Scott Drewno’s Friday ritual begins with a shopping cart at Great Wall Supermarket in Falls Church.
“I’m actually on the hunt for water lettuce today,” the executive chef of The Source says as he navigates the produce aisle of the Chinese grocery in a crisp blue button-up, custom-made to fit his towering six-foot-five frame, aviators perched atop his buzz-cut head.
Most of the ingredients he seeks during weekly visits to Great Wall are used for “beta” dishes he’s testing out before he approaches his distributor for larger orders. In the case of water lettuce—a stalky vegetable also known as celtuce—Drewno wants to put it on the menu, but his distributor doesn’t even know what it is. “It’s a similar texture to celery, a little bit milder flavor,” he explains.
Drewno grabs a few bunches of garlic chives for some dumplings he wants to try out, a box of baby mangoes for a new dessert, and dragonfruit for the tasting menu at his two-seat chef’s counter. As we meander down the aisles, he points out the frozen dumplings he always stocks at home (generically dubbed “Chinese Brand”), his favorite ramen packet (Shin Ramyun), and his candy addiction (Hi-Chews). “There’s a special place in my stomach that I think is accumulating all of the gummies,” he says.
But beyond that, Drewno walks these aisles for inspiration. A red tin of cookies known as “Chinese love letters” are the starting point for a new dessert at The Source. And sometimes, Drewno grabs something foreign—“chili crisp” oil, pickled enoki mushrooms—and brings it back to his kitchen staff to deconstruct and recreate from scratch.
After his shopping expedition, which often also includes a stop at Korean grocery H Mart, Drewno’s venture to the suburbs typically involves banh mi, Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot, or in today’s case, the buffet at nearby Bangkok Golden.
“I just roll around out here, hang out,” Drewno says, wheeling his cart at Great Wall. “It’s me time.”
In broader sense, too, this is Drewno’s time. He’s hot off a highly praised revamp of the Wolfgang Puck restaurant where he’s been chef for nine years. More recently, he took home his second win as “Chef of the Year” in the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s annual RAMMY Awards. In the past 25 years, only one other chef (Fabio Trabocchi) has been bestowed the title twice. But beyond the accolades, Drewno is one of the rare chefs to escape the shadow of the celebrity chef whose name is on the restaurant. And over the years, he’s built a reputation as a competitive yet all-around good guy who’s elevating Chinese cuisine in D.C.
In Penn Yan, the village of around 4,000 people in upstate New York where Drewno grew up, there was just one Chinese restaurant: China King, a takeout spot with orange chicken and egg rolls. The area was better known for the farmland and wine country that surrounded it, and Drewno’s first job was tying grapes for a vineyard at age 14.
“For me growing up, seasonality was imprinted on me,” Drewno says. Some of his strongest childhood food memories are the excitement for corn season and his mom canning tomatoes.
Drewno knew he wanted to do something related to food, but at the time his mother, a nurse and hospital administrator, and father, who worked in human resources for UPS, didn’t see cooking as a career. Drewno enrolled in The College at Brockport, State University of New York to study criminal justice.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I didn’t really want to do any of that,” he says. “At that time, 20 years ago, being a chef wasn’t really what it is today… I didn’t want to let down my parents, but at the same token, I wasn’t happy.”
In 1996, after his sophomore year, Drewno decided to drop out and follow a friend to Las Vegas, where a restaurant boom was underway. He first worked for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, but after his wife, Allison Drewno, circled a hiring ad for Puck’s Chinois in the classifieds, he applied for a job there. “I saw this Steve Jobs interview… and he was saying that you’re not going to be great unless you surround yourself with great people,” Drewno says.
Working at Chinois was eye-opening. It was the first time that Drewno was really exposed to Asian food—the woks, the ginger, the galangal, and countless other ingredients and techniques. He was drawn into the complexity of Chinese cooking—salty, sweet, sour, bitter—and immediately knew that’s where he wanted to devote his career.
