This is not lost on anyone who has worked for him. Current and former employees refer to “the choice” that Monis has made not to seek attention, to eschew the limelight, above all to guard his private life. And they protect that choice with a loyalty that can border on fanaticism.
Kat Bangs, who until recently was Monis’s sommelier, told me in an e-mail, “Every day I spent at Komi I was motivated by a genuine admiration for Johnny, Anne [Marler, his wife and co-owner], and their collective vision. I’d like to respect their privacy and not contribute to this piece.”
Among restaurateurs, Monis is known for an unusually low turnover rate. People go to work for him and stay for years. When they depart, the code of silence endures. E-mails and phone calls to a dozen former Komi employees met with resistance to talking or with outright silence.
“His employees’ commitment to him and the restaurant is special,” says Phyllis Richman, former longtime restaurant critic for the Washington Post and one of Monis’s early champions. “He somehow puts together the kind of team that feels like Berkeley or San Francisco, a place where food is a broad part of the culture. It’s the kind of atmosphere you get in the back of the house with Alice Waters. Not just very good but very human.”
These are not words usually deployed to describe high-strung, high-end chefs. Monis can be intense and unyielding, but he’s not a screamer. He doesn’t throw pots and pans. And he doesn’t motivate through fear. Jeremiah del Sol, a line cook at Komi from 2007 to 2008, recalls that Monis once asked him why the skin on a goat shoulder wasn’t properly crisp.
“I don’t know,” del Sol replied, bracing for an angry rebuke.
Monis just said, “Get it right.”
“Other chefs would kick you off the line and make you watch them do it, to make an example of you,” del Sol says. “Sometimes I wanted him to just show me—that’s what I’m used to.” But Monis was like a parent dishing out tough love. He wanted his cook to learn for himself how to fix his mistake.
One night at dinner at Little Serow, the new northern Thai restaurant Monis opened next door to his flagship, I asked my server, “What’s it like working for Johnny?” Her eyes widened and her face lit up with the kind of devotional exuberance found in the audiences at megachurches and Phish concerts. “We’re all just part of the Komi family!” she said.
I asked Derek Brown, co-owner of the Passenger and Columbia Room bars and a former Komi sommelier, why he thought Monis has been so successful. A week later, Brown declined my request for an interview, but he offered to put his thoughts in writing. (You know you’re in Washington when the bartender is issuing a statement.)
Brown wrote that Monis works “for years” perfecting a recipe and every ingredient in it. “If you think the dish you got from Johnny is simple, you’re only deluding yourself. If he cuts a radish, he wants to know the best way to cut that radish and studies Japanese techniques. If he fries a crispy pork rind, he’s tried 400 iterations of that pork rind until it glimmers, shines, and has the perfect crunch.”
Many chefs, Brown said, overlook the core principles of hard work and devotion to craft that undergird the Monis doctrine. “Instead they start with design and PR. Johnny simply proves that’s all bullshit. Here’s a kid (well, not anymore, but when he started he was) who just gets it. Chefs used to belittle him and pat him on the head. Now they worship him.”
Nothing in Monis’s early life portended a future as one of America’s elite chefs. In the late 1990s, Monis, who was born in Arlington, dropped out of the pre-med program at James Madison University, where he spent Sunday nights cooking for big gatherings of friends and realized he was more interested in carving knives than in scalpels. He enrolled at Johnson & Wales University, a cooking school in Charleston, South Carolina, but dropped his studies again because he was learning more by working in the acclaimed local restaurant McCrady’s.
In 2001, Monis walked into the upper Northwest DC location of Chef Geoff’s, the popular local chain owned by Geoff Tracy. Monis had seen a classified ad for an entry-level cook.
“He was barely old enough to drink,” recalls Tracy, who put Monis to work making salads, one of the lowest-rung jobs in the kitchen.
Monis began experimenting with some of the more pedestrian items on the menu, elevating them beyond their humble ingredients. Tracy was impressed and promoted him up the line to more senior cooking positions.
“He came up with all sorts of great things,” Tracy says. He recalls a pistachio-crusted salmon that Tracy thought was so good he hung a Washington Post review with a picture of it in the restaurant’s foyer. Other of Monis’s dishes baffled his boss. Monis pressed smoked tea leaves into grilled pork tenderloin and served it with “these little funky berries” that Tracy can’t remember the name of but loved eating.
“Johnny’s greatest challenge was finding food in my genre,” Tracy says. “Food that people like to eat and that’s accessible.”
Tracy made Monis executive chef at his downtown DC restaurant, where Monis continued to jazz up the dishes. His former coworkers remember him as a dependable leader who inspired his cooks to make better food. Monis also found love in the restaurant. He met his future wife, Anne Marler, who was a server there. She had graduated from National Cathedral School and Georgetown University and then worked for a time as a journalist in Washington.
Tracy was proud of Monis, but he knew the younger chef was antsy. “He was always searching for the next thing,” Tracy says. “I could see he wanted to do something else. He had an itch.”