I spent the first five years of my life on the wrong side of the tracks in Washington, D.C. until my family moved to southern Maryland: dirt roads, small farms, and general stores. It’s changed so much since then. I got my first job cooking for Mister H hamburgers. I knocked on his screen door and he asked me: “What can you do? Can you make a minestrone soup?” He was old guard--a crazed restaurant guy. The next summer, at the age of 15, I went back and he told me I had to work in a better place. So a friend introduced me to a restaurant with tableclothes in Virginia. And before long, after graduating with a degree in theatre from Catholic University, I gravitated towards the people and culture associated with restaurants. It was as if the rest of the world, in comparison, was black and white and boring.
Guests recharge me, oddly enough. All it takes is one person to make some very astute and touching comment and I’m reenergized completely. Simply the acknowledgement that I’m doing what I do out of love, that it’s not a financial transaction. One woman said to me, “I hope this won’t offend, but the minute you walk through your door, you realize that none of this has anything to do with money.”
What was your most moving culinary experience?
Probably my mother Gwen’s signature dish: “Little Nancy Etticoat in her white petticoat.” It was illustrative of the food consciousness of that era: A banana standing straight up surrounded by Dole pineapple rings, a chiffonade of iceberg lettuce, and capped off with a dollop of Hellman’s mayonnaise and a marischino cherry.
The most amusing kitchen incident you ever witnessed?
The time one of my workers, Debbie, filled an entire storeroom and a fridge with too many blueberries. She was very short and from the kitchen I heard a crash and a wail. Debbie had opened the fridge and it fell and she was under all the blueberries. When I unburied her, she was all black and blue. The blueberries had cushioned her. We hosed her off out back and later made poussin with blueberry vinegar, which became a classic. That’s an example of turning misfortune into fortune.
Your best piece of advice for amateur chefs?
Mastery. All you need to do in life is master one thing. So choose one menu: A first course, a main course, and a dessert, and make it every Sunday for nine years until it’s perfect.