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A Chat with Ann Cashion


DonRocks
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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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(If you go here, scroll down a bit, and click on "View Acceptance Speech" underneath Ann's picture, you can see the video of José (who won in 2003) presenting the award to Ann, along with her acceptance speech.)

Ann, which other area chefs have you worked with in the past? Any interesting tidbits about them?

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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...

Basically, it's best, I think to do what the customer asks, if you can. (I'm not saying it doesn't hurt sometimes because it does, but it's best) This does seem to be harder for women to do than for men. Somehow they seem to take it personally when people don't like the way they've conceived of a dish. I remember once I bought my niece a wonderful dress for her birthday, one that I was really excited about giving her because she was such a super feminine little thing and I knew she was going to love it. But when she opened it, she didn't respond positively at all. And her mother said, "Rita doesn't wear dresses anymore." I think when you're heavily invested in something you've created and someone wants to modify it, it can feel a little bit like I felt that day. Still, I returned the dress and I do believe it's best to just say "yes".

That being said, though, I usually draw the line if satisfying the request will negatively impact the experience of another customer or customers. Example: I used to get alot of grief from customers at Cashion's Eat Place when I would refuse somebody who wanted to substitute one component of a dish on another. Like, "I'd like to order the bison, but instead of the mashed potatoes I want to substitute the mushroom risotto that comes with the lamb." At a restaurant like Cashion's where the menu changes daily, we've counted the pieces of bison, the number of lamb loins, and prepared for enough sides to cover those numbers. So if I accomodate the rice-loving bison eater, I may very well have to explain to another customer later that evening that even though the menu SAYS the lamb comes with risotto, we'll have to serve it with something else. Cashion's is also a restaurant where one cook is responsible for preparing a plate with all its components from start to finish. So sometimes, on a very busy night, to have to ask a line cook in the weeds already to prepare a risotto s/he wouldn't have to make otherwise could throw a wrench in the works that makes a couple of other tables wait too long for their food.

As far as somebody who wants their tuna cooked through or their red meat well done, that's their decision.

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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?

The planning was sheer pleasure! Basically, a trip to LA, a three day taco odyssey with my partner, Johnny, and John Manolatos and Justin Abad, sous-chef and general manager, respectively, at Cashion's Eat Place (that was then...now they're the new owners!) I had spent time on some foodie sites polling folks about their favorite taco trucks, and my friend Brooks put me in touch with Russ Parsons of the LA Times who had his own list of spots to visit. This was in August of 2005. The plan was to open a small neighborhood taqueria somewhere in DC in which John and I would partner with Juanita de Flores, who had been on the staff at Cashion's since the day we opened. A way of thanking her for all her hard work and loyalty by creating something for her that she would probably never be able to create for herself.

Within a few months of our return, the project to relocate Johnny's Half Shell began to take shape and we decided to pursue that first. But because that site has a carryout in the rear, I decided that it would be a good idea to test drive the taqueria there first. Sourcing ingredients, refining recipes, and transforming the space took a couple of months once we started.

Well...you've been to the result. And the shorter Hispanic lady with her hair pulled into a bun...that's Juana, learning the ropes for her own taqueria, to be opened at a future, but not too future date.

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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?

Hey Dean!

As you can read above, there is still a second Taqueria on my project list. In DC.

After that I think my projects will assume a slightly different orientation and will unfold in a decidedly different locale. I don't want to start talking specifics about which I'm not yet certain, but I have wanted for some time to create some business incubator-style projects in the Mississippi Delta, some food related, others not. Simple enterprises that could make alot of difference in a local economy that doesn't have much of a pulse these days.

That would be in addition to my ongoing work at Johnny's Half Shell. Sounds relaxing doesn't it?

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It is quite obvious that your investment in your employees goes far beyond a mere economic interest. It's pretty clear that there is a ton of loyalty flowing from the employees to management and vice versa. Could you give us some insight on your philosophy as an employer and the way you like to treat your employees? How does this philosophy affect the bottom line? Has your approach ever come back to bite you in the rear?

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Ann,

As a Pittsburgh boy who grew up on pierogis and kielbasa, I knew our regional food as the food of the Polish and Italian immigrants who make up a fair part of the city's population. I have slowly been introduced to Southern foodways through my wife and her family of Southerners. To my mind now, there is no greater food thing than the perfectly executed ham biscuit.

Do you see DC having or developing a regional food identity? If so, what is it? Who's cooking it?

Usually, when we discuss this all we can come up with is the half-smoke. :angry:

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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?

