Jackie Greenbaum was fairly nervous last year as she launched a search to replace Sam Adkins, the only chef she had ever employed at the Silver Spring restaurant that bares her name. Adkins had been at Jackie’s for more than five years, and the owner figured she had better find a strong kitchen manager to take his place.
This no doubt explains why Greenbaum decided to hire former Rustico chef Frank Morales, a man with tons of kitchen leadership experience, whether at the Oval Room or Zola or the gastropub in Alexandria. It doesn’t explain, however, why Morales didn’t work out at Jackie’s. The owner can’t discuss why she and Morales parted ways after only a few months, but she will allow this: When it came time to replace Morales, she was less concerned with finding an experienced leader than in finding a chef who was a “good fit.”
And Greenbaum thinks she has found that with Diana Davila, a native Chicagoan who last served as sous chef at Ardeo under Alex McWilliams. The 28-year-old Davila started yesterday as Jackie’s executive chef; she’ll also oversee the menu at Greenbaum’s new Sidebar lounge, located next to Jackie’s.
“She’s just…bursting at the seams to take over a kitchen and express herself. It was just so attractive,” Greenbaum says by phone. “She has an enormous amount of food curiosity. You can always see the wheels spinning in her head.”
Davila is the daughter of Irma and Filiberto Davila, a pair of Chicago restaurateurs who gave their child her start in the hospitality business. They had her washing dishes when Diana was in fifth grade. They gave their daughter her first executive chef job, too, when they hired her to lead the kitchen at their high-end Mexican property, Hacienda Jalapenos, in Chicago’s south suburbs. Diana was only 21 at the time.
She has cooked in kitchens outside of her family’s, too. Aside from Ardeo, Davila has worked at the respected Chicago restaurants Butter and Courtright’s. But it was the meal that Davila cooked for Greenbaum and her business partner, Patrick Higgins, that sealed the deal for the owners. Davila prepared a seven-course feast that included a poached pear and dandelion salad, gnocchi and asparagus with pesto and black olives, roast quail and stuffing with smoked pinenut puree and Oaxacan mole (“It was the best mole I’ve ever had,” Greenbaum says), a tuna “sashimi” that was the chef’s take on Vietnamese pho, fried fish with greens and yams, and beef short ribs.
“I’m always disappointed [with short ribs]. They’re always fatty. They’re almost always a mess,” Greenbaum says. Davila’s version was different. The short ribs were aggressively trimmed, seared, braised, and sliced into three-inch squares. “When I looked at it, I thought it was a filet mignon. And it was as tender as could be,” the owner says.
Despite her youth and relative inexperience as a kitchen leader, Davila will have free reign in the kitchen to reinvent the Jackie’s menu. Greenbaum expects to retain only a few “sacred cows of the restaurant,” including the fried chicken, the nachos, and, of course, the mini Elvis burgers with pimiento cheese.
“I do believe in giving creative control to the chef,” says Greenbaum. “We gave that freedom to Sam, and we intend to give it to Diana.”
Davila plans to have all new appetizers by this weekend and all new entrees by next weekend. “She wants to dive in right away,” Davila’s new boss says, “and I couldn’t be happier.”