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Kyle Bailey was shopping for wedding rings with his fiancée at a Jersey City, N.J., mall last month when he got a call on his cell. He didn’t recognize the number, but he decided to take it anyway.
On the other end of the line was Michael Babin, co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, who was phoning to see if Bailey might be interested in one of the most intriguing jobs on the entire D.C. restaurant scene: executive chef of the forthcoming Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, the twin-concept operation near Logan Circle that will place beer at the center of everything it does.
The call was practically divine intervention for Bailey, who, as fate would have it, was out of a job when Babin called. He wouldn’t be for long; less than a month after that mystery call at the mall, Bailey would be named the second executive chef for a restaurant and bar that won’t even open until late September. Frank Morales, the original visionary for Birch & Barley’s kitchen, unexpectedly packed his knives and left the Neighborhood Restaurant Group in July.
If you think it’s odd for NRG to hire an unemployed chef for such a high-profile gig, you need to consider the circumstances. Less than two weeks before Babin called him, Bailey had parted ways with the respected, romantic, candlelit Allen & Delancey in New York, where he was hired to lead the restaurant’s kitchen. Bailey decided to walk away from his first-ever executive chef position, just eight months into the job, when A&D’s owners apparently wanted to effect more cost-cutting measures than Bailey could swallow.
“I can’t do what I don’t want to do,” Bailey tells Y&H. A chef needs motivation to devote 16-hour work days to a job, he adds, and Bailey knew that, with the pending budget cuts, he wouldn’t be able to summon up the necessary desire. So he left Allen & Delancey, despite making quick fans of the critics who dined there.
It was probably a poor time for Bailey to take a stand on principles, given the recession that has practically crippled many New York restaurants and chefs. It didn’t help, either, that Bailey was getting married in Hawaii soon. Yet even with the social and economic pressures on him, Bailey says he didn’t just leap blindly at the Birch & Barley opportunity. He wanted to visit the restaurant, which is still under construction in the old Dakota Cowgirl space on 14th Street NW, and learn more about its beer-forward approach to food and drink.
So just days before he was scheduled to leave for Hawaii for his wedding, Bailey drove down to D.C. to conduct a tasting for Babin and a few Neighborhood Restaurant Group employees. He didn’t have time to find all the ingredients he needed, so the chef relied on what he could secure at a New Jersey grocery store on the way to the District. The multi-course tasting didn’t get any easier when Bailey started cooking at the Evening Star Cafe’s kitchen. The power went out, which eventually forced Bailey to re-collect all his ingredients and relocate to Tallula, another NRG property.
Despite the hassles, Bailey impressed his would-be employer. “It was really, really great,” Babin recalls.
You could argue, of course, that Babin was biased toward Bailey almost from the start of NRG’s search. Babin had compiled a list of qualities for the perfect Birch & Barley chef: He wanted a young cook who had worked in a demanding kitchen or two. He wanted someone with experience at a restaurant with a serious beverage program. He wanted someone committed to local/seasonal ingredients. He wanted someone passionate about beer and about Birch & Barley’s suds-forward concept. He even wanted someone who had worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a menu-less restaurant and educational center just outside New York.
He found all of those qualities in Bailey. “He really was the perfect candidate,” Babin says. “I hope that it is borne out.”
How perfect is the 29-year-old Bailey for Birch & Barley? The Culinary Institute of America graduate worked for nearly four years at Cru, which features one of the best wine programs in the country. Cru also featured, at least during Bailey’s tenure there, Shea Gallante, a demanding and well-decorated chef whose obsessive, detail-oriented approach had a strong impact on the young cook. But Bailey also spent a year working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is virtually the standard-bearer of the local/seasonal movement. Stone Barns sources 80 percent of its ingredients from the surrounding area.
Then there’s Bailey’s time at the spirits-friendly Allen & Delancey, where he was hired to bring discipline to a kitchen that had started to drift following the departure of its original chef, Neil Ferguson, a former Gordon Ramsay lieutenant. Bailey once worked 100 days straight at A&D, usually on the line. “People need to be led,” Bailey reflects. “When there’s no leader…it gets crazy.”
If Bailey is Babin’s ideal choice today to run Birch & Barley’s kitchen, the chef wasn’t always so. Bailey grew up in Aston, Pa., just west of Philadelphia. His mother worked in customer service for an envelope company, and his father was director of admissions for a trade school. “Food really wasn’t a big thing in our house,” Bailey tells me.
“Every night was fish sticks and cold cereal,” he adds. “I didn’t know what flavor was.”
But Bailey took a turn toward the kitchen at age 14 when he became a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant. It wasn’t haute cuisine, he recalls, but it was a heady introduction to the hard-charging, adrenaline-rush world of restaurants and the freaks and fringe characters who often populate it. Bailey was hooked.
“Before I knew it, I was on the line,” he says, grilling whatever proteins were needed at the family-owned restaurant. It was in the days before celebrity chefs, Bailey adds, back when a wet-behind-the-ears teenager could work the grill even if he had no understanding of flavor or resting meats. At age 18, however, Bailey decided to fill the gaps of his gastronomic education: He applied for and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where, in a sense, Bailey’s journey toward Birch & Barley officially started.
Then again, for many chefs trained in the French tradition—with all its biases toward wine—Birch & Barley might be considered yet another form of schooling, with beer director Greg Engert serving as headmaster. But even here, Bailey has an advantage over many other toques. He’s an avid home brewer, and, better yet, he’s almost giddy at the thought of developing a beer-oriented cuisine at Birch & Barley.
“I’m excited by any chance to cook with beer,” he notes, “and not poach fish with Coors Light, but really cooking with beer.”
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