City Paper is not for tourists
There’s hardly a thing inside Table that chef Frederik de Pue hasn’t touched with his own hands. Sitting on the wooden bench he designed that spans the length of the new Shaw restaurant, he describes how he conceived everything from the layout of the dining room, with its nowhere-to-hide open kitchen and fresh herbs hanging on the wall, to the seasonal menu, which currently boasts upscale comfort creations like celery root hazelnut soup and Pad Thai-style frog legs. De Pue worked in his spare time for a year, often from midnight to 2 a.m., painting the white brick walls and hanging beehive-shaped light fixtures.
As he’s explaining all of this, de Pue snaps his attention to the small wait staff preparing for Tuesday-night service. In one breathless sentence, he spits out rapidfire directions in a Flemish accent: “Let’s set your station up, put the bucket up, put the wine in there … Coffee cups and all that need to be organized, and then I need somebody to start gumming out some of the items on the menu. All the menus need to go upstairs, downstairs… Those boxes can be put in the back. Tables need to be set up as well. And then make sure the outside is clean, close the garage door, put the napkins upstairs. Who’s upstairs?”
“Very meticulous,” I comment.
“Very,” de Pue says, cracking a smile. He is, he admits, a perfectionist. Consider his gray apron—it’s the same shade as the binding of Table’s composition-notebook menus, each of which a graphic designer spent two to three hours hand-writing in pencil. As the seasons change, so will the color of the menus and the aprons.
Below the apron, the 36-year-old wears jeans and a plain white chef’s coat, but there’s no monogram or “executive chef” stitched on the chest. “I don’t really care about that. I’m not somebody who looks for the attention,” de Pue says. “I always say to my staff, ‘I wish to be the dishwasher in my own company, because then nobody bothers me.’”
In his 12 years in D.C., de Pue has kept a low profile despite his impressive resume at some of Europe’s best restaurants, a history of cooking for dignitaries, and a high-end catering company with 600 clients. With his head-down Protestant work ethic but Type A chutzpah, he won’t be able to go unnoticed much longer. Table, de Pue’s first D.C. restaurant, opened in mid-January. And in a nearly unheard of move, he’ll open his second restaurant, Azur, within another month or two. The upscale, European-influenced seafood restaurant will be located in the Penn Quarter building that once housed Jose Andés’ Café Atlántico, America Eats Tavern, and Minibar.
“I would put him in the top 20 [chefs] on anybody’s list,” says Smith Commons co-owner Miles Gray, who hired de Pue as a consulting chef when the H Street NE restaurant opened in 2010. “He can see things that nobody else can see, and his ability to match flavor profiles is, I think, really unrivaled in the city.” Gray first came across de Pue at a now-defunct downtown wine bar called The Reserve, where the chef was consulting in 2009. Gray, who was still conceiving Smith Commons at the time, hit it off with de Pue over a conversation about Belgian beer. “He’s actually the one who solidified the idea for me to open a restaurant,” Gray says. He describes de Pue as a polymath due to his ability to speak five languages and his experience cooking on multiple continents.
That’s significant praise for a guy few D.C. diners had heard of before Table and Azur began picking up buzz last year. Born and raised in Ghent, Belgium, de Pue started his culinary education at the Hotelschool Ter Duinen at age 15. His five-year training was longer than the schooling most chefs commit to, and each year he spent three months working at Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe. “Top of my class without really studying for anything, because it’s just the thing I wanted to do,” de Pue says.
When he graduated, de Pue went to work for famed chef and restaurateur Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo and then at Alain Chapel’s eponymous restaurant outside of Lyon, France, where at 21 years old, he was the sous chef. By his next birthday, de Pue was back in Brussels, working for modern restaurant Sea Grill, where he honed his skills preparing fish and making sauces. De Pue recalls that executive chef Yves Mattagne would sometimes use 25 ingredients in a sauce, which de Pue says would taste disgusting by itself, but when combined with the other elements on the plate, “it was the most amazing dish you’ve ever eaten in your life.” Today, de Pue counts saucemaking among his strengths. (A talent my several meals at Table have confirmed.) He never uses corn starch as a thickener, he says. “It’s the easy way out.”
De Pue moved to D.C. in 2001 to work for the ambassador of the European Commission Delegation to the United States, where he says he cooked for countless diplomats, politicians, and bigwigs, whom he declines to name. Because the ambassador traveled four months out of the year, de Pue had a lot of free time. In 2002, he opened a restaurant as well as a waffle company in Lima, Peru, where his then-wife is from. (He sold both businesses within two years.)
Within a few years of arriving in D.C., de Pue began throwing regular dinners and cocktail parties for neighbors and friends, which led him in 2007 to quit his job with the ambassador and launch Rockville-based 42˚ Catering, which counts a number of embassies, as well as the World Bank and corporations like BMW and Home Depot, among its clients.
“It probably might be a strange choice not having gone directly to restaurants,” de Pue says. “I knew a restaurant would come.”
In fact, Table has been in the works for three years. Initially, de Pue was set on Georgetown, a neighborhood in line with his background in the diplomatic community. But he had driven by the former garage on N Street NW that Table now occupies many times, and the same day that negotiations for a space in Georgetown fell through, he called the garage’s realtor in Shaw. The areas couldn’t be more different, but de Pue says he’s more interested in unique buildings. Certainly, Shaw feels like a snug fit for Table’s inoffensively hip, neighborhood vibe.
Table’s building also presents a few challenges. There’s no back alley, which means deliveries have to come in through the front. The kitchen takes up half of the first-floor dining room, and the only things you can’t see during a meal are some fridges and the dishwashers. “I know it’s totally different, but a restaurant can be anywhere,” de Pue says.
The opportunity to open Azur was sudden. Six months ago, one of de Pue’s clients and friends, a real estate agent, received a call about listing the building the same day de Pue was visiting his house. The lucky timing allowed de Pue to make an offer the next week, and he and an apparently well-heeled investor, whom he declines to name, soon purchased the building for an undisclosed amount. Few restaurants are able to buy their property, let alone one in bustling Penn Quarter.
De Pue says he knew immediately what he wanted to do with the three-story space. “A good basic seafood restaurant? That I think there was a lack in D.C.” de Pue says. “And I think seafood is one of the most challenging things to do.” He envisions Azur as an upscale place where he can introduce diners to options beyond sea bass, grouper, and salmon. Although he hasn’t finalized the menu yet, one of the dishes de Pue envisions is a long tray with 16 different oysters, arranged from sweet to salty.
De Pue shrugs off the idea that he’s crazy—or cocky—to open two businesses almost at once, with each of them possessing its own challenges. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re opening two restaurants!’” de Pue says. “It’s nothing different opening a restaurant today or opening a restaurant in two years. It’s exactly the same. It’s trying to find people that can surround you and pay them correctly.”
Given the 100-hour weeks he once worked in Europe, de Pue clearly doesn’t lack for work ethic. He credits his perfectionism to the high standards expected of him working in high-end restaurants at a young age. “You don’t get to that level without being a perfectionist all the way,” de Pue says. In his rare free time, he says he loves snowboarding and motorcycling, although he sold his bike and now spends less time on the slopes than with his 7- and 9-year-old kids.
In Table’s first few weeks, de Pue’s been pulling 18-hour days. During our conversation, he can’t help but get involved in his staff’s nightly prep work. At dinner, you won’t often find him schmoozing with customers. He prefers to stay busy behind the line.
“Now he’s being forced to put his name out there, put himself out there. But I remember even our early photo shoots he was very reluctant to take pictures,” Gray says. “But I think his food speaks for itself.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery