Jump to content
DonRocks

A Chat with Ann Cashion

Recommended Posts

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?

I think of Tuscan bread not as something to eat on it own but as a platform for other components of the meal, which as we've discussed, tend to be salted to an optimal maximum level. (notice that the bread never arrives at the table with butter or for that matter olive oil.) It's perfect munched with a slice of prosciutto or salami. Or for mopping up the vestiges of meat sauce in your pasta bowl or the oil and vinegar from a perfectly salted salad. It's a component of some classic Tuscan dishes, most notably panzanella, a bread, cucumber, tomato and basil salad and ribollita, where it's thinly sliced and layered with a full-bodied minestrone and parmesan cheese. In both cases, the utter neutrality of the bread supports the flavors of the dish without dissonance while defining the dish's texture. And don't forget fettunta, known more commonly in the US as bruschetta, where the bread takes on the smoky flavors of the wood grill, is rubbed with raw garlic, and then topped with all manner of scrumptious salty delights.

My favorite comfort food right now is eggs... cheap, easy to keep on hand, quick to prepare, and versatile. I get the heebie jeebies if I don't have eggs in the fridge at home. My favorite splurgeworthy preparations at the moment all have to do with fresh shrimp....hard to get your hands on here but when I go to New Orleans, which I often do, much less of a challenge. Down there the shrimp are fresh, fat, succulent, and widely available (and cheap, but in this market, if you can even find fresh shrimp, they won't be)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
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:

Surprisingly, I guess, I've never watched even one program on the Food Network. Actually, that's not true. I recently tuned in to an episode of "Feasting on Asphalt" because Alton Brown was in the Mississippi Delta. The only episode of Iron Chef I've ever seen was a VHS cassette home recording that my friend Kaz Okochi lent me years ago when he returned from Japan, long before the show was ever available in the US. And I've never seen even one installment of a reality TV food show.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ann,

Your glowing prose continues to amaze me, truly. Join the club on never having watched any food programs (except for one episode of Hungry Detective, of course.)

How do you feel about restaurant reviews in general? What did you think of the press Johnny's got shortly after it opened?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
(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?

The first chef (and last) chef that I ever worked FOR in DC was Nora Pouillon. From there on out I was running the kitchens I was involved in. Which is not to say that I haven't worked with alot of folks that have become chefs in their own right:

Gillian Clark of Colorado Kitchen and Jeff Heineman of Grapeseed were both sous-chefs at Cashion's. Sam Adkins of Jackie's cooked for me for years, both at Cashion's and the Half Shell. Thang Pham, another Cashion's alum, has opened a jewel box restaurant outside Barcelona, Spain that's getting alot of attention. Amy Suyehiro of Argia's was on the opening staff of Cashion's. Katsuya, of Minibar fame used to moonlight at Cashion's in the early years. Scott Hagar who masterminds the small plates at 2Amys was a sous-chef at the original Half Shell. Reaching back even further, I hired Ed Hansen who now owns and operates Ella's Woodfired Pizza to replace Jose Andres at Jaleo. Wayne Combs, who worked with me at Austin Grill went on to become the chef at Jaleo for years and today runs the Taqueria Nacional. Then of course, there's John Manolatos, chef/owner of Cashion's Eat Place.

And if I start telling stories on Gillian Clark, she's much better at telling them on me, so I'll leave it at that!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Ann,

Your glowing prose continues to amaze me, truly.

Maybe you should pull a Hagedorn (or a Bourdain) and swap your skillets for a lap-top. :angry:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Chef,

Thank you so much for taking the time to participate here. As many people on this board are aware, I have been a long time fan of your restaurants and the people that work there Cashion's Thread. I cannot count the number of memorable evenings I have had at Cashion’s.

As I read this chat, I am struck by the recurring themes of your enlightened style of management, loyalty to your staff, commitment to their professional development, and familial nature of all of your operations. In an industry plagued by high turnover, the fact that most people who are a part of the Half Shell or Cashion’s families have been there for years speaks volumes to the type of organizations that you and Johnny run.

For years I have told anyone that would listen that you are one of the nicest, most engaging, and erudite chefs I have ever met. I am delighted that the rest of the dr.com community is having the opportunity to experience that as well.

I suppose I should ask a question here…

When you were at Eat Place daily you hand wrote the menus. Some people might describe your hand writing as a challenge to read in low light. What was the impetus for the decision to hand write the menus? Did anyone ever give you grief for the handwritten menus?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Ann,

Your glowing prose continues to amaze me, truly. Join the club on never having watched any food programs (except for one episode of Hungry Detective, of course.)