Waitman! This is a complex and important series of questions. I don't think I'll have time to fully answer right this second, but I'm going to get started while I have a sauce reducing on the stove. I'll pick it up again after lunch. Incidentally, ALL the questions on this chat have been intriguing, challenging, and far from trivial. (Maybe we need to lighten up!...just kidding...whatever you guys want to talk about suits me fine.)

I'll answer the question about myself first. Could I have kept a hand in Cashion's while operating Johnny's Half Shell? Certainly. Thanks to the fact that I had a tremendously talented staff there and a truly committed leader in John Manolatos, I didn't HAVE to sell it. But truthfully, keeping my actual hand in the operation day in and day out was another question altogether. My involvement there was marginal in comparison to years past. That, coupled with the fact that after 29 years in the industry I am reaching a point where I'm interested in creating some space in my life for something other than my restaurants drove the decision to sell Cashion's. Timing was also dictated by having a team like John and George Manolatos, and Justin Abad interested in assuming the reins of ownership. When you decide to let go of a project that has been so personal and contains so much of your soul you want it to go to soulmates, not to someone who's going to convert the space into a nightclub or a saloon. The fact that Manolatos and company were ready meant that I needed to be ready, too, if Cashion's were going to continue to exist in any recognizable fashion. It's been a great outcome for me...rather than saying goodbye to a place I love, I'm enjoying watching it enter a second life under the direction of people I love and trust.

As for the Benz...you're making some financial assumptions about restaurants like Cashion's that don't necessarily hold true (like the assumption that they make money!)

More later!

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(Maybe we need to lighten up!)

What's with the naked lady at the bar and is she a regular customer? I'd like to buy her a drink.

Thank you Chef for some warm (if rather nebulous) memories of eating at the bar when I first moved to the DC area. I always had a great time and a wonderful meal.

I'll ask a question: What is your take on these foodie websites and the characters contained within? Are they a blessing to restaurateurs or a curse?

Regards,

Al

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In a poetry death match between Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio who would walk away victorious?
Poesia? Non litteratura? Petrarca!! (Scusami.)

* * *

As you probably know, Suzanne Goin graduated from Brown. Your degree from Harvard figures prominently in online biographies. It seems that these credentials are wrapped up in the greater esteem chefs enjoy these days, at least in a way that differs from Iron Chef competitions, guest appearances on David Letterman, awards from peers, and so forth.

It's a bit like Cennino Cennini arguing that the painter's imagination and intellect are essential to his craft during the fifteenth century when the status of artist was rising from the baser realm of hard, manual work to the social standing of the clients he served. Well, not quite, but I think the analogy holds to some extent.

I was wondering if you have any comments to make about the way your educational background is perceived by your peers--or in general, about the ways culinary professionals view one another's college degrees, diplomas from the major culinary schools, etc.

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I was wondering if you have any comments to make about the way your educational background is perceived by your peers--or in general, about the ways culinary professionals view one another's college degrees, diplomas from the major culinary schools, etc.

Many people in professional kitchens have risen from the ranks in the more traditional tradesman route, starting as apprentices, dishwashers or prep cooks, and may not even have completed high school. Others have gone to culinary academies with a high school diploma. And culinary academies do not provide much of anything in the way of a liberal arts education. Chefs in the Alice Waters-Jeremiah Tower mode who, like Ann Cashion or Suzanne Goin, have impressive educational backgrounds steeped in the humanities are still fairly rare. I had a conversation with Barbara Black yesterday, who told me that she studied biology and chemistry at Mount Vernon College before going to culinary school (CIA, I think). She said that she wishes that she had studied business instead.

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Ann,

As a Pittsburgh boy who grew up on pierogis and kielbasa, I knew our regional food as the food of the Polish and Italian immigrants who make up a fair part of the city's population. I have slowly been introduced to Southern foodways through my wife and her family of Southerners. To my mind now, there is no greater food thing than the perfectly executed ham biscuit.

Do you see DC having or developing a regional food identity? If so, what is it? Who's cooking it?

Usually, when we discuss this all we can come up with is the half-smoke. :angry:

What about Senate Bean Soup? or Political pork?

I think the Chesapeake/Eastern Shore culinary tradition represents the the only true indigenous cuisine around here. Blue crabs especially steamed whole and crabcakes, Chesapeake oysters, rockfish; stuffed ham. We feature this cuisine at Johnny's Half Shell, but it's probably more rightfully laid claim to by Baltimore and Annapolis.

As for DC proper? Well, we certainly do have and have had for many years the most extensive community of Ethiopian restaurants in the United States and more Salvadoran restaurants than any other urban area that I can think of.

