Courtesy of Johanna Hellrigl
Courtesy of Johanna Hellrigl

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Find out where seven D.C. chefs got their humble starts in the kitchen.

Johanna Hellrigl: It was practically a given that Doi Moi’s Johanna Hellrigl would wind up in a kitchen: Her parents owned Palio Restaurant in New York City. “Every aspect of the restaurant fascinated me as a child and when my father passed away, every weekend outside of school became about the restaurant because my mother was a widow with an enormous restaurant with more than 100 employees,” she says. Her early days were spent at the pastry station or yelling orders in the expeditor area. “Even if some nights meant that my bed was two chairs put together in my mother’s office, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

Rob Sonderman: Federalist Pig’s Rob Sonderman got his first taste of cooking at Banducci’s—a former sub and pizza joint near Union Station. Sonderman says his dad sat him down at age 14 for an “it’s time to get a job” conversation. That summer he started as a dishwasher and prep cook. “I fell in love with the speed and pace of the action and dealing with the heat and long days for whatever reason,” he says. “It was history from there.” He liked Banducci’s because he got to interface with customers directly. “It’s part of the reason why I built Federalist Pig to be more of an interactive guest and kitchen experience,” he says. 

Photo of Tiffany MacIsaac by Laura Hayes

Tiffany MacIsaac: Buttercream Bakeshop owner Tiffany MacIsaac first tried her hand at sweets as an entry level pastry assistant at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe in New York. “Working there gave me a sense of hustle and a sense of urgency I’ll never forget,” she says. “It taught me that the littlest details can mean the difference between someone that comes once or twice and a regular.”  

Photo of Mike Friedman by Darrow Montgomery

Mike Friedman: Mike Friedman of All-Purpose and The Red Hen hasn’t fled far from his first professional gig at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda. Friedman exited a cubicle job “out of sheer boredom” and landed a prep cook position thanks to a family friend. The French bistro gave him a chain mail glove to protect his nascent cooking hands from cuts and he got to work on a prep list, which including slicing onions for soup and making compound butters. “I fell in love immediately,” he says. “It was a team sport, and I felt like I was making a difference. I grew very quickly in that restaurant, and it solidified my love of the industry and my deep satisfaction of building great teams.”

Photo of Masako Morishita and Andrew Chiou by Darrow Montgomery

Andrew Chiou: In addition to learning how to cook, Andrew Chiou of Momo Yakitori had to learn to speak Spanish in three weeks at his first job as a garde manger (cold food cook) at Fish Daddy’s Grill House in College Station, Texas. “On the Friday of my fourth week, the owners and chef gathered the team to pump us up about opening night,” he says. “Turns out we were cooking for three weeks as practice to work out all the kinks. Fish Daddy’s is probably still the smoothest opening I have ever seen.” 

Yadira Stamp: At the end of culinary school, Esencias Panameñas’s Yadira Stamp interned at Pinzimini in Ballston. She later worked there in just about every role—dishwasher, busser, server, line cook, bartender, and assistant manager. “Since my goal was to open my restaurant, I thought I would take advantage and learn everything that I could,” she says. “The main thing I learned that I carry with me to this day is running and reviewing reports with a fine-toothed comb.” 

Photo of Scott Drewno by Darrow Montgomery

Scott Drewno: CHIKO’s Scott Drewno hails from the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. There, his first hospitality industry job was at Bully Hill Vineyards, where he was tasked with tying grape vines in the vineyard. “I learned quickly that farm work is difficult work,” he says. “It involves long hours of physically demanding labor, and it’s a daily battle with the elements. I have carried with me much respect and admiration for our farmers since my first job in the vineyard.”