There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Almost every day, Michel Richard can be found at the chef’s table at Citronelle, his flagship restaurant in the Latham Hotel in Georgetown, working on something or another. Maybe he’s planning the next menu with David Deshaies, the chef in charge of the Citronelle kitchen, or maybe he’s just tinkering with a recipe. No matter how deeply absorbed the city’s most famous chef seems, though, the cooks prepping for that day’s service know they can never slack off.
Mel Davis, the PR coordinator for Citronelle, often sits with the celebrity chef while he works at the table, and she says rarely a day goes by that Richard doesn’t stop what he’s doing to scold one of his cooks who is, say, working on a sauce 15 feet away. He doesn’t even need to come over and taste the sauce. “He can tell from across the room whether it’s right,” Davis says, “the right consistency and the right color.” It’s as if Richard has an inner security alarm that sounds whenever someone dares to stray from classic cooking techniques.
Richard is, no doubt, a charter member of the obsessive chefs club. He rates right up there with such Hall of Famers as London’s Marco Pierre White, the knife-wielding, customer-threatening chef who taught Gordon Ramsay how to be an asshole, and France’s Bernard Loiseau, who killed himself in 2003 when he feared Michelin was prepared to dock one of his three coveted stars. The rumor proved false.
It’s hard to tell whether restaurants merely attract obsessive-compulsive chefs or whether they create them. Whatever the case, the industry appears to be full of OCD types in the kitchen. I had hoped to unearth a few in the D.C. market. For weeks, I asked everyone I encountered to name three obsessive chefs. I asked publicists, chefs, restaurateurs, and even the occasional diner. I wasn’t exactly looking for train wrecks like White and Loiseau—though God knows they make for sad, fascinating reading—but I wanted to better understand some of the obsessions that have fueled our restaurant scene over the years.
The names that have poured in are vast and far-reaching. The final list features more than 20 different personalities, including big-name chefs, pastry chefs, even the odd breadmaker. Five of them are women, including former Palena co-owner and pastry chef Ann Amernick, organic guru Nora Pouillon, former Colorado Kitchen chef and owner Gillian Clark, Johnny’s Half Shell pastry chef Valerie Hill, and Carole Greenwood, owner and chef at both Buck’s Fishing & Camping and Comet Ping-Pong.
Andy Shallal, the owner of Busboys & Poets, still remembers the time he ate at Pouillon’s restaurant, Nora, and had a “slight complaint about the food.” Pouillon herself came out into the dining room to fetch the plate, Shallal says. She didn’t say a word to him as she scooped up the meal. It turns out the dish was sent out before it was ready. “She was ticked off with whoever sent it out,” Shallal recalls. “She wasn’t ticked off at me.”
Other local obsessives include Thirsty Bernie Sports Bar & Grill chef Jamie Stachowski (“He’s obsessed with charcuterie,” says David Calkins, chef/owner of Urban Bar-B-Que and Urban Burger); Vidalia chef R.J. Cooper (self-selected); Robert Wiedmaier, chef and owner of Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck (“He has very high expectations of his places and his staff,” says pastry chef David Guas); and Mark Furstenberg, former owner of Breadline.
Furstenberg’s obsession over his product “is good in that he produced the best bread in the city, bar none,” says Bob Kinkead, chef and owner of Kinkead’s. But “when you dine out with him, it becomes less fun,” Kinkead adds, poking fun at his friend. “Because Mark likes to bellyache about things. ‘OK, the bread’s not so good, let’s move on.’”
None of these kitchen characters, however, garnered more than a single vote in my informal tally. The names that received multiple mentions are those tied to the lords of fine dining, which makes you think there’s a link between excellence and obsession. Aside from Richard (who gathered three votes), there is Frank Ruta, chef and owner of Palena, who earned a couple of nods, as well as Komi’s Johnny Monis, Restaurant Eve’s Cathal Armstrong, and CityZen’s Eric Ziebold, who each garnered four votes.
On request, serial eater Don Rockwell, founder of the community dining board DonRockwell.com, put together his own personal list of obsessive chefs, which, aside from Monis, Ziebold, and Ruta, also includes Ron Tanaka of Cork Wine Bar and Tony Conte of the Oval Room. But he related a story to me about a private Thanksgiving dinner he attended last year. Ziebold was one of the guests. “Two hours into an extended meal,” Rockwell writes via e-mail, “Eric excused himself and said, ‘I have to go to the restaurant.’” Someone asked why.