How do you feel about restaurant reviews in general? What did you think of the press Johnny's got shortly after it opened?

No matter how you feel about them, restaurant reviews play an important role in my industry, and I appreciate them for that, if for no other reason. A review that gets the word out that you exist and that you might even be doing something worthy of the public's time and money is great for a restaurant and a service to the dining out community. Cashion's Eat Place opened in late May and did not have a significant review printed until October. We were hanging on by our financial fingernails by then. An enthusiastic and upbeat review by Phyllis Richman in the Sunday Post made all the difference. Johnny and I are pretty sure that without that review, Cashion's would have died a slow and painful death on Columbia Road.

Negative reviews that give a place the thumbs down are more difficult to defend, but probably necessary. After all, alerting diners that a particular restaurant is probably not worth investing the amount of the check in COULD be considered a public service, although I personally believe that negative word of mouth travels pretty fast (especially with the internet!) and that restaurants that are doing poor work are found out pretty quickly without the help of the food press. I don't, however, believe in reviews that are gratuitously mocking, snide, or overlook the fact that successful or not, the establishment may well be trying to do a good job. Personal swipes bother me alot. One review of Cashion's opened with the line "Ann Cashion is probably the most over-educated chef in Washington" ( and of course, went downhill from there.) Unnecessary.

I do appreciate reviewers who go out of their way to shine the spotlight on places that would otherwise be overlooked, places that probably have no expectations whatsoever that they will ever be reviewed. A win/win for the restaurant and prospective diners.

I think an important role of restaurant critics is to "explain" restaurants that might not be instantly understood. The DC food press did a great job of introducing the whole tapas concept to the general public when we opened Jaleo, so that when folks arrived they already understood that they couldn't just order a single dish or even two and leave satisfied and that lots of plates and sharing was the name of the game. It's funny, though, when the critics themselves miss the point. When the Post reviewed the original Austin Grill on Wisconsin Avenue, the wrap up line was "this is a fun bar with good Tex-Mex food, but not a great Georgetown grill." Huh?

Now to Johnny's. There was so much anticipation surrounding the opening of that place, and because we fell behind, schedule-wise, on our renovations, that anticipation just swelled to some kind of fever pitch. You know, like I said earlier in this response, as a restaurateur, you WANT to be reviewed, and you want to be reviewed pretty early on. At this stage of the game my profile in this market is high enough that I expected the reviews to come fast and furious. And they did.

The problem for me was, that in the rush to judgment, so much of what was going on was ignored (but like I said before, the business of the food critic, bottom-line, being to sell papers/magazines or whatever the medium, the "scoop" factor just obscured all nuance). Nobody seemed to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking. Breathing new life into an institution on the scale of La Colline is a Herculean undertaking. La Colline had been on the market for years, but, as great as the location is, it was viewed as a real white elephant, something that people just didn't want to tackle. Not one review even spoke about how successfully Johnny and I had managed to update and transform that location into a place that felt really good to be in again. It wasn't cheap, or easy.

Maybe that's because the spectre of P Street was always there. It's strange. When Johnny's was on P Street, customers (and food critics) complained that it was too cramped, and way too noisy. But once it was gone, they forgot about that. The new Half Shell was deemed cavernous and antiseptic. Different. Well, yeah...it is different. Johnny always says that if there'd never been a Half Shell on P Street, we would have gotten great reviews on the Hill. I think he's right.

You know, I streamlined my goals for the kitchen big time for the opening of Johnny's. Faithfully reproducing a menu from a 65 seat cafe in a 300 seat venue was a huge challenge and I knew that going in. That was my goal, but somehow that was viewed as "slacking" by the foodie powers that be, and particularly by the on-line food community. They couldn't believe that the menu was only "the same". (Although I should add that TRUE fans of the food on P Street expressed their relief to me that the menu hadn't been puffed up in response to the swell new digs)

At any rate, the food at Johnny's on Capitol Hill, was, within a few weeks already better than it had ever been on P Street. I know this because I know my own operations intimately, and because P Street regulars who came to Johnny's in the early days confirmed it. Of course there were some off plates because there was alot of new staff in training who could definitely slip up, but in general, we were solid. The problem was, in that rush to judgment that I referred to earlier, we weren't given a few weeks. Probably the cruelest line in Tom Sietsema's review made reference to a dish that he had after we had been open for two days. (believe me, I know everything he ate, and when, and everything that guests at his table ate.)

Is that fair? No. But food critics, they're like the metaphysical "problem of evil". How can such bad things happen to good restaurants? God only knows.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's Saturday. Does that mean the chat is over? I hope not!

