While D.C. has been attracting top talent from other cities as of late, the city has also lost a few excellent chefs and bartenders to faraway lands. What do they have to say about the city they left in the rearview mirror? Baby, we got bad blood? Not so much. Their reflections are more constructive than contrarian.
Chef: Anthony Lombardo
You know him from: The Hamilton
Years worked in D.C. kitchens: 7
When he left: 2015
Current status: Opening his first solo restaurant, SheWolf, in Detroit. “It’s like what’s happening in Italy today as opposed to the red sauce places in Detroit,” he says. “Nothing against those places, but this is more chef-driven.” SheWolf should open in the spring.
Lombardo misses the camaraderie among chefs that’s long been touted as an advantage of living and working in D.C. “Detroit is becoming tight knit, but D.C. is much more evolved,” he says. “Guys have been working together there for years, while in Detroit people are just getting to know each other.”
Just go to any D.C. charity food event, like Chefs for Equality or Sips & Suppers, and you’ll see chefs embracing and shooting the shit. “I really miss those because they don’t really exist in Detroit. D.C. is a fundraising city—it really opens your eyes to see how chefs can raise money so easily,” he says.
On a personal note, he misses “day-off museum days” when he’d bop around the National Mall visiting the free museums. “It was fun and cheap and amazing,” he says. “I just got really smart when I was in D.C. It’s such a smart city.”
Watching from afar, he’s looking forward to seeing what Chefs Mike Friedman (All-Purpose Pizzeria) and Haidar Karoum (Chloe) do next. “Those guys have the chops to build a quick empire.”
Chef: R.J. Cooper
You know him from: Rogue 24 and Gypsy Soul
Years worked in D.C. kitchens: 17
When he left: 2015
Current status: Serving as the executive chef of Henley in Nashville. The modern American brasserie serves food R.J. Cooper describes as “super local, fun, and similar toGypsy Soul but a little more refined.”
Cooper echoes Lombardo’s sentiment about missing the camaraderie among D.C. chefs. “You don’t have that in a lot of cities,” he says. “You don’t have the same lineage and legacy … there is no Roberta Donna or Jeff Buben in Nashville because it’s still such a young city.”
Donna and Buben have been working in D.C. for decades and have trained up many of the next generation of chefs that are currently opening restaurants locally. “They set the foundation for the city and what dining should be.”
If there’s one thing Cooper doesn’t miss it’s the traffic. Just the thought of it produces a stream of expletives from his mouth. “I love D.C., but the expansion happened so quickly,” he says. “The restaurants had an explosion and the rents skyrocketed. There’s so much push and it just got busy.”
The chef has been paying attention and says he continues to be impressed by Katsuya Fukushima (Daikaya, Haikan, Bantam King), Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve, Hummingbird, Kaliwa), Jeremiah Langhorne (The Dabney), and Tom Cunanan (Bad Saint). He also has an interesting theory about the future.
“That whole ethnic casual fine dining boom is what’s going to bring the next generation to the forefront instead of regional American fine dining,” Cooper says. “In D.C., it’s more likely there will be a three-star Michelin [restaurant] that’s ethnic instead of American, French, or Italian. Someone is going to breakthrough that mold and it’s not going to be Rasika or Fiola Mare. It’ll be someone small who’s young who will take a risk.”
Bartender: Scotty Holland
You know him from: Kapnos, Graffiato, Zaytinya, Urbana
Years worked in D.C. kitchens: 10.5
When he left: 2015
Current status: Head bartender at top-rated cocktail bar Forgery in San Francisco
Though he’s now living in San Francisco, a city long heralded for its food scene, Holland thinks D.C. has its merits. “I miss the wide variety of cuisine that D.C. has to offer, from great Filipino food to fiery Ethiopian,” he says. “Living in D.C., we always looked up to areas like New York and San Francisco, but after working in San Francisco I’ve realized that D.C. is right up there with everyone else when it comes to food and beverage.”
He’s heard about D.C.’s staffing crisis. “Things expanded quickly and there’s been a shortage of good staff,” he says. “The main thing D.C. needs is to focus on training the staff in the art of hospitality. I think that gets swept under the rug too often.” He admits that staffing is a problem everywhere, not just D.C.
When asked about rising bar stars, he gives a shout out to Hung Nguyen of Requin. “He came back from New York a couple of years ago and he’s someone that is doing some cutting edge things,” Holland says.
Chef: Frederik de Pue
You know him from: Table, Azure, Menu MBK
Years worked in D.C. kitchens: 14
When he left: Still has a residence in D.C. but opened Flamant this summer in Annapolis
Current status: Chef/owner of Flamant, specializing in his native Flemish cuisine
Reflecting on his time working in D.C., de Pue says we’ve come a long way. “Sixteen years ago when I arrived here I was initially disappointed,” he says. “There were a lot of steak restaurants and not anything beyond that other than a couple of big name chefs. It’s interesting to see how the city has evolved.”
He welcomes the trend that you don’t need $5 million to open a restaurant anymore. “It started in 2012 and 2013 when a lot of small restaurants opened—you don’t have to be large-scale anymore.”
He’s enjoying being a true neighborhood restaurant in Annapolis. While he’d occasionally get repeat customers at Table, Flamant is full of familiar faces. “That’s one of the reasons I left downtown D.C.,” he says. “I wanted to have that personal connection with customers and we definitely have that here.”
The chef doesn’t miss all the red tape you have to cut through to open a restaurant in D.C., noting that it’s easier to open a restaurant in Annapolis where everyone plays by the rules. “There shouldn’t be [permit] expeditors,” he says referring to people who help businesses shuffle permits along faster through the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “They should do a better job in general, the city and DCRA.”
As far as D.C. stars, de Pue has his eye on Aaron Silverman who is readying to open Little Pearl in the former Bayou Bakery at the mouth of Barracks Row. “Mike Isabella is exploding everywhere. It’s amazing,” he continues. “And I’m quite excited about Haidar Karoum’s restaurant.”