I think we will always be challenged in DC in terms of possessing an identifiable indigenous culinary identity because to my mind, that identity is necessarily a two way street that requires not just chefs and restaurants, but also an informed dining audience that has grown up with, is knowledgeable about, and devoted to that cuisine. The 2/4/6 year election cycle which determines so much about who lives in DC and for how long makes that next to impossible.

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Poesia? Non litteratura? Petrarca!! (Scusami.)

* * *

As you probably know, Suzanne Goin graduated from Brown. Your degree from Harvard figures prominently in online biographies. It seems that these credentials are wrapped up in the greater esteem chefs enjoy these days, at least in a way that differs from Iron Chef competitions, guest appearances on David Letterman, awards from peers, and so forth.

It's a bit like Cennino Cennini arguing that the painter's imagination and intellect are essential to his craft during the fifteenth century when the status of artist was rising from the baser realm of hard, manual work to the social standing of the clients he served. Well, not quite, but I think the analogy holds to some extent.

I was wondering if you have any comments to make about the way your educational background is perceived by your peers--or in general, about the ways culinary professionals view one another's college degrees, diplomas from the major culinary schools, etc.

Actually, I did not know that about Suzanne Goin, and I imagine she doesn't know about my degree from Harvard because I don't think college degrees figure at all in how culinary professionals view one another. ( I'm not sure how culinary degrees are generally viewed, or if those who graduated from the same culinary school bond with each other when their paths cross. I do think the "did/didn't" dichotomy when it comes to culinary school is one of the more interesting divides in the industry, with those chefs who "didn't" tending to dismiss the value of a culinary degree. ) But the Ivy League credential does tend to attract alot of interest from those outside the industry.

I very much like your analogy about Renaissance artists. Clearly, being a chef means something much different to the general public today than it did even twenty years ago. One of the saddest conversation I ever had was with a cook who was a career changer, someone who had left accounting for the kitchen. He said to me, "I wish my father were alive to see this. He was a hotel chef and was so embarassed by that...felt that he had achieved nothing in his life, that he was an insignificant failure. I became an accountant because it was so important to him that his son become a "professional". Now I'm following in his foodsteps by choice and I just wish he knew that."

Wonder what his dad would make of the Food Network....

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Wonder what his dad would make of the Food Network....

hmmm, and what do you think of the Food Network and by extension "reality TV" based food shows (like Hells Kitchen, Top Chef etc.). Because of course I'm assuming you have plenty of time to kick back with a cold beer and watch them :angry:

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Ms. Cashion,

Thank you for choosing to use environmentally responsible take-out containers at Taqueria Nacionale. I imagine that they might cost quite a bit more than traditional options and very much appreciate your demonstration of good stewardship.

Your writing here is mellifluous, and your stories make me want to patronize your restaurants more frequently!

All the best,

Hank

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Hi Ann,

Hope you're well. Could you part with the secret to your amazing Tuscan meat sauce? I don't think I ever ate at Eat Place without ordering pasta and that.

Thanks so much and best of luck!

Mark

Mark!

The next time you have the better part of a day to spare, we can make it together. I can tell you right now a couple of interesting facts about that sauce...that despite the fact that it's called meat sauce, it contains, by weight, equal proportions of vegetables(mirepoix, Italian style, made with red onions) and meat. The vegetables are finely minced, rinsed, squeezed dry and then sweated in a pot without any oil whatsoever until they become practically dessicated. It concentrates their flavors and reduces their volume so that you are almost unaware of their presence in the final sauce, though, of course, they're vitally important. I've never encountered this technique anywhere else. Also, making Tuscan Meat Sauce is to my mind, the ultimate exercise in salting. You just cannot adjust the salt at the end of the process. You have to introduce all the necessary salt while the meat's browning with the vegetables after they've been cooked down, which requires a sense of what's going to happen to the sauce when the wine and tomato concentrate are added hours later. It takes practice and alot of nerve. There's more, but it's really a process more than a recipe. So if you're up for it, give me a call. We'll need six to nine hours, depending on how much we want to make.

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Ann--

tuscan bread. I never did understand the stuff. How the heck do you eat it and with what exactly? really salty butter? Only for use with salted things to go on top of it? Or just shut up and get used to it? It drove me crazy when I was there....this delicious looking bread, homemade and lovely and you bite in to it and think 'Hanh??!!?'

Also, what are your current comfort foods and why? And, conversely, what are your favorite splurgeworthy preparations that you make?

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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?

Part II

I'm not sure there's one answer for all chefs when it comes to running multiple restaurants. I think some chefs are more highly organized than others, some delegate better than others. Everybody's different. Wolfgang Puck strikes me as someone who's managed to maintain a level of quality in all his operations that you can bank on. Ditto Vongerichten. I'm such a fan of Eric Ripert's cooking. I want to believe that his DC restaurant will be as wonderful a place to dine as Le Bernardin.

