Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

D.C. almost lost Johnny Spero to San Sebastián, Spain. At 29, the gutsy chef traded a salaried head chef gig at minibar by José Andrés for a passport stamp to the coastal city, where he worked nearby as an unpaid apprentice (known as a “stage”) at Mugartiz.

He slept eight guys to a room in a house full of 30 people for eight months so that he could work in the restaurant that holds two Michelin stars and has been a frequent flier on Restaurant Magazine’s annual list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t know anybody, put my head down, and get my ass kicked,” Spero says. He’d long admired Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s New Spanish cuisine, which celebrates nature by respecting its ingredients.

“It’s getting fish pulled out of the water that morning—thinking of the fish, where it came from,” Spero says. “You’re not over-manipulating anything. You’re just presenting it in a fun, new, exciting way and making people question things.” He describes the cuisine as emotional. “If you can make people laugh when they’re eating, that’s so much more rewarding.”

Spero describes a plate combining chewy mochi with delicate caviar. It’s as unlikely a marriage as Mary-Kate Olsen And Olivier Sarkozy. “It’s supposed to be a thought-proving, sensory experience that makes you think about what you’re eating.”

Spero toyed with the idea of staying in Spain, but instead returned home eager to open his own restaurant for a second time. He thought back to a critical point in his career, and a restaurant name revealed itself.

In spring 2013, Spero was feeling low after his first restaurant Suna proved to be a false start. It opened in November above Acqua Al 2 only to close in March. “Looking back, I wasn’t ready,” Spero says. “I knew what I wanted, I knew the food, but I wasn’t mature enough.”

But he landed on his feet. There was an opening at minibar, where he interviewed. “I sat down in the office with José [Andrés] and the first question he asked me was, ‘Johnny, are you a dreamer?’ We didn’t talk about my résumé or technical abilities—it was how do I feel about food? How am I as a person?”

Spero, a triplet from Baltimore County who got an inelegant start in the food world at a restaurant sandwiched between a Safeway and a CVS, has always considered himself a daydreamer and so have his parents. Just ask them how Spero did in grade school.

That’s why the chef is naming his forthcoming restaurant Reverie—a state of being pleasantly lost in thought.

“I’ve always been a daydreamer with a very vivid imagination,” Spero says. “When you go to a restaurant, it’s supposed to be an experience that takes you away. You’re at that restaurant, that’s it…”

A property at 3210 Grace St. NW spoke to Spero because diners enter through an enchanting cobblestone alleyway, immediately sparking a reality-pausing experience. “I want you to feel like, in this restaurant, you could be anywhere else in the world,” he says.

He signed the lease, surprising even himself that he settled on Georgetown. “Growing up in the area, you learned to hate Georgetown,” he says, blaming the bars overrun by students. “But as I got older and started spending more time there, I realized it’s beautiful.”

The area’s liquor license moratorium had prevented new chefs from planting their flags for decades, but that changed in April when it was lifted. “It’s not an up-and-coming area. It’s Georgetown. It is what it is, but it needs a renaissance as far as restaurants go,” Spero says.

He hopes to be a part of it with his 60-seat restaurant serving modern American cuisine. The menu will be small, focused, and priced “to hit a broader audience” with dishes topping out at $30. “The idea is to do a la carte and offer a small tasting menu,” Spero says. “You can still create an experience without a tasting menu—I can get my voice and my passion across in a couple of plates.”

The goal of the restaurant with a projected opening date of summer 2017 is to keep it casual and approachable. “I’m not necessarily feeding the masses, but I’m opening the door up to more people to experience the flavors and textures.”

Seaweed granita dessert photo by Johnny Spero

Texture is as important to Spero as flavor. Diners will encounter dishes like tomatoes compressed in white soy, Szechuan oil, a jiggly broken gel made from tomato water, and cooked bone marrow or a Jaleo-inspired toasted yeast meringue with cultured butter and a tongue of raw sea urchin (uni) topped with lardo.

