Photo by Laura Hayes
Photo by Laura Hayes

Power and politics have long dominated the national conversation about D.C., but as of late, District restaurants have stolen a piece of the limelight—in an election year, no less. And while most scrutinizing Cap City are focusing their attention on November, those in the restaurant industry are looking at October instead, when the first D.C. Michelin Guide drops. “It’ll help people see D.C. as a food city, not just a political city, which is great for our community,” says Scott Drewno, the executive chef at The Source.

Washington is only the fourth U.S. city to have the Eiffel Tower–sized feather in its cap, joining the culinary powerhouses of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco (Los Angeles and Las Vegas guides have been discontinued). The 116-year-old international guide uses secret inspectors to grant restaurants one, two, or three stars, in addition to awarding bang-for-your-buck restaurants with Bib Gourmands.

“The reason we chose Washington was the continuing evolution of its culinary scene,” says Pete Selleck, Michelin North American chairman and president. “It’s always been very good here, but now it’s the best it’s ever been.”

D.C. was, until recently, a culinary underdog because of its relatively small size, but it has gotten big-time attention in the national food spotlight thanks to major magazine mentions. It’s largely local chefs’ and restaurant owners’ collaborative spirit that got us here. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

“[Michelin] is a testament to the culinary and hospitality community—that they chose to come to D.C. because of what we’re doing here has to do with the fact that we all work together,” Drewno says.

Del Campo Chef Victor Albisu agrees. “We’re always been very supportive of each other,” he says. “We take time out of our days to go and support and highlight the food of our friends. We never say no to each other.”

Indeed. Chef collaborations and culinary charity events are weekly—if not daily—occurrences, and restaurant staffers are quick to congratulate colleagues. When Bon Appétit named Bad Saint the second best new restaurant in America, for example, the restaurant’s page shared the good news on Facebook, gaining 118 shares and 602 likes, largely offered up by other members of the restaurant industry.

But when Michelin makes its debut on Oct. 13, will D.C. be able to hold tight to its kumbaya spirit? Or will the competition for stars cause relationships to splinter quicker than the cast of Survivor upon arrival to the island? There’s nothing to worry about, say a number of area chefs who have experience at Michelin-starred restaurants.

“There’s no reason to be scared of it, no reason to do anything but embrace it, grow, and be better,” says Albisu, who trained at a three-star restaurant in Paris. He doesn’t think the city will suddenly go Cutthroat Kitchen. “The established chefs of the city, we are who we are and we support each other,” he says. “Maybe down the road when a younger, more aggressive crop comes up, but I don’t think it’ll be an overnight thing.”

Hazel Chef Rob Rubba worked for Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas. He cautions those new to Michelin to remember it’s “you against a guide,” not you against your peers.

“Don’t view being a chef and having a restaurant as competition,” he says. “The beauty of this city is that it’s not like ‘oh fuck him, he just opened up, we have to put him out of business.’ We all want to succeed here, do great here—if having a three-star restaurant in D.C. brings more people through your doors? Awesome.”

Rubba was at L20 in Chicago when the city’s first guide came out. While L20 received three stars, Rubba noticed changes at the one-star level. “There are pros and cons for smaller restaurants that are doing really great food,” he explains. “They get that one star and they don’t really understand that sometimes that’s just a great honor to have and people’s attitudes change a little bit because they want more,” he says.

Chef Ed Scarpone of CityCenterDC’s DBGB Kitchen + Bar agrees that the guide will have an impact. “Moving forward, some chefs are going to get two or one and not more, and they’ll refine service, the way things are plated, and try to get more,” says the chef who worked at the one-star Café Boulud in New York. “It’s going to do nothing but good—but it’s going to make some people crazy because it’s stressful.”

Stressful is an understatement. Because Michelin stars are desperately coveted, visits from inspectors pile on immense pressure. There are too many stories about starred chefs leaving cooking, but even more frightening, self-harming or committing suicide—Bernard Loiseau was widely believed to have killed himself over the intense pressures of his career. The potential for anxiety mean it’s critical for the chef community to remain supportive come October and beyond. CP