Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Report: Patrick O'Connell's - and the Inn's - salad days

      What follows is the chef's account of launching his career and that of the Inn at Little Washington, taken from my notes for an earlier magazine piece:
             If you have a desire to cook, all you need is an audience.

The Inn’s an outgrowth of the home table. We bought a house in 1972 on the county line. The mountain folk had stacks of wrecked cars. Trailers and school buses were starter homes. The number of food stamps you received depended upon which county your kitchen was in. I had read philosophy in college and realized that everyone has a geographical place, and that this was where I belonged.

Cooking was something you did if you couldn’t find a real job, by people who weren’t quite acceptable. I had studied theater at Catholic University and found restaurant people stimulating. America had no real chefs at that time, so I decided to take a year off and go to Europe. It was a revelation to see how Europeans viewed chefs. I saw then that this was my career.

I worked for two years in Charlottesville, then at Chez Francoise near Washington, D.C. Meanwhile I researched restaurant possibilities in Rappahannock County. This was a country store with a junk yard, garage, and an outhouse. I rented half of it for $200 a month, and borrowed money to build a kitchen in what had been the garage’s grease pit. It’s now the living room. Locals all asked, “Why are you doing this? Who’s coming?” The idea that people would drive all the way out here from D.C. just to eat was unthinkable.

French cuisine was the only one Americans took seriously then. Julia Childe was an inspiration for me. The feeling of a restaurant in France was what I wanted to convey – a sense of place reinforced by food and cooking. But all the classic French country dishes – kidneys, sweetbreads, frogs’ legs – were considered wildly exotic. I had one kitchen boy and two wait staff. I didn’t think there would be enough weekday visitors, so then I would just cook and serve. Then the first weekend night we had 75 people. The reviewer for The Star asked me if I was sure I wanted him to write about us, and his review changed everything.

I would take reservations in the kitchen. In the mornings I would go to the Florida Avenue market in D.C. and buy food for the evening and pile it in the old Dodge Dart. Then I found someone to go to the market for me. One day he was very late. People were waiting for their food, so I served them all a demitasse of soup, to buy time, and it became a tradition.

What we dealt with in those days was hysterically funny. We served an awful lot of iced tea in the beginning. One woman asked if the soft-shell crabs could be fresh way out here, and I said, “They’re so fresh they haven’t even arrived yet.”

The kitchen helper wore a doo rag and wouldn’t eat the food. He brought his own bologna sandwiches. One night when we ran out of food I asked if he had anything in his car, and he said, “Sack of plums.”

I said, “Get them,” and made a plum sauce and served it on shrimp.

We started getting our herbs and vegetables locally and realized they were so much better. We would trade and barter. Everybody had an excess of something. They would bring zucchinis as big as your arm, and I said I want them the size of your finger. “Can’t make no money on that,” they’d say, and I said “I’ll pay for them - four times as much.”

            Eventually we trained local 50 farmers to provide us. We became known for regional American cuisine, one of the first. People were realizing how much better it was, and that they should eat seasonally. It created a lot of interest, and we offered our own kind of French country cooking. I’m still expanding on that idea. People want to be able to walk through the cherry and apple orchards, and the herb garden. Americans were learning, and they craved another experience. If they could take something back with them, it increased their enjoyment.

            Turning point came when I exercised the option to buy the place. It led to the development of rooms, and a garden where the junkyard was. I wanted a fantasy, something that felt like it had been here a hundred years. It needed a patina of an authenticity. We sent the architectural drawings to Joyce Evans. She had been a pupil of the British architect who did interiors for the royal family, and could render a phone booth to look like a ballroom. She sent back a watercolor that was amazing.

In the off-season every year we traveled to the great restaurants of the world, and started to go to the great country houses in England, Ireland, France. We made a list of the best, and soon realized that France had the best food and England and Ireland the best taste in country houses, the most charming and comfortable. So we did an American adaptation of those. Joyce patterned our kitchen after the cheese and dairy room at Windsor Castle. The hallmarks are the ceilings, too often neglected in America. They’re the last thing you see at night and the first thing you see in the morning, and set the tone. They must invoke an enveloping feeling.

    Joyce has been here for more than 25 years. We gave her an unlimited budget, and she exceeded it. Initially she chose the fabrics, wall coverings, and furniture and bought it over there. Then we became her only client.

     Ours is never an adaptation but a refurbishing of old buildings in Little Washington from the American colonial period. She had also done a lot of stage and costume design, and understood what a great restaurant needs – it has to both evoke drama, and make you smile when you walk in. The eye can never absorb it all. On your tenth visit you’re still noticing things because we strive for a layered feeling, something that only we can bring about.

     It has evolved like that for 30 years. Joyce has the drapes put in, lined and inter-lined. It’s so different from the way tings are done in America. When you’re dealing now as we are with five-star inspectors you have to look hard for the flaws. The patina is so important – for instance, a carpet must have the right amount of wear, showing that important people have walked there. We live in an age when the average restaurant fails in three years, and this is all part of the strategy to keep the Inn going.

     When you grow something like this from a grease pit, you can’t shake that memory. No one could replicate this because it has been evolving for three decades. It’s never static – that’s the key. I think of it as a garden, always being pruned and tweaked, elevating everything to the same level. We look daily for tangible changes. I would have become bored years ago if it was all just about the food.

     You need a point of view that reflects the creator’s evolution. Just like you can’t serve food you don’t want to eat, you can’t create an environment you don’t want to be in. But as you grow your taste changes. If you’re not embarrassed by what you did a year ago, you’re not progressing. To create this level of sophistication, so close to that original shack, is very exciting. Even living in that old shack I wanted dinner to be formal, as if in London.

Still, sometimes I open the frig and something falls out, and I think, “Of course! Use it! Black-eyed peas under fois gras!”

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