Ann Cashion, you have blown me away. Don was right when he said a titan was coming. How could we have known she would be gracious, introspective, funny, and charming.

I dined at Johnny's twice this summer, and enjoyed myself both times. On one occassion I had the fried oysters as an appetizer and as an entree, and both times I had the perfection known as the buttermilk pie for dessert.

How have you adjusted to being on the hill? Do you miss the Dupont Cirle vibe, or intimacy, for lack of a better word? Have customers (other than your P Street regulars) expected to see certain specific items on the menu because of the location (as opposed to a general menu expansion). What's your favorite dish on the menu?

Thanks again, Halloween

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Ann Cashion, you have blown me away. Don was right when he said a titan was coming. How could we have known she would be gracious, introspective, funny, and charming.

And an absolutely wonderful writer! Your insightful thoughts are delivered in a smoothly organized way, and your use of language is flowing and elegant. An absolute delight to read. You are a true daughter of Eudora.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Chef,

Thank you so much for taking the time to participate here. As many people on this board are aware, I have been a long time fan of your restaurants and the people that work there Cashion's Thread. I cannot count the number of memorable evenings I have had at Cashion's.

As I read this chat, I am struck by the recurring themes of your enlightened style of management, loyalty to your staff, commitment to their professional development, and familial nature of all of your operations. In an industry plagued by high turnover, the fact that most people who are a part of the Half Shell or Cashion's families have been there for years speaks volumes to the type of organizations that you and Johnny run.

For years I have told anyone that would listen that you are one of the nicest, most engaging, and erudite chefs I have ever met. I am delighted that the rest of the dr.com community is having the opportunity to experience that as well.

I suppose I should ask a question here

When you were at Eat Place daily you hand wrote the menus. Some people might describe your hand writing as a challenge to read in low light. What was the impetus for the decision to hand write the menus? Did anyone ever give you grief for the handwritten menus?

We DID get grief on a fairly regular basis. I remember one evening a couple actually walked out of the restaurant over it! But it wasn't until about 4 years into Cashion's, when I myself got reading glasses, that I actually understood how difficult the menu could be to read in that light. If I wasn't wearing my glasses, I couldn't do it. Now, the dining room is Johnny's territory and that includes the lighting, which he's very opinionated about. While I always would have liked a little higher level of lighting in the restaurant (Johnny is fully aware of this) I let it be, well, because that's what good partners do, I think...let each other do what they're best at. We did, at my insistence, get some little disposable flashlights to give to guests if they seemed to be struggling.

I always loved writing the menu. It was one of the nicest parts of my day. (I love the physical sensation of writing; I collect fountain pens). So there was that. Moreover, I always loved restaurants where the menu was hand-written, because to me it signified alot...a personal touch, a menu that is not some petrified canon but a record of that day's efforts in the kitchen...generally restaurants with hand-written menus (most of the ones I had encountered were in Europe) were small, family operated places....trattorias and French country restaurants which were my models for Cashion's from the get go.

Also, practically speaking, both Johnny and I are technologically challenged. I knew before we ever opened that writing the menu by hand every day and making copies would actually be alot easier on both of us. Not the least because there were times when that document could not be finalized until right before opening because it still wasn't 100% clear what we'd be serving that night.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
It's Saturday. Does that mean the chat is over? I hope not!

Ann Cashion, you have blown me away. Don was right when he said a titan was coming. How could we have known she would be gracious, introspective, funny, and charming.

I dined at Johnny's twice this summer, and enjoyed myself both times. On one occassion I had the fried oysters as an appetizer and as an entree, and both times I had the perfection known as the buttermilk pie for dessert.

How have you adjusted to being on the hill? Do you miss the Dupont Cirle vibe, or intimacy, for lack of a better word? Have customers (other than your P Street regulars) expected to see certain specific items on the menu because of the location (as opposed to a general menu expansion). What's your favorite dish on the menu?

Thanks again, Halloween

I was wild about Johnny's Half Shell on P Street. It was so tucked away and tiny, so streamlined and simple to operate. Every night there was like a party in that shoebox of a dining room. It appealed to many of my basic sensibilities.

