Young and Hungry

Vendor’s Game: Meet the Chef Behind Union Market

Union Market is chef Richie Brandenburg’s pantry.

It’s lunch hour on opening day of the new high-end food emporium, and the mastermind of Union Market is strolling past the olive oils, meats, and baguettes down the bustling center aisle of the 25,000-square foot space off of 5th Street NE. He walks past vendors he once bought from when he was a top gun for José Andrés at Think Food Group. “That’s how I’m looking at this,” he says. “Where did we buy everything? OK, let’s bring them all together in one place.”

Rappahannock Oyster Bar sells shellfish that Brandenburg featured on the menu at America Eats Tavern. The owner of DC Empanadas worked closely with Brandenburg as Andrés’ former assistant. Mixologist Gina Chersevani, of forthcoming soda shop Buffalo & Bergen, used to serve Brandenburg drinks at Rasika while he waited for his sommelier wife to get off work. In the coming months, popular spots like Dolcezza and Red Apron Butchery will open outposts in the spacious warehouse.

Seattle has Pike Place Market. New York has Chelsea Market. But D.C. hasn’t boasted the same kind of iconic culinary emporium, at least recently. Sure, there’s Eastern Market, but its relatively small space has only one sit-down spot and much of the produce isn’t grown locally. Union Market aims to be D.C.’s top destination for the locavore and foodie sets.

If setting up on this industrial stretch off Florida Avenue NE seemed like a risk, Union Market’s opening weekend should have dispelled its minders’ anxieties: The place was packed. The market is an homage to Union Terminal Market, which opened in the area in 1931 and was part of a vibrant commercial district until recent decades, when food wholesalers took over. Before Edens bought it, the market building was home to no-frills meat and produce vendors. Now, it’s a high-end food oasis—stocked with signifiers of gentrification, from artisan bread to artisan lettuce—only blocks from H Street NE, another area that developers have helped transform into a playground for D.C.’s young professional classes. (Washington City Paper will hold its annual Crafty Bastards indie craft fair in the market on Nov. 10.)

As director of culinary strategy for East Coast developer Edens, Brandenburg was tasked with bringing in vendors and helping design Union Market’s slick, minimalist look. He also oversees all things food for Edens’ $3.8 billion of real estate assets, stretching from Miami to Boston. Locally, his other big project is the Mosaic development in Merrifield, Va., which will include restaurants from Pearl Dive Oyster Palace’s Jeff Black and Rogue 24’s RJ Cooper as well as spots like Taylor Gourmet and Sweetgreen.

Brandenburg’s position is a rare one. Edens claims to be one of the only real estate developers with an internal chef overseeing culinary plans for its properties. “Richie gives us that entrée and credibility into that world of food,” says Edens’ managing director Steven Boyle. Bringing Brandenburg on has had big benefits for the developer: Brandenburg’s connections to farmers and other local restaurateurs run deep, and he’s been able to hook hot startups and big fish into hard-sell neighborhoods. “You can hear Richie getting off the phone talking to a pig farmer in southern Virginia, and next thing he’s on the phone with a major restaurateur,” Boyle says. “It’s just seamless. He’s a man of all people.”

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Brandenburg got into the restaurant biz for date money. The Reston native’s first job was as a busboy for a now-closed fish restaurant in the eighth grade. His culinary career eventually took him to New Orleans, New York, Colorado, and even the Isle of Man, which turned out to be a defining moment in then-21-year-old chef’s career.

Brandenburg moved to the Isle of Man to work at a friend’s parents’ restaurant—until the friend got in a fight with his parents and left. At that point, the owners told Brandenburg they had never filed his visa paperwork and he was working illegally. Brandenburg left for London, where he briefly lived on the streets before getting another kitchen job. When he told the chef he had no place to live, he invited Brandenburg to stay with him. “It was like boot camp,” Brandenburg says of the year-long period in which the chef woke him up at 4 a.m. daily to make bread and sent him home at 11 p.m. “I came back to America and I could do anything. I wasn’t scared of anybody.”

He went on to work at top restaurants like Le Bernadin in New York and San Francisco’s One Market and Fifth Floor, where he met his wife, now a sommelier at Adour.

Andrés hired Brandenburg four years ago. He eventually became kitchen director for Think Food Group, where he did everything from working with chefs on food costs to staffing to setting up new kitchens. He helped open The Bazaar in Los Angeles before becoming chef of America Eats Tavern.

DC Empanadas co-founder Anna Bran-Leis, who used to be Andrés’ assistant, worked closely with Brandenburg. “He’s an amazing chef,” Bran-Leis says. “He can always make you feel better, no matter what kind of bad day you’re having. He just always has a smile on his face, always has a hug for you.”

When Edens hired Brandenburg last August, the developer owned the property but hadn’t really begun putting it together. “Once I came on board, they said, ‘All right, go.’”

Brandenburg wanted Union Market to feel more like a European market than a food court. He says it’s in part inspired by markets he visited in Spain during a trip with Andrés and other Think Food Group chefs.

Bran-Leis admits she was skeptical about the location, which boasts little foot traffic and is surrounded by wholesale markets. “I was like ‘Oh, really, here?’ It was a huge leap of faith to say this is going to be as wonderful as you’re making it sound,” Bran-Leis says. “I honestly believe if it had been someone else pitching it, we would have looked at them like they were crazy…His vision was it’s going to be the No. 1 culinary spot in D.C.”

TaKorean operator Mike Lenard had a similar hesitation. “If it was just going to be a bunch of rag-tag vendors or just some farmers market, you’re not going to pull as many people to that part of the city, at least not right now,” Lenard says. Part of what sold him was Brandenburg and his connections to the city’s star chefs.

In fact, a who’s-who of the local dining scene descended on Union Market last weekend. I spotted Fiola’s Maria and Fabio Trabocchi, Derek Brown of The Passenger and Columbia Room, and former Food Network Star contestant Mary Beth Albright.

The market is also catapulting Brandenburg, who’s maintained a relatively low profile, into a new level of influence. But it’s not keeping him out of the kitchen. “On the one hand, he’s curating how to put this citywide market together,” Boyle says. “And then you catch him on opening day of the market dragging trash out the back to help out Rappahanock Oysters because they’re overwhelmed.”

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, this story originally stated that the market building was more than 200 years old and was named Centre Market. The 200-year-old Centre Market was located where the National Archives now sits. It was torn down in 1931, and many of the vendors moved to Union Terminal Market. The indoor market building that now houses Union Market was built in 1967.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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