Ever since quitting Buck’s Fishing & Camping and Comet Ping Pong more than two years ago, citing “urgent family matters,” James Beard Award-nominated chef Carole Greenwood has taken some unusual turns in her culinary career.
Last year, for a brief time—very brief—Greenwood was working in the kitchen of Bethesda’s Food Wine & Co. That much is clear. But the details of the job remain in dispute. Proprietor Francis Namin maintained that Greenwood was hired as the full-time executive chef. Greenwood contends she was more of a consultant. In either case, it was a short-term position. Namin, who told a reporter that chef was “not a good match for the restaurant,” said she lasted just two days. Greenwood says it was more like two weeks.
Otherwise, Greenwood has been operating what she calls a “rogue restaurant” named Orange Arrow, which conducts private pop-up-style dinners in random places: church basements, art galleries, a rural Maryland farm. It’s just the sort of pseudo-secret supper club that has become one of the biggest trends in D.C. dining in recent years.
Greenwood’s operation was among the first in the District to popularize the concept of creating a vibe of super-exclusivity by limiting the circle of people who even knew a chef was serving meals. Initially, Greenwood even tried to keep her own involvement a secret. In a 2010 Washington Post article on the underground dining trend, she is described only as “a James Beard award-nominated chef…who requested anonymity.”
Lately, though, Greenwood’s name has been prominently displayed in Orange Arrow-related press releases. And why shouldn’t she be? Greenwood, who declines to divulge her age, was the creative force behind the eponymous Greenwood restaurant, which during the mid-’90s through early ’00s, was a local haute cuisine favorite. The restaurant, originally located downtown, moved to Cleveland Park before eventually settling in Chevy Chase. In 2003, she changed the concept to comfort food, brought in a new partner, and renamed the place Buck’s. Five years later, Greenwood’s efforts earned her a nomination for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic at the prestigious Beard Awards.
Greenwood’s most recent Orange Arrow event was billed as a night of recipes from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time. The $150-a-ticket event was scheduled to take place at Arlington’s Artisphere complex on Jan. 13. Organizers described the concept as an ideal fit for the venue, exploring the intersection of art and food, specifically how musicians and artists in early 20th-century Paris collaborated over meals. Greenwood, a sometime artist and musician herself, seemed the ideal partner.
But hours before the planned 7 p.m. meal time, Greenwood abruptly pulled the plug.
“We were disappointed,” says Artisphere’s Annalisa Meyer. “Obviously, we don’t like canceling events—especially that close to it—and disappointing patrons who were excited. But, due to the terms of partnership—she’s the artist—we had to honor her wishes.”
The latest episode seemed to underscore some commonly held perceptions about the iconoclastic cook: Namely, that she’s flighty, temperamental, and difficult to deal with.
That might all be true. But Greenwood says she had a pragmatic reason for the last-minute cancellation. The event didn’t garner enough interest from paying customers to justify the expense, she says. Despite considerable publicity, fewer than 50 tickets were sold. With Artisphere expecting a cut of the revenues, Greenwood says that going forward didn’t make sense financially—or, frankly, aesthetically.
“It would be awfully sad to be in that enormous hall with, you know, 22 people,” says Greenwood. Ticket holders were offered refunds.
Much like the Bethesda debacle, the circumstances surrounding the ticketing shortfall vary, depending who you ask. Artisphere maintains that Greenwood was handling the ticket sales herself; Greenwood says the venue was in charge of sales.
Regardless of who was responsible, it’s clear that Greenwood and Artisphere won’t be collaborating again any time soon. Greenwood says she is reformatting the pop-up dinner, now titled “Paris 1912,” and rescheduling the event for Mar. 17 at an entirely different venue, Civilian Art Projects, near Mount Vernon Square.
It may be Orange Arrow’s final act. “I’ve always done Orange Arrow kind of as an ad hoc proposition until I figured out the next move,” says Greenwood.
That next move is becoming clearer: Greenwood says she is currently partnering with former Kingpin owner Joel Didriksen on a new bricks-and-mortar restaurant near the intersection of 9th and U streets NW. They’re calling the place Shelter. “It’s still in the planning stages,” says Greenwood, who declined to provide the specific address, noting that the pair is presently negotiating a lease and raising money from investors.
“She certainly has a reputation in D.C.,” says Didriksen. “Some of it is maybe a little bit exaggerated. Some of it maybe isn’t. But she’s a fantastic cook and her food is wonderful.”
If all goes as planned, Shelter’s cuisine will be similar to Greenwood’s earlier cooking at Buck’s and Greenwood: a seasonal menu—“lots of comfort food,” she says. “We’re trying to keep the prices moderate, like everything under twenty bucks. I might do my steak but I’ll do a very small portion.”
But, Greewood says, Shelter will not be a total recreation of her earlier restaurants. “It’s not going to be mid-20th century food,” she says. “And it’s not going to be for families and it’s not going to be for, you know, the hoi polli of foodies.”
The nightlife-heavy U Street corridor, after all, is a world away from leafy environs of Upper Northwest. “The difference with this restaurant is we’re going to be serving food until probably one or two in the morning,” she says, “and it’s going to be real food. It’s not going to be fast food. It’s not going to be jumbo slice or, you know, hot dogs.”
If and when the new restaurant opens, Greenwood says she may continue to do pop-up dinners, but only at her own place—no more of the roving locations that previously defined Orange Arrow. “I can cook anywhere, but it’s not so much fun,” she says. “It’s much more fun to have a kitchen.”
Financially, Greenwood says, the dinners, generally priced from $60 to $100 per person, have been difficult to sustain. “These things are really cost prohibitive,” she says. “I mean, it’s really hard to do. We don’t make money on Orange Arrow.”
Logistically, too, the pop-ups are vulnerable to snafus. One disgruntled customer, Abigail Choudhury, says she lost $120 on Orange Arrow when the dinner she planned to attend last spring was abruptly canceled after Greenwood’s deal with the original host venue, Smith Point in Georgetown, fell through. No refund was offered, only a chance to swap in a future Orange Arrow meal. It was also months before another dinner was scheduled. The substitute venue, an organic farm out in Brandywine, Md., could only be reached by car, which Choudhury doesn’t have.
Greenwood says Choudhury can apply her old tickets to “Paris 1912” if she chooses.
Moreover, Greenwood says, D.C.’s whole underground dining scene has gone too mainstream. She points to the new Feastly social network, where diners pay as little as $20 a pop to eat in a stranger’s house.
In the new private dinner party climate, the pricier Orange Arrow may have run its course. “It was really successful the first year, year and a half,” Greenwood says. “I’m glad I did it. It’s totally informed my process and what I want to do in the future.”
“Since I’ve left my restaurant, food has become the new punk rock,” Greenwood says. “And you know what? I love it. I mean, I’ve been going to farmers market for 15 years and cooking food in season and never having a tomato on my menu in winter. Now everyone’s doing it. I don’t care. I think it’s great….I have no problem with the Feastly people. Let people have dinner parties in their house for $20. Let people think they’re great cooks. It’s all good.” CP
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery