Young and Hungry

God is My Sous Chef

Inside the Superstitious World of D.C. Restaurant Opening Rituals

The giant pot is screaming hot when Pete Smith grabs it and runs out the kitchen door. “Look out,” shouts the chef of Penn Quarter’s PS7’s.

Smith swirls the contents—rosemary, thyme, garlic, lemongrass, star anise, and half a dozen other herbs and spices simmering in oil—as he makes a lap past the bar and around some low-lying tables in the restaurant’s lounge. An aromatic trail of smoke and steam follows as he races down the hall, past the host stand, and around every corner in the empty 130-seat dining room.

That’s how you please the restaurant gods.

Smith performed this ritual the day he opened PS7’s in 2006. It started 17 years ago when he was chef at Vidalia as a way to mask the smell of chemicals after every Saturday’s deep clean. But over time, the ritual has morphed into something more: an almost religious ceremony designed to conjure up a bit of luck in a notoriously volatile industry. The chef repeats the process whenever he feels like PS7’s could use a jolt of good energy.

“The theory is it gets all the bad out and makes the place smell good,” Smith says, as he prepares to re-enact the ritual for me. Only one thing is missing: Ordinarily, the offering of the spices is accompanied by the sound of cooks banging utensils on the hood of the oven, shouting, and clanging pots and pans. On this particular Thursday afternoon, only the Rolling Stones are playing in the background.

Superstitions and rituals are as much a part of the restaurant industry as food and wine, particularly when it comes to opening a new place. Whether it’s crystals, candles, voodoo dolls, or prayers from Buddhist lamas and Catholic priests, restaurants are full of blessings and black magic. In a business where success can be fickle and fleeting, chefs and restaurateurs will take any good karma they can get.

“All spaces have energy,” says mixologist Gina Chersevani, who previously worked with Smith at PS7’s and is now a partner in the forthcoming Hank’s Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill. “A million things happen in restaurants. People yell at each other, or they laugh, or they cry. People break up or get married or get engaged.”

So when a new restaurant opens, it’s best to remove the old energy. Just after signing the lease for the Hank’s Eastern Market location, Chersevani and chef Jamie Leeds cleansed the space with a sage-burning ceremony. Gina started in the furthest northeast part of the room and used a smudge stick to dust from corner to corner, letting the smoke fill the restaurant. The doors were left open to push the bad spirits out. As part of the process, Chersevani lit a white purity candle “charged” with full moon salts. She also drew a line in sage ash at the foot of every entrance.

There was cause for taking every precaution: The previous tenant, a Vietnamese restaurant called Ba Bay, closed within a year. “It was pretty heavy in there,” Chersevani says. “When you walk in there now, it’s different. It’s light.”

For other restaurants, a professional is brought in for the job. A Catholic priest blessed the pizza oven at Il Fornaio in Reston while a Hindu pandit blessed Rasika’s Penn Quarter location and its just-opened West End sister restaurant. The Lakshmi puja ritual, traditionally performed during the Hindu festival of Diwali, pays homage to the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

In addition to Smith’s pot of sizzling herbs and spices, PS7’s also had a Buddhist lama and later a Catholic priest bless its space—just a rabbi short of a really great “walking into a bar” joke.

Inside the Superstitious World of D.C. Restaurant Opening Rituals

Ping Pong Dim Sum invited a Chinese lion dance troupe—several dancers in the costume of a giant lion—for the openings of its Chinatown and Dupont Circle locations. The Chinese lion signifies wealth, wisdom, and power; having one on site is meant to guarantee good luck and good fortune. As the lion danced around the dining room to the bang of drums and clash of cymbals, staff and guests fed it lettuce and bok choy with red envelopes filled with cash. If the lion accepts the offerings, that means the restaurant will have its favor and fortune.

“Superstition has an element of truth in it,” says Ping Pong’s general manager Myca Ferrer. “We’re going to throw as much as we can against the wall to see what sticks.”

In other cases, chefs and restaurateurs place good-luck charms in their eateries upon opening. Bayou Bakery chef and owner David Guas uses a voodoo doll from New Orleans gifted to him by a relative. The dark-skinned doll with straw hat and blue dress guards over the Louisiana-inspired restaurant from the highest perch in the room.

Guas initially wanted to have a mini altar in Bayou Bakery to make daily offerings of dried beans and rice, chicken bones, or rum. But he figured the Arlington clientele might get a little freaked out.

Pizzeria Paradiso owner Ruth Gresser placed protection crystals near the entrance of her Old Town Alexandria shop when it opened. She also has pieces of the 20-year-old pizza oven from her very first pizzeria in Dupont Circle scattered at each of her three current locations—like a non-evil Horcrux.

Before the opening of her Georgetown pizzeria, Gresser also had a Buddhist lama, saffron robe and all, perform a ritual to release negativity and remove obstacles. (Her partner has connections to a Buddhist Sangha in the area.) Several failed restaurants, including a pizzeria, had previously occupied that address. The half-hour ritual involved walking through the restaurant while burning incense and reciting Tibetan chants punctuated by drums and bells.

“To serve people and feed people, you have to have an open heart,” Gresser says. “And I think an open heart can bring you to spirituality.” So far, it’s paid off. Ten years later, Pizzeria Paradiso is still one of the busiest spots in Georgetown.

On the rare occasion that good fortune does not come, the ritual performer may take the blame.

Smith says that in his Vidalia days, members of the kitchen crew used to take turns preparing the mix of herbs and spices for their offering to the restaurant gods.

“If we had a really crappy night, whoever did the offering got basically beaten up,” Smith says.

And, in a different and somewhat less religious restaurant industry ritual at the end of the night, the offending crew member also bought the beers.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

...