But there are wondrous elements at Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill that I'd be hard pressed to give up now. What's not to love about having the most comfortable and elegant outdoor dining area in the city, complete with a pianist? (the first time Jimmy Burrell played there, which was a week or so after we opened the door, I stood on the terrace before any guests arrived for lunch and just cried, it was so beautiful) Or a kitchen designed by a French chef which is, square foot for square foot as large as the dining area? It's old, but it is so functional and well conceived and laid out. People do not build kitchens like this anymore. They can't afford to. It's an honor to operate out of a space that has such a proud legacy in our city, and from which, standing at the front door you can see two of DC's most beautiful landmarks...Union Station and the Capitol. And there's so much going on at that restaurant--breakfast, lunch, dinner, private events, carry-out-- it's a fine challenge, it's the big leagues, impossible to be other than fully engaged. I remember the Half Shell on P Street fondly, but I don't miss it now. I'm crazy about where I'm at.

It's hard to say what my favorite dish on the menu is, because on any given day, whatever I'm in the mood to eat seems like the thing I love most. I am confident, however, that we have the best fried oysters, the best Maryland-style crabcake, and the best tartar sauce in the DC.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
And an absolutely wonderful writer! Your insightful thoughts are delivered in a smoothly organized way, and your use of language is flowing and elegant. An absolute delight to read. You are a true daughter of Eudora.

And you make wonderful tamales, I believe. :angry:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Chef,

I have followed this chat since the start and I must agree with everyone else that your writing is delightful. I have quite a library of cookbooks and, I have read them not for the recipes but more for the history of the author, the restaurant or the ingredient. I have to say that I have had a very nice history lesson on Eat Place, Johnny's and Chef Ann Cashion. Thank you very much for the look into your world.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Ann Cashion, you have blown me away.

Ann Cashion, you have blown us all away. THANK YOU for being so gracious in doing this chat, and it was a genuine honor having you here. Please permit me one more question:

You mentioned in your Beard acceptance speech that John Manolatos might be standing on that same podium one day. While you touched on him earlier in this chat, he has always flown somewhat under-the-radar in terms of restaurant discussion, not surprising given the gravitas of his larger-than-life mentor.

I met you the other night, pretty much for the first time. On one side of you was someone who appeared to be a cross between Kiefer Sutherland, and a Q-tip dipped in neon.

And on your other side was a gentleman I also had the pleasure of meeting for the first time, someone who seemed very much like a Crescent City Clown, and who was muttering something about inventing Turbodog while flying in an airplane.

Just who are these three people?

And with that, I'd like to leave you with this quote from Eudora Welty:

"A good snapshot stops a moment in time from running away."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dear Chef,

I wanted to chime in and thank you for this chat. It has been enlightening and a joy to read. There is a good reason your last name rhymes with passion!

Best Regards,

Ramona

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Ann Cashion, you have blown us all away. THANK YOU for being so gracious in doing this chat, and it was a genuine honor having you here. Please permit me one more question:

You mentioned in your Beard acceptance speech that John Manolatos might be standing on that same podium one day. While you touched on him earlier in this chat, he has always flown somewhat under-the-radar in terms of restaurant discussion, not surprising given the gravitas of his larger-than-life mentor.

I met you the other night, pretty much for the first time. On one side of you was someone who appeared to be a cross between Kiefer Sutherland, and a Q-tip dipped in neon.

And on your other side was a gentleman I also had the pleasure of meeting for the first time, someone who seemed very much like a Crescent City Clown, and who was muttering something about inventing Turbodog while flying in an airplane.

Just who are these three people?

And with that, I'd like to leave you with this quote from Eudora Welty:

"A good snapshot stops a moment in time from running away."

John Manolatos applied for a job at Cashion's Eat Place while Johnny was still rushing to renovate the space on our virtually non-existent budget. He was a quiet and self-effacing 20 year old whose culinary experience was wholly comprised of stints in the deli departments of Magruder's and Sutton Place Gourmet. For a while, that's all I knew about him, other than that he brought a conscientious, serious attitude with him to work every day. I never had one nanosecond of frustration or anxiety with John. And in short order, I recognized him as someone that I could totally depend on. He began his career at Cashion's on garde manger which he mastered effortlessly. In no time he could cook every station on the line better than any other member of the kitchen. He was a hard driving perfectionist who expected himself to put only flawless plates in the window. He was intelligent, a great listener, who always made sure at the beginning of each shift he knew exactly how I wanted a given dish to be. He was cool under pressure. I once chatted with his church league basketball coach who said to me, "If there were 8 seconds on the clock and you were down by 1, John was guy you wanted to have the ball in his hands". I nodded, knowing exactly what he meant.

John had just turned 24 when I asked him to take the position of sous-chef at Cashion's. I chose him over several other more experienced members of the staff, which created some internal controversy and made his transition uncomfortable at times. He handled all that with his usual strength and grace, understanding where it came from, but never allowing himself to be undermined. He was the guy who was tasked with keeping the kitchen at Cashion's on track while I focused almost exclusively for a full 6 months on opening the Half Shell on P street. The results confirmed that I had not been mistaken in my selection.