“I have tripe braising and I need to check on it,” Rockwell recalls Ziebold saying.
Ziebold promptly left the Dupont Circle dinner for the Mandarin Oriental, where CityZen is located. Rockwell tagged along. “The tripe was oven-braising in an open pot, and he was worried that it was almost done,” Rockwell writes. “He checked it for about fifteen seconds, decided it could still cook longer, and then we left and drove back across town to finish Thanksgiving dinner.”
“I think a couple of things contribute to a Chef being obsessive,” Ruta writes via e-mail after I raised the general subject with him. “Mainly I think that most Chefs are extremely passionate about what we do. That passion will breed obsessiveness about certain things or even many things. That to me would be a big reason. Individual habits, insecurities, and tendencies would make a person obsessive. And it may also be that much of what we do is critiqued, analyzed, and inspected. Becoming obsessed about consistency, perfection, and cleanliness could ensure higher marks.”
The obvious problem when discussing obsession is that no two people will have the same definition of the word. Ruta defines his as “passion,” which drives his obsession for consistency. Armstrong will cop to obsessions on three topics: making sure all terms and ingredients are spelled correctly on his menus (copy editors, start your engines!), immediately replacing burned-out light bulbs and signs, and maintaining a “meticulously clean” walk-in. But then there are those who define obsession by its most damning characteristic: its anger.
Which leads nicely to the top vote-getter in this highly arbitrary, highly unscientific poll of the area’s most obsessive chefs: Jeffrey Buben, executive chef and owner of Bistro Bis and Vidalia, who collected a grand total of six nods.
As we stand outside his kitchen, just beginning our interview, Jeffrey Buben says he wants the names of those who fingered him. I offer up Peter Smith, a former chef at Vidalia, who told me that Buben “lives with a towel in his hand.” Smith recalled that no matter how hard he scrubbed his station, Buben would “come over and show you where it’s not” clean. The PS 7’s chef and owner called it “a little crazy.”
As I lay out my case against Buben, the chef, as if on cue, turns his attention to a young busboy trying to walk across a freshly mopped floor that leads to the kitchen, flagrantly disregarding the little yellow “Wet Floor” teepee blocking his path. “Hey, can’t you see the sign?” Buben barks. “Everybody thinks it doesn’t apply to them.”
I can’t tell if Buben is putting on an act for me. But then, a few minutes later, he barks again, this time at a bartender trying to tiptoe around the warning sign. I have definitely found my man.
Buben won’t argue that he’s obsessed when it comes to running his restaurants, but he says it’s the only way he knows how to make this large, unwieldy, all-too-human machine run smoothly. He offers an anecdote to help me understand him. In the mid-’70s, when he was a teenager working as an apprentice at a private club in Pawling, N.Y., the young Buben decided to impress the demanding Dutch chef who ran the kitchen. After dropping the chef off at JFK airport for a trip, Buben returned to the club and began polishing “all the copper in the kitchen.” He did it the old-fashioned way with lemon and salt. “I was so proud of myself,” Buben recalls.
Upon his return, the Dutch chef strode into the kitchen, looked up at the pots, and made only one comment: “You missed a spot.” “His point was,” Buben says, “If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Others have molded Buben, too, notably his father, Alvin, a former FBI agent who moved his family to the Philadelphia suburbs in the early ’60s and took a job as the director of security for U.S. Steel. His father was fond of a particular phrase, which he would employ at every opportunity to express his displeasure at his son’s half-assed performance, whether in school or anything else: “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” The phrase, while odd, hit home for Buben, a James Beard Award–winning chef and one of the most decorated toques in town. He would never settle for second best.
It boils down to a “fear of failing,” Buben says. “Deep down, we have a deep fear of failing. That’s why we push.”
As we walk into the kitchen, Buben tells me about a game he occasionally plays to challenge his staff. He calls it Superstar Status, and anyone working at the restaurant, from waiters to line cooks, is welcome to step up. The contest gives each player 10 minutes to “try to get everything perfectly clean” at his or her chosen kitchen station, the chef says. Over the years, few have ever earned Superstar Status, and Buben explains why.
