La Jambe Executive Chef D'Angelo Mobley
La Jambe Executive Chef D'Angelo Mobley Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“An Utz potato chip with caviar on it, that’s me,” D’Angelo Mobley says. But the metaphor the executive chef of La Jambe uses to describe himself has less to do with food than it does with fashion. He defines his personal style as refined rugged. “I’ll buy a $600 pair of jeans and put them on with a shirt I have from high school. I spend more time looking at clothes than I do recipes if I’m being brutally honest.” 

Mobley, 30, fantasizes about one day being able to afford to wear $900 designer shirts in the kitchen and not giving a damn if he stains them, kind of like brides who intentionally trash their wedding gowns. “Beautiful pieces and I don’t care if I get ketchup or tomato sauce on them,” he says.

Part of his look is the mosaic of cheffy tattoos that cover his body, among them a cleaver, bluefin tuna bones, a broken plate, kitchen tape, and shot of whiskey. “WELL DONE” is scrawled across his knuckles in a green font that belongs on a retro microwave display. It’s his favorite, even though the first “L” scuffed off after several kitchen accidents. “Oui,” what he’d say while taking an order from a French chef, is inked just below his right eye.

Mobley always thought he’d have a future in the arts and was eager to get started when he graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt in 2010. But shortly after he got his diploma, while celebrating in Ocean City, Maryland, with friends, he made a mistake that altered the course of his life. 

“I got locked up during beach week,” he says. “The offense was a stolen vehicle. A friend of mine took it, but I knew it was stolen when I got in the car. We went to a hotel party and he must have stolen one of the girls’ keys. I was 17 when I got caught and I turned 18 in jail.”

He spent those two months reading 10 books and completing 5,000 push-ups. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power left a lasting impression. Although his incarceration was relatively brief, Mobley walked out with a felony on his record. “Somebody told me that kitchens don’t check your background,” Mobley says. “OK, if you’re not going to check, boom.” 

Mobley took a job at Carolina Kitchen in Hyattsville, but was assigned to the dining room. The local chain asks employees to greet customers with an enthusiastic “Welcome, welcome, welcome!” Mobley was having none of that and grew determined to find work in an actual kitchen.

About a decade later, Mobley has his first executive chef job at a French wine bar in Shaw where he’s plotting his future and bringing cooks with similar backgrounds up with him. His journey to this point has been a self-led odyssey through some of the District’s most popular restaurants and the kitchens of its most demanding chefs.  

After his first cooking job at the former Gordon Biersch in Navy Yard, Mobley caught his first break. Without knowing Erik Bruner-Yang, he walked into Maketto as it was preparing to open on H Street NE in 2015. “I said, ‘Man, I’d love to work in this kitchen,’” Mobley says. Bruner-Yang told him to come back Tuesday ready to work. Soon enough, Mobley was manning the fry station, responsible for the restaurant’s addictive fried chicken with five-spice caramel. 

“I had in the back of my head that I have a felony on my record now so I have to do a little more so people don’t pay any attention to it,” Mobley says. “I’m trying to make this go away and have my work overshadow the mistake I made at one point. [Bruner-Yang] opened the door for me and I just ran through it. I was coming in early and leaving late.” 

“For D’Angelo, it was the passion that was really there, but he hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to work in a kitchen,” Bruner-Yang says. “He had all that desire. My goal with him was that it’s more than just cooking. It’s about structure. It’s nice to see him work his way through kitchens—he’s always had a lot of potential and I’m excited to see it all come to fruition.” 

Mobley’s next big job was as a line cook at Arroz under executive chef Michael Rafidi. The downtown restaurant that served inventive Spanish cuisine was short-lived because Mike Isabella owned it. The restaurateur gradually lost all of his restaurants after a top manager alleged “extraordinary” sexual harassment in a lawsuit. “It was probably the roughest year of my life, but I know so much thanks to Rafidi,” Mobley says. 

Instead of going to cooking school, Mobley learned on the job. “A lot of chefs who went to culinary school suck,” he says. “Those years of school, I promise you, I got a trick from my experience that will cut that shit in half.” If anything, Mobley argues that aspiring chefs should get a business degree. But his education came from “Rafidi, reading, and YouTube University.” 

“Anything I know gastronomically, like fluid gels and reverse fluid gels, I learned on YouTube,” Mobley says.  

He gets anxious when he doesn’t recognize terms his peers use. “Back at Arroz, I was still kind of green,” he says. “People were using words I didn’t know what the fuck they meant, so I’d ask to go to the bathroom and I’d go google it and come back and act like I knew what they were talking about. Words like ‘brunoise’ and ‘confit.’ All these French terms. I knew how to do it, but I never heard the words.” 