Spero will also handle dessert, but it will be hard to discern where savory fades and sweet begins. Take one of his works in progress: seaweed granita perched atop a float of white sesame espuma that comes topped with fresh herbs, candied seaweed, and candied ginger.

If there’s one thread that ties Reverie’s menu together it’s that ingredients are left to speak for themselves—aided only by technique (avant-garde or otherwise) instead of piled-on, distracting flavors. This let-ingredients-shine mentality is the number one lesson Spero’s mentors instilled in him throughout his career not only at Mugaritz but also at Komi, Noma, and Town House.

Spero’s first big break came when he landed a line cook job at Komi—Chef Johnny Monis’ Mediterranean tasting menu restaurant where D.C. diners celebrate life’s milestones. He worked the grill, preparing the pita and the goat for the restaurant’s signature main course. Eventually Spero advanced through all of the stations, including pastry.

“It’s the first place I worked where we really showcased the product for what it was,” Spero says. “I’d never dealt with farmers. Seeing the whole animal was huge for me.” It’s also where Spero became a drooling fanboy for uni. Monis served spaghetti with tomato, uni, and habanero. “Thinking about that dish is driving me crazy right now. It was probably the first time I had uni. Now I put it on everything.”

Spero was at the 17th Street NW dining room for two years. “Like anything in my life, I got bored really easily. I loved it there, but I wanted to see more.” So in January 2011, he joined the stagiaire program at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. Like Mugaritz, Chef René Redzepi’s two-Michelin-star restaurant is a fixture on The 50 Best Restaurants in the World.

“I spent all my money getting there,” Spero recalls. “I had one nice dinner. The rest of the time I drank Carlsberg beer and ate gummy bears.” But it was worth it because Spero got to touch a lot of product, including some enormous oysters that make Rappahannocks look like pebbles.

“I remember Rene coming up to me, he was like, ‘Do you know how old these oysters are?’ They lived a very long life before they got in your hands, just treat them with respect.’” After this teachable moment with Redzepi, Spero was in awe but also “scared shitless” of making a mistake. 

The training came to an end, and Spero returned to D.C. lost over what to do next. After brief stints at Rogue 24 and Toki Underground, he connected with Chef John Shields, a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, someone Spero describes as “one of the most talented chefs in the United States” and “the guy that I’ll always look up to.”

Shields hired Spero to work at Town House, his former restaurant in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Chilhowie, Virginia. “He has all the traits anyone you’d want to hire, bring on as a chef,” Shields says. “Creative, energetic, highly intelligent, and he gets the numbers side of things, the full package.”

The chefs were mutually seduced by the Mugaritz style of cooking—again because of the ingredients. “It’s the perception of simplicity, austerity even,” Shields says. “Things look like there wasn’t much effort, but once you taste it, once you eat it, there’s such a clarity of texture and flavor because it’s not masked by a bunch of other things.”

When Town House closed, Spero tried opening Suna before settling for two years at minibar, where he further honed his ingredient-driven perspective at D.C’s open-kitchen, molecular gastronomy showroom of a restaurant. The team there took a scientific approach to building dishes. 

“Let’s get this asparagus, eat it raw, cooked, fried, and poached,” Spero says. “You basically build a database of ingredients, so you know how it’s going to act. Once you have that database, it’s easy to start building things.”  

Documenting everything was critical, and not something Spero, the dreamer, had done in the past. “I wish I wrote down some of the recipes from earlier in life,” he says. “I don’t remember them and I can’t go back and look at my Instagram because that shit didn’t exist.”

Now he’s an Instagram boss who often posts pictures of eye-catching plates that could make it onto the Reverie menu. But you don’t have to wait until next summer to try his food. In the interim, Spero has stepped into the kitchen at Columbia Room in Shaw, where he’s pairing dishes with JP Fetherston’s high-concept cocktails. CP

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