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Chef Jeremiah Langhorne pulls a thick red book with gold-embossed lettering out of a wooden drawer. The spine is broken, but he’s patched it up with clear packing tape. The pages are yellowing. It looks kind of like a Bible.
“No one is allowed to touch it. I’ve used the hell out of it. It’s falling apart, “ Langhorne says. “I love this book. It’s very humbling to read this book.”
Langhorne is talking about his own bible of sorts: Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a cookbook first published in 1897. The Virginia native flips through to show the Langhorne name next to recipes his family contributed generations ago.
The book is one of several historic cookbooks that Langhorne has drawn inspiration from for his just-opened Blagden Alley restaurant, The Dabney. The chef has become obsessed not just with rediscovering the mid-Atlantic’s culinary history but also exploring and highlighting the region’s flora and fauna. He says at least 90 percent of the ingredients on the menu are foraged, sourced from area farms, or grown on the restaurant’s rooftop garden. The result is a restaurant that’s taken local to an extreme level not seen elsewhere in the District. Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore also goes to such great lengths to have its menu reflect this region.
Before coming to D.C., Langhorne was chef de cuisine at the nationally acclaimed McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C. His business partner, Alex Zink, also worked there. Under the leadership of chef Sean Brock, Langhorne gained an appreciation for foraging and built an ambitious program aimed at sourcing as much as possible from the land nearby. Likewise, in preparation for his own restaurant, Langhorne has spent the past year venturing out to the wilds of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in search of edible goods.
That will be a little trickier now that The Dabney is up and running: “I definitely underestimated the difference between being the chef of a restaurant and the chef-owner,” Langhorne admits. “Essentially none of your time is yours anymore.”
But that doesn’t mean he plans to stop. Langhorne intends to continue early morning foraging trips two to three times a week.
In order to accomplish everything he wants to do, the 30-year-old has been physically training. He quit drinking seven months ago, started eating more vegetables, and began waking up early. It helps that his wife, who works in a neonatal intensive-care unit, has to be at work by 7 a.m.
Many of these foraged ingredients, as well as others from local farms that Langhorne has visited and vetted, have been preserved and pickled. The walk-in fridge contains floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with a mosaic of different colored jars sitting alongside whole pigs, lambs, and ducks. In total, Langhorne has contributed more than 150 items to The Dabney’s pantry, including miso, kimchi, pickles, sauces, preserves, and vinegars. Much of it is stuff you’d never find at a Whole Foods: garlic berries, pawpaw purée, sorghum vinegar, watermelon molasses, and Jamaican “hot chocolate” (which contains peppers, not cocoa).
Langhorne’s intense approach to sourcing enables him to get some of these more unusual ingredients. Instead of using one order sheet from a big supplier, the chef keeps a carefully color-coded binder filled with the names of his supplier farms, a series of order sheets, and lists of available products. Because of the ever-changing seasonal products, The Dabney’s menu will likewise change one day to the next.
“It’s a choice that you make. It’s a decision to spend a lot more time and work a lot harder,” he says. “But I think you end up getting a lot cooler stuff.”
Farmed ingredients are supplemented by what Langhorne can grow on his modest rooftop plot. The garden is already sprouting anise hyssop, swiss chard, lovage, tarragon, chives, and more.
Langhorne’s mom had a four-acre garden that he worked on growing up, but he says that was more like “hard labor.” It was at McCrady’s that the chef really developed his green thumb. Langhorne was tired of spending so much money on dainty herbs packaged in clamshells, and he wanted products that would be even more fresh. “An herb, it’s like baked bread. As soon as it comes out of the oven, it starts to stale. Same thing with herbs. As soon as you clip an herb, it starts to go,” Langhorne says.
He also believes it’s important to know about a plant’s entire life cycle. The flavor of an herb might be completely different at different stages of its life. “If you’re able to get a better understanding of that, you’ll be much better equipped to use them appropriately,” he says.
