Head 70 miles due west of our nation’s capital and you’ll find the two-Michelin-starred The Inn at Little Washington, where chef/owner Patrick O’Connell has held court for four decades.
Growing up in Maryland’s Prince George’s County on D.C.’s eastern border, O’Connell’s spent time behind the line working at various restaurants before decamping to his current digs in rural Washington, Virginia. What was once a gas station turned gift shop, O’Connell transformed his catering pop-up into a small fine-dining restaurant. In a time when the D.C. dining scene was heavily influenced by France, the self-taught O’Connell served up American cuisine distinctive to Virginia, using ingredients from a network of local purveyors.
This year, O’Connell is celebrating the restaurant’s 40th anniversary with a series of events. Last weekend, Mount Vernon was turned into an 18th century garden party and dinner featuring produce grown on the estate. Chef O’Connell will cap off his two score celebration with a “spectacular soirée” held at Vaux-le-Vicomte château, located just outside of Paris.
Four decades provides much room for growth; over the years, O’Connell expanded the grounds of the Inn, adding on more guest houses and a garden, penned his first books, and won many accolades. The Inn at Little Washington received two Michelin stars when the guide launched in D.C. two years ago.
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“Michelin is the ultimate accolade,” he said in a a recent interview with Forbes. “It establishes a chef's international standing.”
Here, we chat with O’Connell about his relationship with the red guide.
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
In 1978 at the close of our first year in business we embarked on a gastronomic pilgrimage to France in January. The entire trip was organized around dining at two- and three-starred restaurants. It was the most valuable decision we ever made because it crystallized our direction and gave us the necessary reference points. We knew what we wanted to become.
What were your thoughts when you knew you received two stars?
I was thrilled and elated when I received the call from Michelin. The suspense had been unendurable. We were not altogether certain that we were even going to be included in the Guide, nor if we would receive any stars. Entering with two stars in the first year of the Washington, D.C. guide was a wonderful acknowledgement for four decades of hard work.
How did you celebrate?
We're still celebrating.
How much influence/inspiration does the MICHELIN Guide have on your career?
From the very beginning of my career, the MICHELIN Guide has been an instrumental tool in guiding me toward a world standard of culinary excellence. In our first year of business we began making pilgrimages to all of the three-starred restaurants in France. We measured our progress against what they were doing and what we were doing. Initially, the gap was huge but year after year, the gap began to narrow until one day there was no gap.
Does having two stars change the direction of your restaurant?
It certainly heightens our guests' expectations. It's been wonderful for our team in giving everyone an incentive to work toward the next goal of [having] three stars.
What advice do you have for young chefs aiming for Michelin stars?
Studying the world's starred restaurants is the most important thing you can do. Measure where you are in your journey against those who have achieved Michelin stars and use them as a benchmark. Making journeys to great restaurants will help a young chef better understand the expectations of his guests and of the Michelin inspectors. Be your own harshest critic.
Hero and portrait images by Sasha Nialla.