One Toque Over the Line Three ways celebrity chefs are sucking the oxygen out of D.C. dining

Brian Taylor

Some say the D.C. dining community has outgrown its need to speak softly but carry a big steak. They argue that the classic steakhouses and fussy French palaces that used to pad our waistlines as well as our expense reports have yielded to a generation of chefs more interested in melding global influences, exploring new ingredients, and generally treating French cooking techniques as mere starting points.

Yeah, sure, that’s all true. But I’m here to tell you that one thing has definitely not changed: High-end restaurants still hog all the goddamn attention, even from bloggers and message boards that are supposed to free us from the tyranny of the mainstream media and their focus on the obvious.

Why can’t we keep our eyes and mouths off places like Komi, Hook, Brasserie Beck, Proof, Bebo Trattoria, and the like? They are, no doubt, the same reasons why we’ve become a nation of starfuckers. We seem genetically programmed to follow, zombielike, behind those chefs with the best pedigrees, the fanciest cribs (in the priciest locations), and the most press clippings. Food journalists—and I include myself here—are co-conspirators, of course, in this game of inflating the already overblown.

Now here’s the problem with shining so much light on such a limited number of elite restaurants: It shafts the gifted ethnic chefs and the small-time restaurateurs who can rarely hope to capture the imagination of the dining community. As hard as this may be to swallow, fringe restaurants such as Hong Kong Palace, YaZuZu, and Bob’s 88 Shabu-Shabu, are what give our scene character, not the pricey dining rooms that wish to turn D.C. into a destination food city like San Francisco and New York City.

Don’t get me wrong. I love many of the fine-dining chefs who make eating high on the hog so exciting. What I don’t love are the pretensions of the modern restaurant—and how they seem to affect everyone around them, from line cooks to hungry diners to restaurants far down the food chain.

Problem 1: Chefs who rise above their station

As late as the 19th century, when full-service restaurants were still scarce, cooks in aristocratic homes were squirreled away in corners so remote that the food would be room temperature by the time it reached guests in the dining room. “The point,” writes Michelle Wildgen in Tin House’s Food & Booze collection, “was not that meals must be cold and bland, but to show that the host had enough money, space, and servants to keep food in its proper place: hidden until the proper moment.”

Contrast this with the modern American restaurant, where the chef may not only have a prominent perch in his gleaming, open kitchen but also a prominent display of press clippings, awards, and cookbooks that validate our endless kowtowing. He may even have his smiling mug staring at you from a wall in the dining room, like Michel Richard at Central, or cause diners to wail loudly for abandoning them, like Fabio Trabocchi did when he announced he was leaving Maestro for New York City.

But you know what a celebrity chef will likely never do? Cook your meal. It’s the great lie, and we all buy into it—the diners, the media, and the major cooking awards. Anthony Bourdain, a celebrity chef himself, recently lit a flame under the James Beard Foundation when he wrote that he’d be happy to take part in future Beard Award ceremonies “when and if I saw some kind of an effort to acknowledge the people who are actually doing the cooking in this country—the between 30 and 70% of restaurant employees of Mexican and Latino origin…”

The world of celebrity chefs, in other words, has created a hierarchy as rigid as the ones in those old aristocratic homes. Except now the class divide occurs among the cooks themselves.

Problem 2: An olive is not a course

By walking into a high-end restaurant, you’re immediately putting yourself among a class of people who can afford to spend $50 or more a head to dine. Historically, this kind of prosperity meant that you’d eat like a racehorse. “In the earliest human class systems we know about, food played a differentiating role,” historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes in Near a Thousand Tables. “At that stage…it was quantity that mattered, rather than the dishes selected or the way they were prepared.”

The pendulum has swung back in the 21st century. Diners can now express class distinctions by savoring single-bite servings of prissy, pristinely sourced ingredients. In recent months, I’ve supped on two rice-paper-thin strips of house-cured lard at Bebo Trattoria, a small sliver of amberjack at Hook, and a lone house-brined olive at Komi. I know I was supposed to be dazzled by these bites, and sometimes I was. But mostly I was dazzled by the fact that the chef had the stones to consider these real courses.

A chef and friend recently told me that she had also sampled the tasting menu at Komi. Unlike me, though, she went with the non-wine-pairing option, which translated into fewer courses. She enjoyed the same latchkey olive—not to mention a single breakfast radish and a thin, well-salted patch of amberjack—but figured the pasta and entree courses would compensate for the meze’s lack of calories. They didn’t. “I had to go home and make popcorn,” she told me. She spent $150 for the honor of preparing her own final, stomach-filling course.

Problem 3: Get your culinary magic off my junk food!

With its harissa rémoulade and other chef-driven toppings, M’Dawg Haute Dogs seems like a self-consciously hip rejoinder to the simplicity of Ben’s Chili Bowl. With its tiny servings of Congressional Seafood cod dipped in multiflour batter, Eamonn’s seems like a chipper too good to play with its greasy brethren. And with its house-made sauces and Bell & Evans chicken, Taqueria Nacionale taunts competitors still making do with lesser ingredients.

Chefs, of course, have been blurring the line between fine and casual dining for years, but now they’re beginning to play with foods that have traditionally fallen under the “fast” category. This is a good development for your taste buds but not necessarily for your psyche. Have you ever wondered if the food has “improved” at RFK Stadium or at the Birchmere or at one of your neighborhood haunts?

This very question implies that chefs have brainwashed us into believing that taste is everything in eating out. It isn’t. A quick example: One of my all-time favorite meals occurred years ago on a littered, industrial strip along the Houston Ship Channel where an open-air shack peddled fried foods and sandwiches. A friend and I ordered two (overcooked) burgers and cheap beer, sat on a gray picnic table as the jukebox blared twangy rock, and watched as the tanker ships, as large as city blocks, rolled by. Neither of us wanted to leave.

When’s the last time that happened to you at a fine-dining place?

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THIS WEEK: Who could have a problem with D.C.'s restaurant scene breaking out of its steakhouse torpor? Not Tim Carman, though he's none too happy with some of the fruit that's accompanied the blossoming of fine dining here. Also, in Ask Tim: How can I get such great Vin de Plonque for so cheap?

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