When I decided to open the Half Shell, the one on P Street, I was careful to set its parameters in such a way that it could be very good without my being there all the time. That was really important to me, because the idea behind Cashion's was precisely the opposite...I very consciously opened it as a restaurant that would be in constant menu flux so that I would always want and need to be there.

I cooked in at least one of my restaurants, when I had two, everyday, unless I had to be out of town. I cook at Johnny's Half Shell every day now. But I'm rarely on the line unless there's a staffing crisis or unless I'm showing somebody a dish or correcting something about their technique and that's been true for quite a few years now. Not because I don't want to cook on the line, but because that's not really the best way for me to do my job.

No matter what, you just can't cook everybody's meal. You have to work through staff...train them, motivate them, inspire them, capitalize on their strengths and work with them on their weaknesses. So this idea that if the chef didn't personally grill your fish or broil your steak then s/he has let you down and the whole experience is bogus...I don't know where that comes from. It's not how it works.

Truly absentee chefs, those who spend their time preparing for their closeup, well that's another issue.

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What's with the naked lady at the bar and is she a regular customer? I'd like to buy her a drink.

Thank you Chef for some warm (if rather nebulous) memories of eating at the bar when I first moved to the DC area. I always had a great time and a wonderful meal.

I'll ask a question: What is your take on these foodie websites and the characters contained within? Are they a blessing to restaurateurs or a curse?

Regards,

Al

I haven't spent much time on foodie websites, but I'm really enjoying the time I'm spending on this one. It's nice chatting with folks who are actually interested in what makes me and my restaurants tick and are curious about my take on things.

I've heard it can get a little wild and wooly on these sites, but I still think they're a healthy alternative to traditional print food criticism. I always remind my staff that food critics are actually in the business of selling newspapers. I think you guys are just obsessed with food and the art of eating. Our preoccupations are much more in line.

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Ann,

As a Pittsburgh boy who grew up on pierogis and kielbasa, I knew our regional food as the food of the Polish and Italian immigrants who make up a fair part of the city's population. I have slowly been introduced to Southern foodways through my wife and her family of Southerners. To my mind now, there is no greater food thing than the perfectly executed ham biscuit.

Do you see DC having or developing a regional food identity? If so, what is it? Who's cooking it?

Usually, when we discuss this all we can come up with is the half-smoke. :angry:

And by the way...did you know that there's now a Midwestern Foodways Alliance? Celebrating the cheese curd.

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It is quite obvious that your investment in your employees goes far beyond a mere economic interest. It's pretty clear that there is a ton of loyalty flowing from the employees to management and vice versa. Could you give us some insight on your philosophy as an employer and the way you like to treat your employees? How does this philosophy affect the bottom line? Has your approach ever come back to bite you in the rear?

One aspect of my job that I get a ton of satisfaction out of is staff development and I take alot of pride in being a responsible employer. Keeping staff engaged in the project...my project...is critical to its success. Figuring out what makes each member of the kitchen tick...what gets him or her charged up, what would be a beneficial next professional step for a given employee and making that possible so that nobody feels taken for granted or stagnant...I put alot of energy into these types of issues.

Of course, there are times somebody disappoints you and you feel that all this effort was for naught. But that's the exception, really. Mainly, I appreciate and respect my staff and I get that right back from them and I don't recall every having been truly "burned" by a kitchen employee in any significant way.

And folks tend to stay in my kitchens for a long time as a result. I've never done a cost-benefit analysis on what I save in training costs versus the increased wage and salary burdens of maintaining a mature staff, but I'm pretty sure the impact on the bottom line is negative. We are always payroll-heavy in my restaurants. Not ideal financially speaking, but quality of life in the kitchen is high and quality and consistency of product is up there, too. And I guess that matters more to Johnny and me.

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Ms. Cashion,

Thank you for choosing to use environmentally responsible take-out containers at Taqueria Nacionale. I imagine that they might cost quite a bit more than traditional options and very much appreciate your demonstration of good stewardship.

Your writing here is mellifluous, and your stories make me want to patronize your restaurants more frequently!

All the best,

Hank

EVERYBODY should patronize my restaurants more frequently!

It's nice that you're aware of the nature of the take-out containers at the Taqueria. They do cost more than most styrofoam or plastic options, except for some of those really heavy duty high end plastic jobs that are built like Humvees. Anyway, I like the way they look and they make it easy for us to stamp the little icons for the various tacos on the lids so that we don't have to open every container before we pack it up. :angry:

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