Actually, he shows me why. He gets down on his hands and knees to look under the gleaming stainless-steel counter at the drinks/coffee station. No one ever cleans under the table, Buben says, or in the corners. “It’s the corners I worry about.” Then he walks over to the espresso maker and jerks the heavy machine so that it moves about an inch or two from its old spot. There, where the stubby legs of the machine used to rest, is a faint water ring. That is enough to fail the Superstar Test.
“If you give 100 percent, I’ll match you 100 percent,” Buben says. “If you give 120 percent, I’ll match you 120 percent. But if you give me 80 percent, I don’t have fucking time.”
Buben proceeds into the main part of the Vidalia kitchen, where his cooks are prepping for the evening’s service. The space looks immaculate. The counters are spotless. The dishes are clean and neatly stacked under the counter. Every cook’s station is brimming with expertly chopped and prepped ingredients, each in its own small plastic container. This state of affairs, it seems, is only an invitation for Buben to find something wrong.
It takes about three seconds. There’s a plastic tray sitting atop a high shelf over the expediter’s station. Amid the plastic containers holding little temperature tags—rare, medium, well—there is a single glass on the tray, with a few toothpicks in it. Buben pulls the tray down and announces to no one in particular, “Do you know what’s wrong with this?” Before he even tells us, sous chef John Engle leaps over and fetches the offending glass, which to Buben is a disaster waiting to happen. What if someone would knock the glass off its perch and it broke on the counter, sprinkling shards all over the food?
“This is a fireable offense,” Buben exclaims.
I ask Buben if he’s serious about sacking someone or if he’s just trying to put a scare into his staff. “About 50-50,” he responds with a small smile.
The moment offers a brief glimpse into what others have told me about Buben: He’s one frightening dude. He’s a screamer. He’s OCD. “He was kind of a jerk in the kitchen,” one chef told me. Another, Smith from PS 7’s (who really likes Buben, by the way), still recalls how a “vein in his forehead” would pop when his former boss got really pissed. It was scary, Smith admits, but he understood that it served a purpose: to push you into becoming a real fine-dining chef. “I got it. I understood. I still didn’t like it,” says Smith who worked at Vidalia for more than 10 years.
Buben fully admits he was a hothead and control freak back when he actually ran the Vidalia kitchen from 1993 to 2000. In his prime, Buben would sometimes become completely unglued, he confesses, particularly late at night or after a nasty review. But he would also hound his cooks on a daily basis, regardless of the hour or the prevailing critical thinking. He would prowl behind them, monitoring every little detail. If he didn’t like what they were doing, he’d send them out of the kitchen and take over their station. Once humiliated, the banished cook would have to “fight [his] way back in,” Buben says.
If any of this behavior seems way over-the-top to outsiders, Buben claims there’s a method to the madness. Fine-dining, he says, represents a tiny fraction of the overall hospitality industry. To survive in this hot, stressful environment, you have to have exceptional skills and work habits. Like a drill instructor, Buben weeds out the inferior candidates. (R.J. Cooper, who now leads the Vidalia kitchen, proudly carries on his boss’ traditions.) It helps explain why Bistro Bis and Vidalia continue to rank among the top restaurants in the city.
Such a pat justification, of course, doesn’t explain away all of Buben’s behaviors, nor does it shed any light on how his behaviors have impacted those around him or impacted the chef himself. I will say this, though: Unlike those two other famous OCD chefs, Marco Pierre White and Bernard Loiseau, Buben doesn’t bear any obvious wounds from his obsessions. He has neither a long trail of broken romantic relationships nor an unhealthy perspective about his relationship to his restaurants. “This is not about me,” he says repeatedly about his business.
Buben has been married for almost 25 years to Sallie Buben, who’s also his partner in the Fully-Baked Restaurant Group. On more than one occasion, the chef admits, Sallie Buben has been called upon by a manager or someone in the kitchen to come down to the restaurant and settle him down. Buben calls the sessions “interventions.”
These infrequent sessions give the staff an opportunity to tell Buben that his obsessions have gone too far, that they gone from constructive to destructive. The sessions also give Buben a chance to come clean. “This is when I’ve had to say I really fucked up,” Buben says.