tien’s departure other than to say “he’s going on to a different opportunity.” Only two employees who worked under Tien have stayed on.
This is the second time within a year that Tien has split with a restaurant he helped build. The chef earned a name and James Beard nod for himself at tiny Petworth hotspot Himitsu, but gave up his ownership stake last summer to focus on Emilie’s—a bigger and more ambitious project. During his relatively short stint, the restaurant became known for its eclectic menu starring ranch fried chicken, a homemade bread cart, and creative crudos.
Shoja says Moonesinghe made the introduction to Johnson, an alum of Vidalia who also ran Southern-Nordic restaurant Honeysuckle in the same downtown DC space. “That was somebody we chose based on his character and his past performance,” Shoja says.
Johnson has already started to make tweaks to the menu, but will roll out completely new takeout options on Friday. The new menu will have around 10 items to start, including a banh mi with General Tso’s-style pork belly, a fried chicken sandwich with pimento aioli and jalapeno honey, avocado toast with pastrami-smoked salmon, and watermelon salad with strawberry vinaigrette and pistachios. The restaurant will continue to offer to-go pantry items, such as hot sauce, pickles, and flour.
Tien told Washingtonian at the end of April that he had no intention of opening the dining room of Emilie’s until there’s a vaccine for Covid-19. He said he worried about putting his staff at risk and having to make compromises to service, which included rolling carts and table-side preparations.
“We want everyone to have a real, full dining experience,” he said at the time. “I don’t think it should be this half, weird dining experience.”
Now, however, the dining room and outdoor patio are slated to open within two weeks. The new management plans to convert Emilie’s private dining room into a daytime cafe offering coffee and pastries in the morning, then transform it into a high-end whiskey bar at night. Johnson’s dine-in menu will likely be as eclectic as Tien’s with influences from throughout Asian, the American south (the chef’s sweetbreads and waffles may make a comeback), and elsewhere. Johnson also plans to reserve a limited number of seats for an eight-to-ten course tasting menu that may include dishes such as she-crab cavatelli with pickled corn relish or veal ribs with tomato barbecue and zucchini pickles.
Shoja says he’d also like to bring in occasional guest chefs, particularly immigrant and Black chefs. “I have been given a lot of opportunities in my life and I want to return the favor,” says Shoja, who came to the US as a refugee from Afghanistan in 1989.
Among the new staff are general manager Alissa Costello and bar manager Rob Long, both alums of shuttered Woodward Table. Long, who previously worked at Moonesinghe’s incubator space Prequel, is planning to introduce a new to-go cocktail menu that’s as wide-ranging as Johnson’s food—watermelon-gin-elderflower concoctions alongside barrel-aged whiskey drinks.
Meanwhile, Costello has quickly assembled a new staff of around 25 people. She says she overlapped with Tien for a few days.
“Kevin was very professional. He helped us get through it. He gave me all the information I needed,” she says. “I’m really happy for him to be going on his own path with something else. As I told him last week, I want to be able to make this a place that he’ll be proud of even though he won’t be here anymore.”