In Dino Veritas: Gold decided trained toques are toast.
In Dino Veritas: Gold decided trained toques are toast. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Dean Gold has just called himself an asshole. “But I think I’m a straightforward asshole,” he continues, the kind of asshole whose asshole-ness “comes from a good place.” This may explain why the owner of Dino has burned through three chefs in the three-plus years since he opened his rustic Italian restaurant in Cleveland Park—and even alienated a neighbor or two (Young & Hungry, “Sight Line in the Sand,” 10/31/07).

Gold’s candor certainly helps me swallow the story behind his latest brash move: In late April, the owner officially severed ties with his third head toque, Stephan Boillon, and installed himself as chef. Let me repeat that: Dean Gold has installed himself as chef at his own restaurant. This is a man with zero culinary training—outside of an omelet class he took at age 6—and whose family in the San Fernando Valley was better known for its matzo balls than its meatballs.

The way Gold explains it, Boillon left for vacation on the day after Valentine’s Day, only to announce a short while later that he needed to take a leave of absence to care for his sick mother in Florida. As Boillon’s absence stretched from days to weeks to months, Dino’s kitchen had to trudge on without its head chef. At first, the team simply executed Boillon’s old menu, but as winter turned to spring, Gold realized that he need to start making changes, with or without his toque. “There were issues of seasonality,” the owner says, “I had to start changing the menu, and I did it very gingerly.”

But the more time Gold spent in the kitchen, the more things he wanted to change, which, the owner will readily admit, is not the first time he’s forced himself upon his cooking crew. Gold noticed inefficiencies and indulgences—five different potato sides, when two would suffice—as well as dishes that the line cooks couldn’t master with any consistency, such as the wild boar chop. “I started feeling like, you know, we were doing things that were sort of beyond the capability of the kitchen,” Gold says. “Having spent a huge amount of time in Italy, I always thought my chefs were using a little more complexity than was necessary.”

The line cooks liked the simpler fare with fewer ingredients, Gold says. They liked the changes so much, in fact, they apparently wanted to tell the chef, the very guy who transformed most of them from dishwashers and hotel stove jockeys into real restaurant line cooks, to kiss off. “The kitchen guys really appreciated it,” Gold says. “They said, ‘Hey, we just want to continue doing it this way.’” And with that, Boillon was toast.

What I love about this story is how it echoes the claims of small dictatorial juntas: The people want me to rule! Gold’s cooks want him to be chef! “Of course they do,” counters Boillon, who’s now working on an upscale submarine shop concept. “They have less work to do.” Boillon may be right, but I still salute Gold’s hard-working cooks for understanding that it doesn’t require a fancy degree from the Culinary Institute of America to lead the kitchen at a good restaurant. And Dino, make no bones about it, is a good restaurant.

I was reminded of this fact recently over a flat-iron steak, cooked to the juiciest shade of red and served with a grassy plum-anchovy “salsa verde,” and a pasta course of pappardelle al cinghiale. The latter plate is this rustic mashup of wild boar ragu over ribbons of housemade pasta that have the al dente chewiness I love. There was something absolutely wild about this plate, all right, but it wasn’t the boar. It was the presentation: The noodles and meat, tied together in this simple sweet-and-savory sauce, were practically slung into the bowl, cafeteria-style. It was a dish that dared you to love it despite its ungainliness, and I did.

The thing is, if you ask any chef, they’ll tell you that Italian food doesn’t have to be pretty—and often isn’t. Just last week, restaurateur Jeff Black told me about a trip he took to Umbria, where he dined at a small establishment outside of Spoleto; the presentations, he said, were nothing more than “veal on a plate” or “pasta on a plate.” But the dishes, he added, were “outstanding,” the kind of food that can only be prepared in a restaurant where the secrets and recipes have been handed down from one generation to the next.

Dean Gold doesn’t have that tradition, which makes his transition to chef even more interesting. Growing up in a Jewish family outside Los Angeles, Gold didn’t really experience Italian food until he started working at Angeli Caffe in L.A., run by noted chef and cookbook author Evan Kleiman, who had followed her own unconventional path to the kitchen. She was an Italian film and literature student at UCLA who found her muse in the cucina Italia, not in the country’s cinema.

Gold worked as a wine buyer and day manager at Angeli, off and on, for nearly eight years, but the knowledge he gained of Italian cooking, he says, was purely “intellectual.” It wasn’t until 1996, when he was building the wine program for Whole Foods in Southern Califronia, that he made his first trip to Italy, where he practically went native. He’s since been back some 18 times, often with his wife, Kay Zimmerman. “We’ve absorbed Italy through our skin,” Gold says. “We’re Italian now.”

But it doesn’t make him a chef; nor does it give Gold the skills to be one. Chefs tend to reach the top of their ranks either by graduating from culinary school and working their way up through a series of hot, sticky, soul-sucking kitchen station assignments or by skipping cooking school and working their way up through a series of hot, sticky, soul-sucking kitchen station assignments. Either way, they’re hardened vets by the time they start calling themselves chefs. Gold’s experience? He tried cooking his way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a boy, before he got bored at age 13, still many recipes away from completion. He’s never worked a line.

Nor will he as chef at Dino. Gold has put himself in charge of food ordering and menu development; he’s put his two sous chefs, Taurino Chavez and Robert Frank, in charge of the kitchen. When the orders start spitting out like Powerball tickets, Gold knows enough to stay away from the stoves and happily assume the executive chef’s role of hobnobbing with guests. It’s that kind of self-awareness that may allow Gold to succeed with this chef gambit. “If he’s being the executive chef and has his sous chefs leading the kitchen, that definitely could work,” says Jamie Leeds, the self-taught chef behind CommonWealth and Hank’s Oyster Bar.

Gold can tell you one thing that’s already working: He’s saving a ton on labor costs without a chef’s salary to shoulder. In this economy, that’s like getting a government refund check every week. “At the end of the day, it’s a money-saving thing,” Boillon says. “He’s definitely saving a lot of money without me there.” But Gold adds that the customers are happier with Dino’s new direction, too.

As for me? I think Gold may be the savviest restaurateur in all of D.C. dining, absorbing the lessons of his own kitchen for three years until he felt ready to take the lead. I wonder how many of his former chefs are calling him an asshole right now.

Dino, 3435 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 686-2966

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