Commander-in-Chef: Clark runs Colorado Kitchen. You don?t.

The rickety wooden display located next to the counter at Colorado Kitchen annoys me more than it should. It’s a red-painted crate, perched on a stand, with an MRE packet leaning against a laminated message affixed to the back slats.

You practically have to stick your head inside the box to read the headline and text:

wish you were there?
of course not.
but when you stomp your feet because you can’t sit where you want, when you want at colorado kitchen, remember our boys and girls out there can’t either.

The crudely assembled display is, in its own way, a piece of anti-war commentary. But mostly it’s a guilt trip, designed to make you shut your trap. It’s a customer-management tool disguised as patriotic chest-thumping, and it’s damn effective. The message seems like an adult version of the crap you heard as a kid: Don’t like your dinner? Well, think of those starving kids back in ______ who would love to eat it.

The guilt trips and admonitions assault you the minute you walk in the door at chef Gillian Clark’s restaurant in Brightwood Park. There’s a Kleenex box with a message next to it: help yourself to a tissue for your gum. The menu scolds you for wanting a hamburger when it’s not “burger night.” A sign tells you to keep your kids in check lest they break one of the kitschy salt and pepper shakers, instantly turning the other into an orphan. You’re not even safe in the bathroom, where amid the magazine advertisements and clipped-out recipes, management has adapted the standard message: employees must wash their hands before returning to work…shouldn’t we all?

As I sit in Clark’s dining room for the umpteenth time, trying to reconcile my feelings about her food with my feelings about her fastidiousness, I notice a guy at the table across from me dangling a salt shaker over the edge of the table, like Michael Jackson holding his infant son over the railing in Berlin. I laugh appreciatively. All her rules seem to bring out our inner juvenile. I half wonder if folks haven’t flipped off Clark behind her back like an angry teen.

Clark tried to laugh off the schoolmarmish-ness of her place when she guest-hosted critic Todd Kliman’s chat on Washingtonian.com in October. “Okay,” she wrote about her signage and rules, “I have this crazy sense of humor. I like to share it and have fun with my menu. Just hoping y’all would get it.”

The answer struck me as forced, the kind of response you provide to finesse less savory truths, like maybe you’re a complete control freak. So I began combing through Clark’s recently published book, Out of the Frying Pan: A Chef’s Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal, in hope of better insights.

It wasn’t until my second reading that the book’s title struck me: “Out of the frying pan” is typically followed with “and into the fire,” but Clark’s use of the cliché seems far more positive, as if she really has escaped some hellish heat. The rough outline of her life would appear to conform to that narrative: She survived an apparently unhappy marriage, a bloodless job as a marketing specialist, a divorce, a risky career change that forced her to raise two kids on a fraction of her income, and a series of typically thankless gigs as line cook and chef for hire. Finally, after all the shit, she experienced the thrill of opening her own place in a neighborhood desperately in need of quality food.

Being a chef, it has always seemed to me, requires a large, perhaps psychotic, amount of discipline; you have to be a control freak to manage a restaurant full of cokeheads, kids, suppliers, college students, and immigrant line cooks with a potentially poor grasp of your recipes. But the way Clark portrays her life, strict discipline is a sort of saving grace, the difference between success and chaos. Almost every anecdote in the book serves as an opportunity for Clark to prove her mettle, whether she’s dealing with a child’s itchy arm or with a retail space that would be better suited for a carryout than a full-service restaurant.

The thing is, after reading more than 240 pages about Clark’s life and food, I came to the conclusion that her brand of control freakdom means never having to admit you’re wrong. On at least three occasions before she opened the Colorado, Clark clashed with restaurant owners who employed her, eventually forcing her either to leave or to be shown the door.

At Evening Star Café, Clark “became convinced I was working for lunatics.” At Breadline, she learned that she “wanted different things for the kitchen, but this kitchen wasn’t really mine. And maybe my boss didn’t like sharing the food. Letting someone into the creative process can be difficult.”

At Mrs. Simpson’s, “the owners of the restaurant where I was chef didn’t seem to like my food. And they didn’t care that there were people who did.”

That’s when a light went on inside my head: No one tells Mother what to do. Gillian Clark has set herself up as the Ur-Mom of the D.C. scene, and we’re all her wayward children, partly loved, partly resented. This interpretation explains a lot to me.

Yes, it explains all the stupid rules, but it also helps explain why I have never, ever had a bad meal at Colorado Kitchen. Though she’s nudging toward (local) celebrity chef status, Clark can always be found cooking at her place, always standing there at the drive-through-like kitchen opening that faces the dining room, as if she were indeed home. Her plates certainly smack of home cooking, (though not the kind I was raised on, thank God). Her thick, perfectly pink pork chop, outfitted with a cornflake crust, balances moistness with a satisfying crunch. Her meat loaf is the first one I truly love, a hefty slab studded with onions and smothered in a paradoxically rich and elegant black truffle gravy. Her loosely packed, expertly seared burger is the best in its mid-level price range.

Then there’s Clark’s weekend brunch, which has become one of my favorite meals to spring on visitors. The eggs Benedict offers pleasures that may be illegal in half a dozen rural Virginia counties—a fluffy, lemony hollandaise that pairs wonderfully with the runny egg and those tiny, salty biscuits sprinkled with the thinnest crust of sugar. And that catfish! This bottom feeder, dressed up in a salty, crunchy coating, is so moist it almost doesn’t need the exquisite side of house-made tartar sauce with capers. Even the OJ knocks me out; it’s so fresh I can still taste the strained-out seeds.

This kind of cooking comes from someone who cares about her customers as if they were family. Now if Clark would only stop with the nagging.

Colorado Kitchen, 5515 Colorado Ave. NW, (202) 545-8280.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.