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A Chat with Ann Cashion

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DonRocks   

From Wednesday, September 19th, through Friday, September 21st, we're going to have the honor of hosting a three-day chat with one of the most important chefs ever to grace our city, Ann Cashion.

Ann is most famous for Cashion's Eat Place, where she won the James Beard Award for "Best Chef - Mid-Atlantic" in 2004. Many people here remember RJ Cooper and Frank Ruta winning the award this year, and Fabio Trabocchi in 2006, but before Fabio, Ann carried the torch for Washington, DC.

She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and to this day insists that nearby Crystal Springs has the finest tomatoes in the world. Graduating from Harvard University, she went on to complete two years towards a PhD in literature at Stanford, before abandoning all caution and entering the world of professional cooking.

Ann gained notoriety in the Washington, DC area by becoming the opening chef at Austin Grill in 1988, subsequently opening South Austin Grill in 1991. Many people have forgotten that when Jaleo opened in 1993, Ann was their executive chef, and was the original chef responsible for implementing Roberto Alvarez's and Rob Wilder's vision of "Spanish tapas" - something that seems so second-nature by now that you forget it only had its origins here fifteen short years ago. Part of implementing that vision was hiring a young Spanish chef by the name of José Andrés - a titan in his own right! She left to open Cashion's Eat Place in 1995, which incidentally is in the original Café Atlantico space. In 1999 she and partner Johnny Fulchino opened Johnny's Half Shell, which moved to its present Capitol Hill location in 2006 alongside of Taqueria Nacionale which opened in 2007.

Please feel free to begin asking questions now, and Ann will be joining us in a couple of days. In the meantime, let me say how honored I am to have this great giant visiting with us. Thank you for joining us, Ann!

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And here's your first question: You door a well tea?

Answer: "mentioned in The Simpsons episode "A Star Is Burns" as being one of only two Pulitzer Prize winners capable of incredible belching."

Ahhh....Wikipedia

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DonRocks   

Ann,

Your culinary career began in San Francisco, I believe. How did you start out and where did you train? Also, did you ever work for Alice Waters?

Thanks again for doing this,

Don

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JPW   

Ann,

What was the dissertation topic so horrific that it drove you out of academia and into the kitchen before you finished your PhD rather than after like most literature PhD's?

Cheers,

Another reformed academic

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Tweaked   

Hi Chef,

more a comment then a question. Years ago, during my early foodie days, I dined at Eat Place and order tuna which came with a scattering of olives...well the tuna by itself was undersalted, but of course when eaten with the olives it was perfect. Anyway, that expereince has always stuck with me. Keep up the good work!

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What differences have you noticed in professional kitchens where women are in charge? What sort of experiences that you had as a young chef have informed the way you manage your staff?

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MeMc   

On that note, when Sietsema reviewed Vermilion, he wrote:
What leapt to my mind, especially with regard to young cooks, is a guy's need to show off, to strut, to pile on when he should hold his punches. Men tend to play with their food, often erecting fortresses and skyscrapers from their ingredients. Women, on the other hand, tend to edit themselves better. Neatness and focus are their general hallmarks.
Would you agree with him? Do you think that women chefs in restaurant kitchens have more in common in terms of how they cook, what they cook, and how they present it?

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And here's your first question: You door a well tea?

Sum won eye a door.

A woman who writes like I try to cook. For her, language; for me ingredients. Respect them. Find the splendid in the the every day. Exalt the vernacular. Go with what you know, intimately.

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Ann,

Your culinary career began in San Francisco, I believe. How did you start out and where did you train? Also, did you ever work for Alice Waters?

Thanks again for doing this,

Don

Well, I'm happy to be doing this, so thank YOU, Don.

You are right about San Francisco. I dropped out of Stanford (Ph.D. program)...actually, I took an indefinite leave of absence from the institution and then never went back. I worked as an apprentice baker for an incredible woman, Lili Lecocq, who had recently opened a tiny, what we would call today an "artisanal" bakery on College Avenue in Berkeley. Lili was an alum of Chez Panisse and after I'd been there for a year and then spent time cooking in Florence, I was approached by Lindsay Shere who was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse, to train with her to become the pastry person at their not yet, but soon to be opened downstairs cafe. The cafe was to have an Italian orientation, and the fact that I had worked in Italy, was, I believe, a big plus in terms of getting hired.

