Chef Patrick O’Connell knew 2018 was going to be a milestone year before it even began. It was the 40th anniversary of his idyllic countryside inn and restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington. It was also the first year that MICHELIN would publish a guide to the Washington D.C. area, listing The Inn with Two MICHELIN Stars. Yet these extraordinary achievements would be surpassed by the news that The Inn at Little Washington would be elevated to Three MICHELIN Stars in the 2019 Washington D.C. guide.
“This is an incredibly emotional moment. This is what the whole team has worked so hard to make happen,” O’Connell recalled.
Most chefs can only describe what it’s like to receive the call from The MICHELIN Guide with news of their restaurant’s award for that year’s selection. But O’Connell allowed a film crew to document the moment so that it could be shared with the world. In The Inn At Little Washington: A Delicious New Documentary, which airs nationally on PBS tomorrow, audiences can experience firsthand the suspense and ultimately, the joy. (In this case, there are no spoilers.)
The film, produced by Show of Force in collaboration with Virginia Public Media and Executive Producer Spike Mendelsohn, traces O’Connell’s journey from humble beginnings to establishing The Inn as a pioneer, and standard-bearer, of fine American dining. Achieving the third star is the culmination of 40 years’ work and an especially significant achievement for O’Connell, who drew so much of his inspiration from the greatest restaurants of Europe.
“We’d go home after spending at least three weeks, and sometimes one month, going from one restaurant to another in Europe, and then we’d come home full of excitement and inspiration.” O’Connell said. “Each year you saw the gap between what we were doing and what they were doing narrow slightly until decades later, one day, there was no more gap.”
But a movie’s potential to captivate is not limited to a high-stakes end scene, or a grand finale. It is often the story itself—and its characters—that offers the greatest pleasure. As O’Connell believes, the drama that unfolds within a real-world kitchen is far more sensational than the narratives dreamed up and popularized by Hollywood.
In this case, O’Connell is the real-world protagonist with the singular goal to catapult his restaurant onto the world’s stage. And for the residents of the bucolic town of Little Washington (all 133 of them), this meant being thrust into the limelight alongside the restaurant—whether they liked it or not. Pepper in a dynamic cast of front- and back-of-house employees, many of whom have been working for O’Connell for over 20 years, and the twists and turns abound.
“We’ve had incredible odds against us and we just believed and willed it. You see the sacrifice and the commitment; you can’t help but be moved. It’s not all peaches and cream.”
It’s unfortunate, and painfully ironic, that the documentary will air while The Inn is temporarily closed (due to the government-mandated shut-down of restaurants in response to Covid-19). Usually a media event of this scale results in a surge of reservations. But O’Connell still hopes the story will inspire people to call for a future reservation; his books will be open.
In the meantime, with uncertainty ahead, O’Connell has been forced to release staff and delay all new projects, including the build-out of a new cafe in the center of town. For the first time in The Inn’s history, O’Connell is taking a step back, not forwards. But from a vantage point of four decades of experience, O’Connell is certain that this, too, shall pass.
“When it’s over with, they’ll know we’re waiting for them.”
The Inn At Little Washington: A Delicious New Documentary airs on PBS Friday, March 27th at 10PM EST.