Two of the more prominent stories about Michael Landrum make him sound like the anti-hero of the hospitality industry or, perhaps, its foaming-at-the-mouth id.
Notorious for his short fuse in dealing with D.C.’s deep well of demanding diners, the restaurateur became something of an outlaw legend last year not only for banning the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher from his two steakhouses but also for posting a flippant comment on DonRockwell.com, which quickly found its way to the Post’s Reliable Source. “[A]s soon as my lease is up in Arlington,” Landrum wrote after countless online bitchings about the reservation policy at Ray’s the Steaks, “I will be closing up shop and moving to an area where 1) people’s jobs are not more important than their family, 2) people are not defined by their own sense of self-importance and 3) the assholes do not outnumber the decent people by a factor of 10-to-1.”
But then there’s the other side of Michael Landrum: the guy who works 14-hour days, who doesn’t draw a salary, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, who drives the same car he bought 12 years ago, and who does it all so he can continue to serve up the best steaks in town at prices that would make BLT’s Laurent Tourondel choke on his creamed spinach.
Industry watchers have a tendency to explain Landrum’s seemingly contradictory behavior in one of two ways: He’s either a trust-fund kid or he inherited millions when his mother passed away. Both stories carry the same subtext—Landrum’s wealthy enough not to have to play the traditional hospitality game. He can tell anyone to go to hell and not worry about how it will affect the bottom line at either Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington or Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring.
I’d heard the trust-fund speculation enough times that I started to half-believe it. Yet my own experiences with Landrum never jibed with the image of an angry man of privilege. Last winter, the self-taught chef spent part of an afternoon showing me how he trims and cooks his center-cut, breed-specific, wet-aged steaks. He spent almost as much time talking about his desire to create a community-oriented restaurant. True to his word, two months later he announced plans to open A Place at the Table in the current Ray’s the Steaks location; the restaurant, scheduled to open next year, will not only serve an entrée and three sides for under $18 but will also roll its profits into educational and scholarship opportunities for disadvantaged students. (Ray’s will move to another, larger location in Arlington.)
Last week, I sat down with Landrum and told him I wanted to understand where the truth ends and the bullshit starts. I told him that I wanted to understand how his behaviors and philosophies shape the very restaurants that I have come to hold in high esteem. He agreed to talk, though it clearly made him uncomfortable.
Landrum, as it turns out, comes from a wealthy Boston family. His father is a successful businessman and attorney, whom Landrum didn’t meet until he was in the seventh grade. His mother worked for Kevin White back when he was mayor of Boston. Landrum attended Phillips Academy in Andover, the same prep school that graduated George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy Jr., Oliver Wendell Holmes, and countless others who have left their mark on the world. Only Landrum never graduated; he calls it a “mutual decision” to leave school.
“Put it to you this way,” Landrum says, “It took me a lot of trying….It took a lot of attempts before I finally succeeded.” That was a defining moment in the 41-year-old Landrum’s life, not just because he extracted himself from an elitist prep school but also because he separated from his family—and rarely saw them again. At age 17, fueled by his romantic interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, Landrum headed to Europe, where he would live, off and on, for the next 11 years. Like so many unskilled aliens before him, Landrum sought refuge in kitchens, from Biarritz to Barcelona, occasionally venturing back to the States to fund his next overseas trip.
While performing odd jobs in Spanish and French restaurants, Landrum eventually grasped the European model of the kitchen: small space, no waste, everything from scratch. He also saw how the restaurant was a center for, and a reflection of, community life. These ideas would inform his approach to Ray’s the Steaks when he opened it in 2002.
But more than that, Landrum understood something fundamental: He liked his independence. When he returned to the U.S. for good at age 28 to start formulating his career plans, he worked various front-of-the-house jobs at Restaurant Nora, Capital Grille, 701, and Morton’s; he scrupulously saved his money and used it to open Ray’s the Steaks. He has no partners, no investors, and no bank loans. The only money he ever received from his family, he says, is a $30,000 inheritance from his mother when she died.
The fact is, Landrum concedes, he almost lost everything when Ray’s opened. His original concept—a mostly lunch-time operation serving steak sandwiches and such—didn’t catch on, and Landrum says he had to liquidate his retirement account to keep the restaurant afloat. And even then, he had to assume almost all of its functions for an 18-month period. “I had a dishwasher who helped me out,” he says. But “I did all the baking, all the desserts, all the sauces, all the soups, all the butchering, and I stood up on the grill for the six-hour shift and did the cleaning.”
“Everything…he works for is to maintain his complete independence,” says Michael Hartzer, who was Landrum’s opening chef at Ray’s the Classics before moving to Viridian. “That’s why he works as hard as he works. It’s not for material goods, it’s for him to be able to do whatever he wants to do.”
With that comment, Hartzer lets out a hearty, knowing laugh that speaks to his former boss’ penchant for telling people off. Hartzer witnessed it himself. He even remembers, with some prodding, Landrum’s heated e-mail exchange with Fisher over the Postie’s column on immigration tensions in Culpeper. Landrum felt Fisher wasn’t critical enough in depicting one town councilmember’s draconian solutions to the influx of immigrants, a charge the columnist still finds confounding. “I never saw any justification for the tantrum and nothing has changed since then,” Fisher writes in an e-mail.
Landrum admits that his outspokenness is a function of his independence. “I’m able to do that because I don’t owe money to the bank,” he says. “If I have 10 customers a day, I’ll find a way to stay afloat off of that.” At the same time, Landrum believes his actions serve a higher purpose: to weed out privileged diners who think they can run roughshod over those viewed as lesser beings. If anything irritates Landrum, it’s the faintest whiff of classism and the mistreatment of his employees.
Could it be that Landrum’s shoot-from-the-lip persona is just one more service he provides, one more job he takes on? It seems to be his idiosyncratic way of ensuring that his steakhouses are free of those assholes who can so quickly ruin a good meal for the rest of us. At least that’s my take on it. I suspect Landrum’s already pounding out his response letter.
Ray’s the Steaks, 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 841-7297.
Ray’s the Classics, 8606 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, (301) 588-7297.
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