Unfortunately, I got on the wrong side of Alice right from the get go. I was making chocolate pistachio ice cream with Lindsay, and she had me scraping the inner husks of the nuts so that they would be bright green. Alice was in the kitchen reading out loud a letter that she had written, to whom I don't know, about developing native ingredients that would be the equivalent of their European counterparts, and I was so peeved by the tedious nature of the task that I'd been put to that I blurted out, "maybe you could put in there something about developing a skinless pistachio." I think this was why, a couple of days later, Lindsay called me and said that Alice had decided that I couldn't work at the restaurant. It was pretty devastating. I was out of a job, and felt like I had lost an incredible opportunity since working at Chez Panisse in 1980 was kind of the non plus ultra of culinary jobs. In retrospect, I'm happy it happened and I think I am better for it. Had to develop myself and not just rely on a dazzling resume.

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Ann,

What was the dissertation topic so horrific that it drove you out of academia and into the kitchen before you finished your PhD rather than after like most literature PhD's?

Cheers,

Another reformed academic

OK...here's the awful truth. I DIDN'T HAVE A DISSERTATION TOPIC!! Nominally, I was "concentrating" (not!) in English Renaissance poetry. Which I loved. But graduate school was not for me. Too driven towards specialization. I'm a generalist!

Two years into the program I had formed no close relationships with any professors in my field. I had no idea what I was doing at Stanford. Schmoozing was the name of the game in graduate school which I found so repellant that I couldn't cope. I was recycling papers I'd written as an undergraduate at Harvard just to get through. I showed up at my unmonitored final exam in Old English armed with a bottle of Scotch (and drank it with a classmate named John) just to keep it interesting. In short, I had gone from being a very sharp and enthusiastic student to being a very bad one. It was time to leave.

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JPW   
OK...here's the awful truth. I DIDN'T HAVE A DISSERTATION TOPIC!! Nominally, I was "concentrating" (not!) in English Renaissance poetry. Which I loved. But graduate school was not for me. Too driven towards specialization. I'm a generalist!

Two years into the program I had formed no close relationships with any professors in my field. I had no idea what I was doing at Stanford. Schmoozing was the name of the game in graduate school which I found so repellant that I couldn't cope. I was recycling papers I'd written as an undergraduate at Harvard just to get through. I showed up at my unmonitored final exam in Old English armed with a bottle of Scotch (and drank it with a classmate named John) just to keep it interesting. In short, I had gone from being a very sharp and enthusiastic student to being a very bad one. It was time to leave.

:angry: Sounds familiar.

So what brought you from San Francisco to DC? Surely at the time SF had a more vital culinary scene?

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Hi Chef,

more a comment then a question. Years ago, during my early foodie days, I dined at Eat Place and order tuna which came with a scattering of olives...well the tuna by itself was undersalted, but of course when eaten with the olives it was perfect. Anyway, that expereince has always stuck with me. Keep up the good work!

You're right, Tweaked. Salt is the uber seasoning. It has to be right in order for any preparation to sing. This was something that I was taught when I worked in Tuscany. They have a special term of derision there for undersalted food...."schiocca". It's a must avoid! The French, at the other end of the spectrum, have a charming way of commenting on food that crosses the line into over salted..."The cook must be in love" they say, presumably because the experience of love makes everything so sweet that it throws one's salt meter off.

Anyway, teaching staff to manage salt...when to salt, how much, how much is too much...has been a major preoccupation of mine through the years.

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What differences have you noticed in professional kitchens where women are in charge? What sort of experiences that you had as a young chef have informed the way you manage your staff?

Interestingly, or perhaps tellingly, I've rarely worked in a professional kitchen that wasn't run by a woman. So it's hard to compare. I tried to work in kitchens run by male chefs but that was harder to do in the late 70's/early 80's than you might imagine or remember. I had to go overseas to do it...

Trattoria Ricchi in Tuscany was run by Francesco Ricchi...still he was the only man in the kitchen. The entire staff was comprised of middle aged women who were funny and tough and exacting. Actually that experience was a really formative one for me. The devotion of Tuscans to their own culinary traditions, and the degree to which those traditions were so deeply and firmly rooted in their own region's climate and geography felt so comfortable. It did remind me of Mississippi. Alot.