One thing Langhorne learned from his cookbooks is how important condiments were in this region during the 19th century. From the back of the fridge, he pulls out a dark mud-colored liquid in a mason jar labeled “bay sauce.” It’s like Worcestershire sauce but made with young black walnut leaves. Langhorne offers a taste of the bitter, vegetal sauce. It’s only been aged one month and has six to eight more to go. Langhorne plans to use it in a buttermilk dressing as well as with fish or in a marinade.
“All the research that I’ve done from the early 19th century, everybody loves it. Everyone had it around the house,” he says. “But it’s kind of disappeared.”
So too has a lot of the region’s culinary identity. The D.C. area offers a great diversity of foods from around the world, but “we need a little food from here,” Langhorne says. He wants people to come to the restaurant and say, “Oh, that’s what food in D.C. is like” in the same way they understand other regions’ dishes. “You go down to Charleston, you go into a restaurant and you’re like, ‘I’m in Charleston, this is what the food here is like.’ We missed that boat a little bit in D.C.”
What Mid-Atlantic cuisine historically looked like is not so different from Southern cuisine, Langhorne has found in his research. “Eating a bowl of clams and grits and a bunch of stewed peppers happened just as much in the Chesapeake and around Virginia as it did down south,” he says. Other defining ingredients in Mid-Atlantic cuisine include country hams and oysters.
Langhorne is cooking a lot of his dishes with a hearth modeled after those used in the 19th century. The main difference between the setup then and now is that fire codes don’t allow the hearth to sit on the floor. White oak from Virginia and cedar kindling, which line the restaurant’s entryway, fuels the fire. Rather than cooking over an open flame, the cooks move the embers under a grate and flat-top grill to prepare the food.
This is not the most efficient way to cook. In fact, it’s really hard, especially when you’re used to a fully equipped, modern kitchen. Rather than just turning on an oven, it takes two hours of burning logs to produce coals they can work with. But Langhorne says the extra effort is worth it: “When you do unlock the secrets to all these little things, the flavors are so amazing.”
The time and finesse required to cook with a hearth means The Dabney won’t be able to turn out an expansive list of dishes. The opening menu lists just ten choices. Eventually, Langhorne plans to add more sides and raw plates, but the menu won’t grow much.
Langhorne isn’t totally crazy, though. The Dabney’s kitchen also features equipment from this century. And despite his efforts, not everything can be sourced within a certain mile radius.
“I’m not a zealot. I don’t think that this has got to be this,” Langhorne says slamming his hand, karate chop-style, onto a metal kitchen counter. Take lemons. Langhorne loves them. And until he can find a way to replace what they do for food, he will keep using them. Langhorne also stocks truffle oil from Italy and spices from all over the world. He doesn’t want to have to limit himself to six spices, after all.
The same thing applies to the drink menu. A take on a Manhattan is made with Virginia-made Catoctin Creek rye and The Dabney’s sorghum vinegar, but it also contains Italian vermouth. Beers and ciders are sourced locally, but wine veers European. Zink, an old-world wine lover, just doesn’t think the price-to-quality ratio is always worth it when it comes to many Virginia wines. He has just four on the menu.
“It should be more about the spirit of the idea,” Langhorne says. “I don’t want to be in this world where I’m saying, ‘Look, I do this and only this.’ And then it’s like what? I’m living in fear that someone’s going to bust me because they spot a lemon back here? That’s no way to live.”
His philosophy is that restaurants should exist to serve great food and make customers happy. If that means using Italian truffle oil, so be it.
Still, there’s no denying that The Dabney goes beyond other D.C. restaurants in its mission to source locally. Even in the buildout of the space, Langhorne and Zink insisted on local millworkers. Langhorne does all this because he believes it’s the way society should eat. And he believes restaurants should use their purchasing power to support small farms.
But as a diner, you won’t necessarily learn any of this. While servers will be educated in the restaurant’s practices and sourcing, they won’t offer that information if you don’t ask.
“You’re not going to get a fucking monologue about how awesome we are while you’re eating your dinner,” Langhorne says. “We do all this stuff for us, because we think it’s the right thing to do.”
The Dabney, 122 Blageden Alley NW; (202) 450-1015; thedabneydc.com
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery