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Dining in DC presents: DC’s Rising Culinary Star Series

Each year the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) honors extraordinary professionals within the Washington, DC area restaurant industry at their Restaurant Awards Gala, “The RAMMYS.” Prominent restaurant employees, chefs, and local restaurants are celebrated and recognized within thirteen award categories. In 2009, the five finalists for the “Rising Culinary Star” award are Cedric Maupillier from Central Michel Richard, Daniel Giusti from 1789, Mike Isabella from Zaytinya, Shannon Overmiller from Majestic Cafe, and Anthony Chittum from Vermilion. As part of the “Rising Culinary Star Series,” each chef will be featured in an exclusive interview depicting their personal history, culinary experiences, and future aspirations.

Anthony Chittum, Executive Chef at Vermilion Restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria was lucky contestant number one.

Lisa Shapiro Question: What is your best or “signature dish”?

Anthony Chittum Answer: I have one per season. We change the menu each season and when that certain ingredient comes back around the following year, I’ll look at it and if I really like it we’ll put it back on the menu. We’ll tweak it a little bit. There is a dish that we do in the winter, the roasted local rockfish that is a play on chowder. It’s a puree with glazed celery, leek, and potato with a little smoked bacon and fried oysters as a garnish. The sauce is my “chowder froth.” It’s definitely something that we do every year. I think it’s where it needs to be.

Q: What is your current favorite ingredient? Something that you use frequently on the current menu?

A: I’ve been playing with making my own mustard using fresh mustard seeds to create different flavors of mustards. I like mustard seeds and the heat from it much better than from pepper. Right now we have a green peppercorn, and a horseradish mustard and a basil mustard. It’s the mustard that is served with the hush puppies. We start with a basic Dijon, add maple syrup, and touch of mayonnaise.

Q: How did you get involved in the farm-to-table movement?

A: I grew up cooking in restaurants around the Annapolis area where everything is very seasonal. Some simple examples are, when shad roe is in season, we had it on the menu for a month and crab and corn chowder was always in the summer and we would have potato leek soup at night. When I moved to San Francisco in the late ’90s to work with Donald Link, it was just done out there. It wasn’t trendy, it’s just how it was done out there. Everyone always changed the menu. We had great local produce and we changed the menu constantly. So that was my foundation and then when I came back to DC, I worked for Todd Gray at Equinox. He was very much into seasonal food and changing the menu constantly and sourcing out the best farmers and the best products locally. In 2000, there were some restaurants doing it, but not to the extent that they are now. Now when chefs start up their own place for the first time, it’s almost automatic and they’re changing their menus at least quarterly. People are more conscious about what they’re putting on the menu. It’s a tough competition. You have to offer the best of everything.

Q: What are your guilty pleasures?

A: I try to eat healthy, but I like pizza; but good pizza. I eat peanut butter by the spoonful. A spoonful for me and a spoonful for the dog. I like Sour Patch Kids. I’m not really a chocolate person. I like fruit and cheese instead of dessert.

Q: What is your favorite dish on the current menu? (If your family came to the restaurant, what would you insist that they try?)

A: My family came to the restaurant last week and I cooked for them. My mom doesn’t like spicy food so she had the roasted spring chicken with the faro salad with pine nuts, sugar snap peas, and currants. My dad had the petite tenderloin & short rib “pastrami” with buttermilk blue cheese & potato galette and a little herb salad with olive oil and lemon. The pastrami is a little hot.

Q: Where do you get inspiration to create new dishes?

A: It’s a combination of a whole lot of different things; knowing the ingredients and their flavor components, and other flavor components that go with that. Everything has been done but you can tweak it to your taste. You have to go out and eat at other people’s restaurants and see what they’re doing. You can get inspiration almost anywhere. I went to Greece last summer and I got a lot of inspiration from there. When I came back from Greece, I played with some of the things that I loved when I was there. One of the dishes that we’re offering at the farm dinner coming up, such as the mixed grill with a combination of rabbit, beef, bison, from New Frontier Farms in Virginia, all different cuts. It’s a dish that I had at a little restaurant on the water in Mykonos. We also did a beefsteak grilled flat bread, stuffed with feta, and a little bacon. I also loved the Loukaniko, or Greek sausage that I had in Greece. When I came back, I tried to recreate it. We put it on the menu for a little while.

Q: What are your current favorite restaurants?

A: I like Duangrat’s. I get the chef’s special pork and their black pepper calamari, it’s really good. I like going to Bastille in Old Town, it’s about a block from my house. They’re great friends and they always have something good on the menu and they have delicious desserts.

Q: You were nominated for the 2009 RAMW Rising Culinary Star Award. If not you, who will win?

A: It’s a tough call. Cedric Maupillier works with Michel Richard, who is one of the best chefs in the country. It’s a great restaurant with a great reputation and a good following and it gets a lot of press. People know him. I assume that he will win. But I love Zaytinya. It’s one of my favorite places to eat. The food is one of the closest things I have had since I went to Greece. Their chicken eggdrop soup with lemon is awesome. They have great food there. I’ve also been to Majestic three or four times. It’s another great Old Town restaurant with great food and nice people.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

A: Like most chefs, I’d like to own my own restaurant. It would definitely be in the DC area. I grew up in Maryland. This is where I belong. I love it here.

PART II: Chef Dan Giusti, 1789

Executive Chef, Daniel Giusti from 1789, agreed to speak to me as part of Dining in DC’s  “Rising Culinary Star Series.” Chef Tony Chittum was part one of this series.

Lisa Shapiro Question: Who has been the greatest influence on you and your cooking?

Chef Dan Giusti Answer: I would say initially it was a family driven thing. I have a large Italian family. I was always impressed with one of my Aunts. At a very young age, I liked to cook. She was a phenomenal cook. I always tried to re-create something of hers, but could never do it, but this was when I was 13. She would tell me how to do something, but it never worked out. Everything to this day that she makes is wonderful.

So that was initial interest; I really enjoyed cooking and eating. I’m still impressed to this day even now after I have a much more scrutinizing palate. So initially it was her. Professionally I’d say that it was at my first job that really opened my eyes to what this was all about I worked at Aureole, which was Charlie Palmers’ restaurant in NYC, where I had my internship in culinary school. It was there that I realized that I wanted to be in fine dining and I really enjoyed working a lot. I liked the fast paced atmosphere. That’s a big part of it to. It’s not just about cooking. A lot of people like cooking. This isn’t for those people.You have to be into the atmosphere like hustling, the atmosphere, running around, and being aggressive.

Q: At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a Chef?

A: At 17, I knew that I wanted to be in the kitchen. I knew I wanted to be a Chef. I was working in NYC, all alone. All I did was work. Every night, I went home and I would think about what I would do the next day. I was so into thinking about the next day. That was the turning point and that was a long time ago.

Q: At 24, you’re already a successful Chef. If you could give some advice to young chefs just starting out, what would it be?

A: My advice would be, before you go to culinary school or before you make any kind of big commitment, you should just get into a professional kitchen and work. See if the atmosphere is you; see if the hours are for you.

That’s the initial thing and then from there my advice is to anyone who is at that point who realizes that they do want to be a Chef, don’t rush into being a chef. You should take advantage of the fact that you work in a kitchen as a cook and that there is someone who is there who is trying to teach you. My advice is work somewhere where you’re always learning and being challenged to be better. 

Q: What is your best or “signature” dish?

A: I’m proud to say that there isn’t anything on the menu right now that has been on there long enough for me to say that. I’m a big proponent of not having those types of things. I know that there was a time, at the height of this restaurant, when the menu was the same for four or five years and that is when some of those dishes came about. ‘Oh, this is the signature dish of 1789.’ I have only been here one year. We talk about it about how we had some really nice dishes last season, should we bring them back? I question whether we should bring them back; why not just do different dishes. There is no dish that I would say that this is my signature dish because when I look back on a dish I say, ‘Oh I should have done this instead.’ I say, ‘We should have changed this or that.’ It’s such a learning process.

Beef Carpaccio hard boiled quail egg, baby arugula, garlic chips, fried capers and pequin chili oil

Beef Carpaccio hard boiled quail egg, baby arugula, garlic chips, fried capers and pequin chili oil

So now there are dishes on the menu that show that we’re definitely getting somewhere. We don’t have items (on the menu) that people are coming in specifically for. For example, Steak Tartare was on the menu for a long time and it was really good but I was changing everything on the menu. So we took it off the menu and people were upset that we took it off. We replaced it with a beef Carpaccio (see photo on left) and now everyone loves that and now no one even cares know about the Tartare. And that’s the goal, we replace them with better things. It’s a different time. The lamb here is an excellent quality piece of lamb and is probably the best in the city. And it’s great and I have no problem with keeping it on. It’s the only thing that we won’t change. It’s the best lamb I have ever had. 

I think our fish dishes are good. I enjoy eating fish better than meat. I like eating lighter too. I put a little bit more passion, or thought into it. In terms of a specific dish, for example, we have a Grouper dish that I really like a lot. It’s very seasonal; very American and a play on traditional food. Which I think, all in all is what we’re trying to do here;



American food, seasonal and relatively simple to a point, which is what we’re trying to do here. The dish is a small piece of South Carolina Red Grouper, seared, roasted and served with a beer boil, white ale, Yukon gold potatoes, shellfish stock, roasted fennel, ramps, and crispy fried soft-shell crab, tossed in smoked paprika (see photo on right). People really like it. That dish I think – is my favorite dish. It’s a really great example of the food that we’re trying to do here and the food that I’d like to do here. If I can be content with every dish as I am with that dish, I’d be happy.

We give people good options and we have the prix fixe menu also. I like to keep things consistent. When I get a complaint, it throws me off. Most people who come in here will enjoy it but then you have that 5% that are difficult and are really paying attention to the food and then you have that 1% who will never be happy, no matter what. We want to please those people. They came here because they had high expectations and we want to meet those expectations. Especially now with the economy, you have to fight for your customers. The economy is bad and DC is becoming a much better restaurant scene. Everyone who comes in here, we need to impress.

I would like to see a younger group of people who are really into the food here. We need a future. The fact that we require a jacket we hope that it doesn’t keep people from coming here. Our restaurant is very Washington. It’s great food and great service. 

Q: What is your favorite or most frequently used ingredient?

A: We use a lot of vinegar. A lot of pickled things in a lot of dishes. Pickled pearl onions have shown up on like 20 dishes since I have been here. Also pickled ramps. A lot of acid. Like that Grouper dish has a good amount of lemon. I really enjoy vinegar.

Q: In the DC metro area, what are your current favorite restaurants?

A: Obelisk is a great restaurant. I went there for the first time when I was 15. I’ve eaten there at least six or seven times and a month ago. I think that’s a great restaurant. Are you going to be blown away with the food? Sometimes, maybe but usually not blown away but when you go there you know that you’re going to get good food. The food is always good no matter what. It’s great food. And some of the stuff that they do there is better than anywhere else. I don’t care how much money you pay. We had ravioli with braised escarole it was the best I’ve ever had. It was so good. That’s something that you never see anywhere else. It was just phenomenal. It was a great meal. Obelisk seats like 30 people, which is very quiet. It’s very quiet, service is great, everyone knows about wine. It’s not pretentious at all. They use a lot of seasonal high quality products.

Q: What are your guilty pleasures?

A: I eat a lot of junk food. I have the worse diet; the most unhealthy. They’re not even guilty pleasures; I’m pretty open about eating like McDonald’s, Hot dogs. I get like 8-9 McDonald’s cheeseburgers and ice cream. I like to make my own ice cream but I don’t get to do that very often. I’ll get a pint of Häagen-Dazs. I’m really big into candy. I like nerds and I like gummy candy too, sour patch are like my favorite. You can’t go wrong with sour patch kids.

Q: You were nominated for the 2009 RAMW Rising Culinary Star Award. If not you, who will win?

A: As far as that goes, if you look at the people that are nominated and you look at their accomplishments and what they’ve done. If you look at the title, “Rising Culinary Star” – I look at the guy from Central; Central got the Best New Restaurant from James Beard last year. As far as accomplishment goes, he shouldn’t be a Rising Culinary Star. As far as I’m concerned, he’s really on his way. He’s there. He’s doing a great job. So I don’t think he should win. I don’t think he should be nominated for that award. It’s almost an insult to him to be in that category. He’s 33 years old and working at Central. It’s an insult. Like what is his next step? He’s going to continue to work for Michel Richard and open less formal places because that’s what makes money and that’s the direction that he’s probably going in. I’ve never eaten at Central or Majestic. I’ve eaten at Zaytinya. I’ve eaten at Vermilion. Restaurant Eve is like the best restaurant in town and she (Shannon Overmiller) came from there. The fact that we’re recognized is great. I say “we” because Travis was recognized as Best Pastry Chef.

Q: You have both a solid culinary education, from CIA, and you have a lot of work experience, since you have been working in the industry since you were 15 years old. Which do you feel has been the most instrumental to your success?

A: Definitely not school that’s for sure; not to knock school. I would say once it again it’s either Aureole or my last job (Guy Savoy). Going to CIA was helpful but it wasn’t the most important. It definitely allowed me to meet people I met the people at Clyde’s. When I was 15, the woman who was the representative, she directed me to Clyde’s. If it wasn’t for CIA, I wouldn’t have gotten to Clyde’s, if it wasn’t for CIA, I wouldn’t have gone to Italy, If it wasn’t for CIA, I wouldn’t have gone to Aureole either. So in that sense, it might have been one of the most important things. I made a lot of connections at CIA. In terms of what I learned it would either be from Aureole or Guy Savoy. It was so eye opening there, just the way things were so refined; that this level of refinement exists in the kitchen. For example, I peeled walnuts with pairing knives and shucking peas out of the pod. In terms of technique and discipline you have to go to a kitchen like that.

Q: You’ve been with Clyde’s Restaurant Group for so long, if you could be the Chef at any DC restaurant, which would you choose? Why?

A: It would definitely be, as far as the space, and the restrictions, and how they run the place – a place like Komi. I respect that guy. I’ve eaten there and I didn’t think it was the greatest thing ever. He cut down the space of his restaurant so he could make better food and I really respect that. I really respect that about him; I’ve never met him but I really respect that – the fact he cut his restaurant down in size to make better food. A small restaurant where you can do anything you want. You don’t have to worry about pleasing these people and those people. You do what you want and people will come. The fact that he started at such a young age and was able to do it and just get it done. He’s a prime example of being a chef at a really young age and just developing yourself. He started and you see his menus of when he started they have nothing to do with what he is doing now. Trying to get better and getting better. I would love to do that.  

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

A: I can see myself being here at least for two more years. I want to be here long enough to get it done. See it through. The next step from here would be for me to open my own place. I think it would be less than five years

For more info: Go to 1789, located at 1226 36th St., NW Washington, DC 20007 – Phone: (202) 965-1789

PART III: Chef Cedric Maupillier, Central

Lisa Shapiro Question: You started working at the age of 15 at the bakery, but at what point in your life did you know for sure that you were going to be a chef?

Cedric MaupillierCedric Maupillier Answer: If someone were to ask me who I should thank for introducing me or choosing this career, I would thank my mom. I would thank her for driving me every weekend to my grandmother’s house which was in the neighborhood of Marseilles in the south of France in Provence. I spent a lot of time in my grandpa’s beautiful garden. I watched and learned. My Grandfather would water the garden, so early in the morning or late at night when the sun was disappearing, so it would not burn the leaves. My grandmother always prepared a very large meal for our family and neighbors which was 12 to 20 people.

I helped to prepare what we had in the garden and the squab, pigeon that my granddad hunted. That was my main inspiration – my grandmother. Then I decided that I wanted to try to recreate that beautiful feeling – sharing with people good food. I really decided to become a chef because of that feeling. It’s really funny because I remember how my grandmother always said, ‘I hate cooking, I hate cooking’. I said to her, ‘If you hate cooking so much, why don’t you make your food taste bad and you wont have to cook anymore.’ (laughing)

Q: If you could give some advice to cooks or someone who’s interested in getting involved in cooking, what advice would you give them to inspire them when they are just starting out?

A: There are two ways that I see cooking: First, there is the cooking like family style and then there is the kind of cooking where you cook in a restaurant – business style cooking. That’s where more than love is needed – numbers are involved too and that’s my experience in cooking right now. When you begin cooking, you have to forget about everything that you see on TV like on Top Chef and Star Chef. You have to be ready not to be good at the beginning. You have to accept whomever mentor or leader that you can learn from and you have to accept failure. It’s dangerous – you can cut yourself, you spend a lot of time on your feet; standing for long periods of time. So you have to accept all the negative. A new cook needs to realize that cooking is not just what you do at home. In the restaurant industry, the cooking is numbers – time is money, people are money, food is money, and customers are money. It’s a business.

You always have to have love when you are cooking, because that’s what drives a chef to become a good chef with good food. If you don’t want to share what you are going to give to people, they will feel it. You should cook what you think you would like to eat yourself. If you do something and in the end you don’t like it, trust me, 95% of the time, you’ll give it to someone else and this person will feel that you didn’t appreciate it or you don’t like to do it. Maybe that’s my advice – just try to do the profession or in life, something that you like to do. If you want to be a cook, cook what you like to eat, and with love and passion.

Q: Would you say that it’s more important to get a culinary education or to gain experience by working in a professional kitchen?

A: I would say number two because you don’t learn the field in the school. What you learn at school is very important too, which serves as the foundation of the work that you are going to do. At school they prepare you and give you good training and a variety of experiences that you are going to need in the future, but what you learn afterwards, while working is where you are confronted with situations that school sometimes doesn’t provide the answers for. Culinary school is very expensive too and young chefs only make $10 to $12 maximum an hour and probably get no insurance. You have to pay $30k to $60k a year for school and then by the time he/(she) is 40, you haven’t finished paying for school yet. I would say if you want to become is a chef, don’t waste your time at school.  There are other ways to learn. You can learn about wine and food anytime. You can always learn more on your own and save money. If I had to redo everything again, I would probably not go to school and I would probably be more experienced by now. So before you go to school, I would work in a restaurant for one year to be sure. Then afterwards you can decide if you want to go to school. If you want to become an Executive Chef then you can go back to school. I see students now and I am sad for them that they spent so much money and what they bring back from school is just pieces of education. I believe that school is good for anyone.  You know what you want to do in your life? You have time to learn everything that school gives you? But work as soon as possible and when you want to get more information, get it yourself.

Q: What is your favorite or most frequently used ingredient? What dishes do you seem to put a lot this ingredient in?

A: My mistake is always to put an extra pinch of salt. I think that this has been the main ingredient in food everywhere for a long long time. Historically, people have fight for salt. Salt is one of the foods that we use to flavor the food but it is also so important for the human body to survive. You know, your body needs salt and we learn not to use salt to rob the flavor. So that would be my main ingredient, my main spice, my main food but my biggest mistake also. I love salt. Sometimes when you love it, you use too much of it. Also, I would say that tomato is one of my favorite ingredients especially this time of the year. I have fond memories all the time from my grandfather’s garden of how I would pick the tomato, how they are so warm, so plumpy. I love the smell of tomatoes. They are delicious.  The tomato is from China, it’s a fruit but usually used in everything from cold soup, tomato sauce, the baste of duck sauce in French cooking or the stock, or use in salad, or you know use ice cream and sorbet out of tomato and it’s a very versatile product and its beautiful, its essential, its red and soft and shiny. All kinds of tomato, we don’t have much in France, we have huge tomatoes here, scary tomatoes sometimes.

Q: What is your best or signature dish? Do you have one dish that you think you make the very best and nobody else could ever make it better?

A: That would be so difficult to say. I am very humble when it comes to my food. I don’t think that I am better than anyone. I just try to do my best at each dish that I am doing at the restaurant. I try to bring the best out of them. Some days I love them; other days I am disappointed. The food on the menu at Central; I take it very personally. Like right now for the summer, we have a nice Italian dish, people love it and I use always the same amount of tomato, bread, onion, Tabasco, and salt and all of the other ingredients. I will try to make it and some days the flavor is different and I am frustrated at myself that I cannot produce consistency, regularity on everything, everyday. That’s what a good restaurant is in the end. If you go to the restaurant and you love the dish one day and then you come back two weeks later and you bring five or six friends and explain the experience you love by yourself and you promise your friends that it would be the best that they would ever have. If you can please them all now, then you have reached something that is very important – and that is consistency. That’s very fragile product.

Stay tuned for more  from Cedric Maupillier from Central Michel Richard!

The Rammys will be held on Sunday, June 7, 2009. There will be a follow-up feature about the winner of the Rising Culinary Star award and coverage from the Rammys awards gala.