My experience with Lili Lecoq at La Farine bakery in California was really important in terms of helping me define a personal culinary aesthetic. Lili had an absolute horror of commercial ingredients and contempt for any confection that looked better than it tasted. She was a hidebound traditionalist too. I remember her explaining to a customer who wanted to order a Sachertorte that that would be impossible, as apricots were out of season and all the apricot jam that we had made ourselves at the bakery was gone and of course we wouldn't consider substituting a commercial jam. The poor customer then suggested that perhaps we could use raspberry rather than apricot. And I remember Lili smiling dubiously at the customer and replying, "Well, then it wouldn't be a Sachertorte, would it?" (Lili was a not much of a role model for customer relations)

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On that note, when Sietsema reviewed Vermilion, he wrote:
What leapt to my mind, especially with regard to young cooks, is a guy's need to show off, to strut, to pile on when he should hold his punches. Men tend to play with their food, often erecting fortresses and skyscrapers from their ingredients. Women, on the other hand, tend to edit themselves better. Neatness and focus are their general hallmarks.
Would you agree with him? Do you think that women chefs in restaurant kitchens have more in common in terms of how they cook, what they cook, and how they present it?

I'm not sure about neatness. To me "restraint" is a better descriptor. I would also add "sensuality" because I think most women's cooking is informed by the fact that they're making something to nourish and give pleasure. Perhaps women have an innate awareness of the end user; with guys, maybe it's more about themselves.

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:angry: Sounds familiar.

So what brought you from San Francisco to DC? Surely at the time SF had a more vital culinary scene?

A relationship, naturally. I was living with a French economist who was dabbling in the food industry in SF but then decided to work for the World Bank. So we relocated.

Vital culinary scene or no, love conquers all.

Through the years DC has been very good to me. No regrets.

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Tweaked   
My experience with Lili Lecoq at La Farine bakery in California was really important in terms of helping me define a personal culinary aesthetic. Lili had an absolute horror of commercial ingredients and contempt for any confection that looked better than it tasted. She was a hidebound traditionalist too. I remember her explaining to a customer who wanted to order a Sachertorte that that would be impossible, as apricots were out of season and all the apricot jam that we had made ourselves at the bakery was gone and of course we wouldn't consider substituting a commercial jam. The poor customer then suggested that perhaps we could use raspberry rather than apricot. And I remember Lili smiling dubiously at the customer and replying, "Well, then it wouldn't be a Sachertorte, would it?" (Lili was a not much of a role model for customer relations)

Getting back to this. Somewhat infamously (especially online) two noted DC chefs (Gillian Clark and Carole Greenwood, although I'm sure there are others!) have developed a reputation of "it's my way or the highway." (for lack of a better term).

Can you comment on the roll of customer relations for a chef when it comes to maintaining your culinary vision versus bending to the whims of a customer. Clearly you have some dumbass customers who make unreasonable requests but being part of the hospitality industry what is the proper line? At least in your view point...

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kwhitney   

I am interested in your new little Tacheria Nacional. I have been several times, and enjoy it (when the line is not too long).

I am curious about the planning this little concept place took. How long was it from idea to reality? Any curves or detours in the process?

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I love the story about the bottle of Scotch!

You're right, Tweaked. Salt is the uber seasoning. It has to be right in order for any preparation to sing. This was something that I was taught when I worked in Tuscany. They have a special term of derision there for undersalted food...."schiocca". It's a must avoid! The French, at the other end of the spectrum, have a charming way of commenting on food that crosses the line into over salted..."The cook must be in love" they say, presumably because the experience of love makes everything so sweet that it throws one's salt meter off.

Anyway, teaching staff to manage salt...when to salt, how much, how much is too much...has been a major preoccupation of mine through the years.

How do you feel about unsalted bread?

It's interesting that you mention the French as being on the opposite side of the spectrum. I often hear Italian regional cooking derided by Francophiles who feel Italians got stuck somewhere in the past whereas the French are more creative and open to what zese folk might call refinements, progress...

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Varmint   

Ann-

First, I can't believe you've agreed to do this discussion, but I'm elated you have. Anyhow, now that you've sold Cashion's Eat Place and have Johnny's and Taqueria Nacionale running smoothly, are there any other projects in DC or elsewhere you'd like to explore? Or is it just time to "relax" for awhile?

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JPW   
Ann-

First, I can't believe you've agreed to do this discussion, but I'm elated you have. Anyhow, now that you've sold Cashion's Eat Place and have Johnny's and Taqueria Nacionale running smoothly, are there any other projects in DC or elsewhere you'd like to explore? Or is it just time to "relax" for awhile?

:angry: Welcome, Dean. B)

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Waitman   

Whereas the broader trend seems to be chefs accumulating properties (or slapping their names on them) Larry King accumulates wives, you sold off Cashion's when you moved to the new, larger Johnny's (and Tacqueria Nacional). Why not keep a hand in both, and get that new Benz? Do you think chefs running four or six or more restaurants can keep up the quality and retain a personal, signature touch? Can be be a chef when you're not really behind the line or even in the restaurants that much any more, and spending most of your time in the corporate office or television studio? How many hours a week -- combined -- do you think Eric Ripert and Wolfgang Puck will actually be spending in "their" DC restaurants once the last round of gushing interviews is published?

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Well, Ann, based on your first few answers, I can see this is going to be one for the ages, so ...

How did you find José Andrés, and what was involved in checking him out as a chef?

Running down a Spanish chef in 1993 wasn't all that easy, and we had definitely decided that the chef de cuisine at Jaleo needed to be Spanish because authenticity was crucial to how we wanted that restaurant to play. In DC we had Josu at Tabarna del Alabardero, and a couple of older Spaniards cooking in their own restaurants in the metropolitan area And that was it. I tried to establish a relationship with the Culinary Institute in Madrid when I was in Spain researching the menu for Jaleo. Even interviewed a couple of candidates. (I don't speak Spanish, so that was kind of unrewarding). And the visa issues were pretty daunting, so we had begun to wonder where this chef was going to come from.

As luck would have it, a restaurant named El Dorado Petit in NYC (it was the second location of a Barcelona restaurant by the same name serving sophisticated Spanish cuisine including a selection of ferociously good tapas) closed its doors in early '93.

I set about trying to locate any staff that was still in the US. It took a bit of sleuthing, but I finally found Jose chilling out in San Diego, where he was running a small kitchen in a Spanish restaurant not far from the beach. I contacted him by phone and offered to fly him to Washington to interview and try out for the position at Jaleo.

A week or so later, I picked up this 23 year old, devastatingly charismatic Spanish kid at National Airport. We went directly to Sutton Place Gourmet for a supermarket sweep and then to my apartment where he proceeded to generate dishes, primarily tapas, at a break neck pace out of my galley kitchen with its decrepit, electric range. Rob Wilder, Roberto Alvarez, Johnny Fulchino and several others came over to sample it all. It was an impressive performance and lots of fun.. an evening infused with all Jose's passion, energy, and drive to impress. When I was cleaning up the wreckage late that night, I noticed that somehow Jose had managed to fling a tiny bit of tomato concassee in the air so high that it was stuck to the ceiling. I left it there at first because I was too tired to track down a ladder and clean it up, but later because I just liked having it there to remind me of the first time I ever cooked with Jose.

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I love the story about the bottle of Scotch!

How do you feel about unsalted bread?

It's interesting that you mention the French as being on the opposite side of the spectrum. I often hear Italian regional cooking derided by Francophiles who feel Italians got stuck somewhere in the past whereas the French are more creative and open to what zese folk might call refinements, progress...

It's funny you should ask that. You know, Tuscan bread is unsalted and while it takes some getting used to, I grew to love it. I also think it's one of the reasons why salting the food properly in Tuscany is such a big deal. You have to push it right to the edge in order for it to complement the bread's neutrality.

When I finally returned to the US, I took a charter flight out of Zurich and so spent a night there before my departure. My first bite of Swiss bread which was, of course, salted, was shocking. It was almost psychedelic in its intensity. So many sensations going on in my mouth after months of eating the unsalted stuff.

As for the Italians getting stuck somewhere in the past, well, I guess you know where I stand on that. "Getting stuck" has awfully negative connotations. In today's world, I'd say that managing to do things in the old way is a minor miracle, a triumph of sorts.

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