Jeff Tunks, executive chef at Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast, and TenPenh
I’m actually from Lafayette, in the heart of Acadiana. Your restaurant now outranks all references to the true Acadiana on Google. How does it feel to displace the Cajuns once again?
I didn’t know that. Anything to give the French a hard time, I guess. We had a bittersweet opening a couple of weeks after the hurricane, so by default we were sort of the torchbearer for New Orleans and the expats up here. We have had a lot of fundraiser activities.
The best thing for me as a chef – there is a real misperception about Cajun/Creole cuisine, because the point of reference is based on a single dish, like blackened fish – is that we can showcase authentic cuisine. We have a lot of people from down there who say our stuff is pretty authentic. What do you think?
Y’all do a good job. But why did it take you so long to open a Cajun/Creole restaurant, given that you returned to D.C. from the Windsor Court in New Orleans and that all of the other Cajun restaurants in town are really just bad Chinese food?
Well, we first opened DC Coast at 14th and K. I had worked in this area and in California and down in New Orleans, and that restaurant brought the three coasts to D.C. My wife worked at Emeril’s when I worked at the Windsor Court, and we got married down there, so we wanted to bring that region up here.
Most of the restaurants in that food category are in the suburbs, and we wanted to bring them to the city. We thought the same thing about Asian and Latin cuisine, which is why we brought them downtown in a city form: more attention to detail, a drinks list, and such things. We spent a lot of effort, energy, and money to go down and research the concepts, find as much as we could, and replicate the flavor profiles to bring back to D.C.
You forgot about the roasted peppers. Down in New Orleans, that would be considered spa food. I brought some folks from the restaurant down there, and we had one dish – it’s a grilled thick piece of ham, topped with fried oysters, topped with hollandaise. So you have your three major fat groups there. People sometimes say our portions are so big – like serving half a duck. But I’m not going to waste the food. I can’t serve one-third of a duck. And a duck quarter isn’t enough. If you’ve been to New Orleans, you know excess is the key. I was there about four years and gained 50 pounds. It’s not a healthy place, although you can navigate our menu if you want to stay healthy. But it’s full-bodied food, no question.
If you were king of the world, what would be the daily recommended allowance of calories?
Is that for myself or the people in my kingdom? I’ve been struggling with my weight for many years, but I recently lost about 100 pounds. I would have said 5,000, but now I’m keeping it to 2,500. So I guess 2,500. Or maybe 3,000.
Only eight years ago, you opened DC Coast at 14th and K and shut down every hooker’s favorite 24-hour McDonald’s. Are you responsible for the revitalization of K Street?
I think somewhat, in a restaurant application, we are. We were a little bit Lewis and Clark when we started, but everything has now moved east. All of our restaurants are east of DC Coast. DC Coast is now on the perimeter. Verizon Center and the convention center obviously changed things. We got a good lease deal out of it – should have opened more back then.
And where are all of those prostitutes now?
Well, they’re like cockroaches: You can spray a little, but they’ll crop up somewhere else. They are still around, here and there. When we first opened DC Coast, it was like a Frederick’s of Hollywood show right out front. You’d be sitting inside eating dinner and a parade of thongs and high heels would walk by the window. We would joke that the place was something of a one-stop shop. Come in for dinner and leave with a happy ending. But after a while we called Jack Evans and said, “You’ve got to do something about this if you are serious about revitalizing the area.”
What’s the best dish you are serving right now – at any of your restaurants?
My personal favorite is the octopus salad at Ceiba. I could eat that every day, and sometimes do – especially right now with the heirloom tomatoes and gazpacho vinaigrette. Nice hot/cold contrast with the char on the octopus. It’s very good right now.
What is the best restaurant in the D.C. area right now, excluding your own?
Unfortunately because of my schedule – and I have two small children at home – when I’m not working, I’m with my kids and not eating out as much as I would like. But I would have to say Marcel’s: I like the bar there; it’s very comfortable for me there.
Again, this is hard because I don’t get out much. But at Maestro, Chef Trabocchi has the glass votive thing with five little tastes – the flavors are outstanding. The Kobe beef carpaccio.
By far the best dish I’ve had this year, and it’s not in this area, was at Telepan in New York. It’s a cold-smoked trout, done in-house, then shredded on top of a warm corn johnnycake with green-onion creme fraiche.