Although Manassas resident James Thompson has been a professional chef for years now, he still calls his Vietnamese mother for help with the Asian recipes. Even though he describes himself as having an American style with a minimalist French flair, he still occasionally relies on the memory of his mother's cooking growing up. Since southeast Asian cuisine calls for a balance between the tastes of salty, sweet, sour and bitter, Thompson has aimed to create that ideal balance in his recipes.
"With the food, you get the extra depth of the taste and the smells," Thompson said.
For over a year, Thompson has served as executive chef at RSVP Catering in Merrifield. At 30, Thompson is in charge of everything in what those in the industry call 'the back of the house,' from invoicing to cost control to menu design. He also acts as a mentor to other chefs in the kitchen.
"He's great to work with. His style of food is very good," said RSVP Catering pastry chef Amy Harper. "He's always working on it, he's always improving it."
Thompson and his brother began cooking for their family at an early age, as his mother, who was divorced from her American-military husband, was busy working. The first dishes he and his brother learned to cook were fried rice and eggs, as well as the Vietnamese noodle soup “pho.”
In fifth grade at Connor Elementary in Manassas Park, Thompson decided to become an architect, after being inspired by his teacher's husband. Years later, he majored in architecture at the Savannah College of Art and Design but put himself through school by holding cooking jobs.
However, after Thompson graduated from college, he decided that he missed cooking, so he went to culinary school at Stratford University in Tysons. After completing culinary school, he trained at several New York City restaurants including Aquavit and the Gotham Bar and Grill before deciding to move back to Northern Virginia to be closer to friends and family. Since being at RSVP, he has had days of getting up at 4 a.m. in order to oversee the drop-off lunch and special-events orders.
"I've loved every minute of it," Thompson said.
Despite working with food and occasionally behind a desk, Thompson argued that his architecture training still plays an integral role in his cooking philosophy. Having an artistic eye, Thompson said, gives the food an edge.
"Presentation is key. If it doesn't look good, people aren't going to eat it," Thompson said.
Yet in addition to being sensitive to a dish's taste and visual aesthetics, what makes Thompson stand out is the way he interacts with people, colleagues said.
"The best thing about James is his ability to create food and run a kitchen," said Eric Godfrey, a wine sommelier. Godfrey had worked with Thompson for 30 months when both were at the restaurant Arthur's Downtown in Newark, N.J. Thompson was executive chef, and Godfrey recalled his colleagues saying that they wanted to move to Washington so they could continue working with Thompson. "He's a real outgoing guy, and he makes you feel like he needs you on his team. He doesn't treat anyone as if they're below him."