John is from a second generation Baltimore Greek family, which I think is a big reason why we are so simpatico in the kitchen. He's been roasting whole lambs on a spit since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He grew up in a household where traditional cooking was practiced daily, where certain dishes were eaten on certain occasions, where grandfathers still prepared their Old World specialties according to recipes passed down through generations. He learned from his upbringing, that cooking is not necessarily the personal expression of a talented individual, but often the faithful, almost ritual repetition of a time -honored cultural repository of ingredients, techniques, and flavors. So we had alot in common, and it's not something I often encounter in cooks of John's age.

I enjoyed nothing more than spending the day at Cashion's cooking with John. As time went on, he became more and more involved in the development of the menu, and I always knew I could trust him to preserve the spirit of Cashion's while doing so. In the year leading up to the relocation of the Half Shell to Capitol Hill, he ran Cashion's with virtually no input from me. Any of you who enjoyed a meal there over the past 18 months have only John to thank.

Nobody is looking forward to watching Cashion's develop under John's stewardship more than I. And I still believe that if there's any justice in the world, John will become a James Beard Award winner.

The gentleman on my right the other night was John Fulchino, the Johnny of Johnny's Half Shell (aka Q-tip). Our 20 year history as co-conspirators is rich and complex, stretching all the way back to the Austin Grill on Wisconsin Avenue, where he managed the bar and I headed up the kitchen. We were both incredibly hard workers who took so much pride in what we were doing that we forgot that we didn't own the restaurant ourselves. So it's no surprise that when we opened the South Austin Grill, I opened the kitchen and Johnny was tapped to manage the dining room and bar. At Jaleo, I was the executive chef and he was the General Manager. During all those years we got to know each other professionally very, very well. I knew exactly what to expect from Johnny and vice versa. And it didn't end when the shift was over. Johnny and I were the notorious master and mistress of merriment after hours, Nick and Nora Charles with a shakerful of margaritas instead of martinis.

It was inevitable that when the time came, Johnny and I would become business partners in our own right, but it was really Johnny's energy and drive that was responsible for Cashion's. His belief in our abilities overwhelmed my doubts and while I was still working at Jaleo, he was putting together the deal to purchase Cafe Atlantico. Johnny designed and physically executed, with the help of a couple of tradesmen, the re-do of that restaurant. When we opened, and he was finally calling the shots instead of executing someone else's vision, he really came into his own. He has a remarkable sense of what makes a dining room feel good, HOW to make it feel good, energized, with music and lighting, and the way the floor staff carry themselves. He is the ultimate face of the place who can make a table's night with his humour and charm. Through the years, his passion for wine and his unerring palate have made the wine programs at our restaurants noteworthy and though he gets a good deal of credit for our intelligent, refined, accessible lists, it's not nearly as much as he deserves. If I sound like his biggest fan, I am, but he's also mine, and we keep each other going during a shaky shift, or when the future feels uncertain, or when the restaurant (literally) catches fire. We make each other possible.

The gentleman to my left was Brooks Hamaker, the Crescent City Clown, and yes the original brewmaster at Abita brewery, creator of Turbodog and virtually the entire Abita line. Our liason is rather recent...going on two years, but all indications are that it's one for the ages. Brooks and I met in New Orleans on a Southern Foodways Alliance fieldtrip. Sitting next to each other at dinner one night, we struck up an amazing conversation that is still going on.

No longer in the brewing industry, Brooks writes food features on a free lance basis these days. (We agree that he will never write about me). He knows more about South Louisiana than anybody in the world. He's an instinctive and talented cook. A self-described redneck, he tells stories like my 90 year old friends in Mississippi...a dying art that mysteriously lives on in him. He can fix anything. He reads faster than anyone I know. He is funny and very very kind. We have a house in New Orleans and some serious projects to take care of together in the Mississippi Delta.

At the risk of saying too much, I'll say too little and leave it there.

Hey Don.

I want to thank you, publicly, for inviting me to join you and your peeps here at DonRockwell.com. I could not have expected such an engaged audience and such a warm response. It's been a wonderful experience for me, a time to reflect on things that I don't always think about, as well as to discuss openly things that I think about all the time. You have a wonderful community of food interested folks here. If it's all the same to you, I'll keep my log-in info and drop in from time to time.

Fondly,

Ann

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest
This topic is now closed to further replies.

×
×
  • Create New...