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Eatonville, restaurateur Andy Shallal‘s homage to Zora Neale Hurston, is scheduled to open in mid-May, says the founder of themini-Busboys & Poets chain. But the Southern eatery on 14th Street NW will debut, Shallal adds, without the winner of the Eatonville chef competition, held earlier this year at CulinAerie cooking school.
Shallal and the winning toque, Chris Newsome, had a falling out while traveling together down South following the contest. One of the sticking points between the men was the very subject they were researching: Southern cooking, specifically the cuisine around Eatonville, Fla., Hurston’s childhood home. Newsome, who grew up in Alabama, had a pork-centric concept of Southern cooking. Shallal did not.
“Now we have swine flu, so I was right,” Shallal jokes. “You don’t want to open a menu with all pork.”
So instead of Newsome, Eatonville will open with Rusty Holman in the kitchen. The North Carolina native, who had been cooking at the exclusive Rookery before joining Eatonville, was the runner-up to Newsome in the chef competition. Holman will be Shallal’s first official chef since the restaurateur burned through three toques in three years at the now-shuttered MiMi’s American Bistro on P Street NW, near Dupont Circle.
“I remember him being good [during the chef competition], kind of hit or miss good,” Shallal says. “But he’s come through as being very good.”
Holman’s opening menu will include crawfish etouffee, gumbo, vegetarian meatloaf with wild mushrooms, and “crispy skin chicken.” What? No fried chicken in a Southern restaurant?
“I really like the crispy skin,” Shallal says. “I do want to focus on food that is a little different…There are so many fried chicken dishes already along this U Street corridor.” Shallal hasn’t ruled out the fried stuff, though. He expects Holman will offer it as a weekly special.
And what about Holman’s fish and grits? Wouldn’t a more traditional Southern dish feature shrimp with those grits?
Shallal says the thing he noticed down South was that a lot of the fish shacks serve white fish with their grits, not shrimp. It’s probably, he adds, because shrimp are more expensive.
Issues of authentic Southern cooking aside, Holman’s presence at Eatonville definitely changes one thing about Shallal’s promotional plans. He’s abandoned the plan to tease potential Eatonville diners with a series of online videos, leading to the final film in which the chef competition winner is revealed on the same date that the restaurant opens.
“One of the reasons I do what I do is because I’m flexible,” says Shallal. “If it doesn’t roll out like I thought it would, I’ll either change it or abandon it.”