Rafidi is now the chef and owner of Albi in Navy Yard. He says Mobley’s thirst for culinary knowledge reminded him of himself as a young cook. “He had tunnel vision a little and wasn’t always seeing the big picture,” Rafidi says. “Like, ‘Get out of my way, I want to learn.’ He had that same attitude that I did, a little brash at times, but I love that he’s taken the next step.”

Mobley worked at a couple other Isabella restaurants, first as a junior sous-chef at Requin at the Wharf and later as the sous-chef at Graffiato in Chinatown. “I was at Graffiato when they handed everybody the [Washingtonian] magazine and said, ‘Do you see this shit? Yeah, we’re done.’” The 2018 cover depicted Isabella’s face peeking out from behind a fried egg. The story inside took readers through how Isabella’s empire fell. “He’s an idiot,” Mobley says now.

Before the pandemic hit, Mobley passed through the kitchens of American Son, Maialino Mare, and Shibuya Eatery. When restaurants closed their dining rooms because of COVID-19, Mobley launched a home pop-up called Dirty Birds. “One reason I had to move out of my old apartment is because they thought it was drug traffic when it was just me literally selling chicken wings and lo mein and tacos,” he says. “It probably did look a little suspicious, but mind your own business. It’s a pandemic.” 

Now he lives in Columbia Heights, not far from his current post. When La Jambe reopened in May 2021 after a pandemic-related break, it did so with Mobley at the helm. His goal was to make cookout food French. Instead of barbecue ribs, he plates short ribs with a white bean miso puree and raisin barbecue sauce. He presents fish and chips with mushy peas as stuffed smelts swimming in a vadouvan pea puree.

La Jambe owner Anastasia Mori took her time hiring a chef after she scoped out competing French wine bars and decided she wanted to stand out with a menu that had more of an edge. In her native Paris, bistros are modernizing their menus with more global flavors and ingredients. “D’Angelo hit the spot with that,” Mori says. She says Mobley was up against a “classically trained chef,” but ultimately won out after the taste test. 

Mobley texted Mori in June 2021 and convinced her to put a hot dog on the menu. “I was so excited and so curious about how that would translate on a French wine bar menu,” Mori says. He used a Toulouse sausage, which Mori says she appreciates because the French prefer pork over beef sausages. “He made a mango sauce that was off the hook and the slaw was perfect.” 

According to Mori, Mobley isn’t “your typical scream-at-the-staff chef.” Sometimes she thinks he’s a little too relaxed, but that’s better than the alternative. “He’s very much into hiring people in the kitchen that have little to no experience and building them from the ground up, which I find amazing.”  

“I’m understanding if someone has to pick up their kid and they’re running 30 minutes late,” Mobley says. He gets it—he and his partner, Sade Sweetney, have a 5-month-old daughter named Roux-Rae. “I try to be very understanding of real-life things because that’s not something I had the benefit of when I was coming up in my career.” As a result, he says he doesn’t have a high turnover rate or cooks sabotaging the food to exact revenge. 

“I’m lucky to have found him,” Mori says. “He should have had the chance to shine way before us. I’m nervous that someone is going to realize that and steal him away from me.”

Mobley doesn’t have plans to leave, but he’s considering his future. “I always wanted to be one of those super asshole chefs with a two- or three-star Michelin restaurant,” he says. “But a two-star Michelin restaurant is having a hard time right now.” The pandemic has him considering running a more casual pop-up again: “Something like Ralphie’s,” he says.

Ralphie’s was the restaurant Mobley’s mother, Raphael, owned in North Carolina when he was young. It burned down after a couple of years. “I was always close to the kitchen,” he says. “My mother is still one of the best cooks I know.” 

Photo of Chef D’Angelo Mobley by Darrow Montgomery

Growing up in North Carolina and the D.C. area, Mobley didn’t think he’d follow in his mother’s footsteps by choosing restaurants over art or fashion. He hasn’t ruled out trying to break into those industries in the future, but for now he’s trying to hone his craft and uplift others.

“If you come to work and you try hard, I’m going to give you a shot,” Mobley says. “Say there’s a White guy who’s better on paper, but if you have the drive, I’m going to give you the opportunity to show me what you got first, because if someone didn’t do that for me, I wouldn’t be here.”

The restaurant industry has always been a place for people searching for a fresh start. Mobley thinks there are more opportunities than ever for cooks to get their foot in the door because so many bars and restaurants need staff. “If you’re looking for your way out of your situation, I suggest finding a kitchen, even if you have to start in the dish pit, and find someone who is passionate and successful and stay up under them as much as you can and mimic greatness.” 

Eventually you won’t have to fake it to make it. The budding cook version of Mobley, who was preoccupied by burying his past and furiously googling in the bathroom, is now a calm, confident leader. His Instagram handle and nickname is “​​mr86it.” “I’m Mr. Sell out,” Mobley says. “You bring me in there and I’m guaranteed to sell something. It’s going to be gone.”