Drewno moved from a prep cook—often showing up hours before his shift to learn other stations—up to executive sous chef in five years at Chinois and then Spago, Puck’s seasonal American restaurant. He then spent a few years in New York before joining Puck again at The Source as opening chef in 2007.
In this era in which chefs seem to play a constant game of musical chairs, Drewno says it’s a testament to the company that he’s stayed put at The Source for nearly a decade. Drewno calls Puck a “visionary” and “mentor.”
“That’s part of the reason I’ve worked with him so long. He’s very engaged in the restaurants,” Drewno says. Plus, Drewno describes himself as fiercely loyal. He married his high school sweetheart, after all.
Asked if he’d like to open his own restaurant, Drewno says “not necessarily.” He’s been taken care of under Puck and feels like his voice is valued in the company. “I’m happy and my wife’s happy, and as long as my wife’s happy, I’m happy,” he says. Allison Drewno says her husband never complains.
While D.C.’s dining scene is full of chefs opening their own restaurants, “most restaurants fail, so maybe that’s not the best idea,” Drewno says.
Not that Drewno’s job is getting stale. Last year, The Source underwent a major dining room renovation and menu revamp, including the introduction of a hot pot table and two-seat chef’s counter.
Drewno knows the media is drawn to what’s new. But he also laments that there are plenty of older restaurants turning out great food and new dishes, “and they don’t always get the credit I think they deserve.” After all, revamp aside, Drewno is constantly tweaking dishes and printing out new menus daily. “It’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t go in the press. We just do it because we feel it’s what we should do,” he says. “You constantly are looking at dishes and saying, ‘This dish is good, but how do I make it great?’”
Ask anyone close to Drewno, a former wrestler and football player in high school, and they’ll list competitiveness among his top traits. “As much as I respect and admire a lot of chefs in town, I still want to be better than them,” the chef admits. Even outside the kitchen.
“It’s a competition when we’re playing beer pong. It’s a competition when we’re playing cornhole. It’s always a competition,” says fellow chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella, who’s been one of Drewno’s close friends for nearly a decade. “And he wins a lot. And there’s a lot of smack talking going on with that.”
All the while, though, Drewno has maintained a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the industry. “He’s actually a teddy bear,” Isabella says. “Wolfgang Puck calls him Big Baby Drewno.”
The chef community in D.C. likes to brand itself as a close-knit clan without the type of infighting and bitter rivalries you might expect in a bigger city. Del Campo chef Victor Albisu, another friend, says Drewno is among the chefs who’ve helped foster that. “I kind of credit him for bringing a lot of chefs together,” Albisu says. “He was a catalyst for a lot of friendships around the city… His demeanor was always very welcoming.”
Albisu says Drewno introduced him to Isabella. Now the three, along with a number of other top chefs in the District, regularly hang out and even go on vacation together every year. Both Albisu and Isabella say Drewno is the kind of guy no one says a bad word about. “Probably the only chef in the city that you’ve never heard that about,” Isabella says.
That community lovefest was on full display when Drewno accepted his Chef of the Year award at the RAMMYS gala, the day after the Orlando attacks.
“We’ve always been kind of the outcasts,” Drewno told the hundreds of industry folks in the convention center auditorium. “We’re the ones with all the tattoos. We drink too much. We smoke too much. We have green hair… But the one thing that’s beautiful about us is our acceptance. It doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are, what color your hair is… It doesn’t matter your sexual orientation, your religion. If you have passion, if you have heart, if you have desire, we welcome you on our team.”
Several weeks later, Drewno downplays any praise. When I mention the positive response to his speech, the chef says he feels bad that he got caught up in the weekend’s events and forgot to thank his wife and team at The Source. And when it comes to the award itself, he says he feels “a little weird” about it.
“It’s really about the team and so many moving parts in a restaurant and so much hard work that goes into it from each person,” Drewno says. “And to have one person’s name there, it’s not fair.”