Yesterday, The Inn at Little Washington was bestowed with Michelin’s highest honor of three stars, signifying “exceptional cuisine, and worth a special journey.”
“What’s fascinating about the MICHELIN Guide is that for 118 years we’ve been the reference for fine dining around the world,” says international director of the guides Michael Ellis, who hosted a panel today at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center with chefs Erin Clarke (Sfoglina), Jorge Hernandez (minibar), Jeremiah Langhorne (The Dabney), Ralf Schlegel (Plume), Aaron Silverman (Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls) and Eric Ziebold (Kinship and Métier), and hosted by local anchorwoman Eun Yang of NBC 4 Washington.
The topic of discussion at the panel—“Star Power”—was fitting for this city's young guide currently in its third year, which now features 16 starred restaurants, 39 Bib Gourmands and over 70 eateries designated with the Michelin Plate, noted for good cooking and using fresh ingredients that are capably prepared.
So what exactly does the MICHELIN Guide mean for a city like Washington, D.C., which has gone from being known as “steakhouse central fit for politicians and business deals” to a haven of eateries boasting cuisines including Thai, Ethiopian, Mediterranean and Southern/Korean?
(This panel has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Eun Yang: Let’s start with you, Aaron. What does [the Guide] mean to you?
Aaron Silverman: I worked in a couple of starred restaurants in New York before moving to D.C., so I was pretty prepared for how hard and how much dedication it takes to build and operate a restaurant that’s Michelin-level. [...] And I think it means a couple of things [for the area]. One, it signifies the number of high-quality restaurants we have here, and also for our staff. No one up here is in it for winning awards, we do it because it’s what we love.
EY: Ralf, you’ve worked all over Europe before moving to D.C. and worked with many different cultures and cuisines. What do you think our food says about D.C.?
Ralf Schlegel: I think food is a good connector between cultures and people. When you eat, you have conversations about the food and food fosters the conversation. [...] And I always tell my staff that water boils at 212˚F around the world, and that’s basic. You go back to basics and you go back to eating. This is where our culture meets.
EY: Erin, in the past, D.C. has been pigeon-holed as a steakhouse place and that has since changed. What have you done, and what have the chefs done to change the dining landscape?
Erin Clarke: I think, obviously, it has to do with political culture. What was interesting for me is when you think of design aspects for restaurants and you think of a steakhouse, you think of a quiet place with really great lighting, an easy menu because you know what you want, they know your drink and it fosters [an environment] either to do business and or politics, I think. That’s my assumption. But I think one of the interesting aspects that has come to D.C. recently is not only the food culture but also the design aspect—there’s so much thought into how people design their restaurants, and whether you all realize it or not, it has a lot to do with the connection to the food and actually how you dine. And I think that in politics or in Congress, you see a lot of people who don’t eat steak anymore. People are interested in all different kinds of cuisines. And there are still great steakhouses, but I still think you can have the same experiences at different kinds of restaurants.
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EY: Jeremiah, congratulations on your James Beard Award, as well as your other awards. The Dabney has been open for three years now. How do you stay relevant and keep your restaurant full?
Jeremiah Langhorne: We have an idea of what we think good food is and what a good experience is, and I guess it was always the way that I was raised or the chefs I trained under, but if you believe in what you’re doing and you’re making good food and you care about your guests’ experiences, then things will work out for you. I think people can fail when answering that question too much.
EY: Jorge, can you talk about the performance aspect of your job? It used to be that you were cooking because you loved to cook. Now people know your face and your name—they can see you and want to interface with you. Talk about that and how it has changed your job.
Jorge Hernandez: I’ve been at minibar now for so many years that it’s almost hard to cook without talking. We have a saying, “We’re going to look like we’re busy, but I guarantee we can cook and talk at the same time.” (Not having a counter right here is making me nervous right now.) But our goal is to win people over. [...] At minibar we do some out there kind of things, but if we can tease you and guide you [as to] what’s going on in the kitchen, it allows you to relax a little bit. We’re in the business to create memories. But it’s hard. Some nights you’re tired or you had a rough prep day and you feel like, "Oh man, I really have to get out there and entertain someone." I actually think of Ian Curtis who was the lead singer of Joy Division from back in the day that my parents used to listen to, and you would watch performances of this guy and he would give everything that he had. And we try to do that, and what I’ve found is that those times that I’ve lost my voice at the end of the night or I’m really, really exhausted, the next day when service starts, all it takes is one guest taking a bite, having a smile and asking a question and I’m right back to where I need to be. And we have this amazing team where if I have a joke with a guest and it fails—and sometimes it fails, I make a lot of dad jokes—that they have such a diverse background of experiences, cultures, age differences, we start tag teaming it. It’s almost like an improv show. And it’s more than giving them a show—it’s getting [the guests] involved in the show.
EY: Eric, I think very few people understand what it takes to open a restaurant. What are the factors to be successful and what would you say to someone who is inspired to open a restaurant?
Eric Ziebold: I think you [have to] learn the basics and the fundamentals. Let me expand on that beyond my 30-plus year career, and talk about a conversation that was had 20 minutes ago. Jorge was talking about getting vegetables and practicing his knife cuts. Jeremiah was talking about turning potatoes when he goes back to work. Even eight minutes ago when Ralf was talking about the fact that all around the world water boils at 212˚F. I’ve lived in France, England, Germany, Japan, Thailand—the point that he makes is true, and I think that in the era of Instagram and Facebook [...] it’s easy for a young professional in anything to get distracted by the romancing or that sort of artistic imagery. If you can understand the basic cooking principles, whether you’re in my kitchen or Aaron’s kitchen or in France or anywhere around the world, that’s what’s going to lead you to be successful. Going out and seeing a bunch of things and posting it on your social media account can be exciting, but unfortunately, the reality is that cooking is repetition.
EY: Why is it important to have Michelin in D.C. in this day of the Instagrammers and the bloggers and the Yelpers?
Michael Ellis: I get this question around the world. With all the tens of thousands of user generated reviews, my answer is always the same: In this fog of opinion, we like to play the role of the North Star or a standard, where we try to be as objective as possible in an ultimately subjective universe.
EY: What are some of the important life lessons you’ve learned in the kitchen?
AS: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned—especially over the last five years—has been that being great at cooking can make you a great cook, but being a great leader makes you a great chef.
EY: Talking about taking pictures and writing your own reviews, have you ever had feedback that made you change something in your restaurant?
RS: We get a lot of critics every morning because [our restaurant is a part of] The Jefferson hotel. We get our share every morning via email. But we had a guest in the hotel staying and he came in to eat everyday and he would order a Waldorf salad. I went out and talked to him and he said, “Why are you not using the celery [stems]? It would make a better picture.” In Europe, I learned to use the yellow inside of the celery because it’s more tender, but of course it’s not as bright. So we changed it. And he was right. Critics are good! Especially when they’re constructive—it helps us.
EY: Would you all ever ban photos in your restaurants? Does it bug you?
JH: To me I’m totally for it because if you come to minibar and say, “Oh, I had the bloody Mary,” I mean…our bloody Mary, you don’t drink it, you eat it. So without a picture you have no street cred.
(And fun fact: chef Langhorne abhors the taste of a raw tomato—even the summer ones—hatred from all be damned.)