For more than 70 years, Potomac has a had a little piece of the French countryside sitting on Falls Road. And for 23 years, Cary Prokos has been the man that has made Normandie Farm work.
The longtime chef and owner since 1994 oversees 40 employees and more than $3 million in annual business. If the county approves a zoning change that will allow him to build a 250-person banquet facility on site, he expects those numbers to nearly double.
But Prokos wasn’t invited to be grand marshal of the 2005 Potomac Day parade because of his chateaubriand.
The Potomac resident has leant himself and his restaurant to charity and community causes. He worked with Potomac residents Shelly and Kenny Kramm to raise money to build Hadley’s Park, a playground on Falls Road that works for children with and without disabilities.
Normandie Farm’s 65th anniversary party in 1996 raised more than $30,000 for charity.
And on Thursday, the restaurant will hold its afternoon tea buffet with a different price of admission: a check for at least $18 to the Salvation Army or Red Cross to help with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. One hundred percent of the money will go to those organizations.
“I really believe … I think you need to give something back to the community. I don’t do everything, but any school, any local charity I will support,” Prokos said.
The son of Greek immigrants, Prokos grew up downtown with a large extended family and followed his love of cooking to the country’s premiere culinary school — the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He has only held three jobs since. He worked at the Watergate Hotel and then at a small French restaurant in Virginia — now gone.
“Some of my cooks were over here and … they called and said, ‘You ought to come over, this place needs some help,’ and I came over,” Prokos said, “and it still needs some help.”
But Prokos, who works six days a week sometimes for 12 hours or more, loves his job.
“Whatever you do you’ve got to have passion,” he said. “That’s why this place is what it is. It’s still a restaurant after all these years because I’ve got passion for it. Otherwise it would eat you up and spit you out.”
Prokos lives, and cooks, on Red Barn Lane with his wife Margery, who he met when she worked at the restaurant, and his three children, twins Maria and Nicholas, 5, and Charles, 4.
One job perk: “It’s just awesome to live two miles from work. Especially with gas prices now.”
Q: How did you become a chef?
A: I came here as a kid in the early '60s to meet family. I would come here as a kid and we would gather here and I’ve been here 23 years as the chef and 11 as the owner. It’s kind of funny how things happen.
My father had a gas station and my grandfather had a restaurant down on 14th street and during the day we worked at the gas station and at night we worked at the restaurant. We had absolutely nothing, which was fine — we never starved. I always liked to cook and I didn’t just want to flip burgers, I wanted to do something else so I went to the [Culinary Institute of America].
Q: What is a normal day like for you?
A: I come in at 6:30 [a.m.] every day, start receiving food. I make work schedules for cooks. Then I hit my office and clear my messages. I have a general manager, a banquet manager, I have hostesses in front of the house operations that need overseeing. I do all the purchasing except for the liquor which the general manager does. That all needs to be done.
Midday I’m cooking at lunch. … Lunch slows down to a trickle, then I leave the kitchen. I come back up here. What have we going on [in terms of] parties? I start writing menus. … We write menus, we price menus, go over the many issues of the day with front-of-the-house operations.
Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday I go home at 6 o’clock. I go home to feed my kids. Friday and Saturday night I stay till 10, 11. Sunday I only work half a day. I work until 3, until brunch is over.
It’s an awesome job. It’s challenging it’s exciting.
Q: You mentioned purchasing liquor. You have to buy from the county, right?
A: I’ve been a proponent of changing the special order system, which is a thorn in every restaurateur’s side. The county puts 35 percent on special orders, which is insane, which makes our price become unfair to our end user. If they go to Tysons Corner they see the same bottle for wine for $20 less, especially the good ones, maybe more. … And they say, ‘What are they doing over there in Montgomery County?’ They think we’re screwing them. Of course, the county’s reluctant to give up that revenue.
Q: What other kinds of things do you deal with?
A: The wall getting hit. How many times have you seen my wall destroyed? [The retaining wall that lines the curve on Falls Road at Normadie Farm.] You know there are those two orange cones out there just to wake people up. I’ve had it hit three times in two weeks.
[It gets hit] easily 15 times in a year. Easily. I’ve talked to the State Highway Department. I’ve talked to everybody. They’re not going to do anything until someone dies. They’ve got lights out there that say slow down. No one slows down there.
Q: What is the history of Normandie Farm?
A: Marjorie Hendricks who was the owner … and her sister had been in Normandy prior to 1930 at cooking school. They came back in 1931; they wanted a restaurant; they’re driving down the road and they see a foreclosure sign on this property. Forty-five minutes later they had bought 131 acres in Potomac. A single mother in 1931, middle of the great depression. Pretty cool. And they decorated the place in Normandy tradition and opened it.
They made the place work. In 1942, she closed it and went with the Red Cross overseas; when she came back and reopened it and that’s the only time it’s been closed. … She sold it mid-'50s to the Greeks. … Then it got transferred to [real estate developer] Farid Srour.
So Srour ended up with the place and he ran it for about a year [but] he’s a real estate guy, not a restaurant guy. …
Some former cooks of mine were working here and they were like, “Chef you’ve got to come over here.” I started as chef in 1983.
Finally I told them look, you have no long-range plans for the place, I’d like to have it. I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Q: Where do you go when you go out to eat?
A: I have three kids. We go to Adam’s [Potomac Pizza and Potomac Village Deli owner Adam Greenberg] restaurants, absolutely.
We go to Rio Grande a lot because they love, they get the dough balls … for the tortillas. They make little pizzas they say. So we get to play But also they serve quickly, we’re in and out of there real fast, and when you’ve got kids that’s the name of the game.
My whole thought about feeding children and families here has changed drastically since I had children. I train all my help, you ask anybody that’s got a kid, you ask all the parents, ‘Do you want their food to come out fast?’
Somebody might order escargot and then a salad and the kid is sitting there waiting for his chicken tenders. The kid can’t sit there and wait, they don’t have the attention span.
Q: What is your clientele like?
A: We have so many regulars it’s amazing how people eat here twice a week.
Q: Tell me about your re-zoning application.
A: The perception was we were going to build a country inn … because of the sign, but the simple fact was … it was always going to be a banquet hall [for weddings and other events]. It’s going before the County Council very soon and there’s no one opposing it.
This property, it’s so beneficial to everybody that owns a house around here, because this property’s old. You put a million dollars, which is what we’re going to put into the site, … it’s going to make it look a hell of a lot better.
It’s a grand old facility.
Q: Tell me about your upcoming fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina relief.
A: Admission to it is simply writing a check to Salvation Army or to Red Cross and you can come to tea. We’re not charging a nickel or getting a nickel, we’re just going to forward the checks straight to those charities. I just felt like that was the best way to handle it. I want to make sure that everybody knows their money is going directly to these charities. I’m not interested in the tax return, it’s just my contribution to this.
We’d like to get 100 and give a couple thousand dollars. It’s the least we could do.
We just felt like — we’ve done other charity things in the past — we do business here, I live in Potomac, and we just don’t believe in not giving something back to either our fellow citizens here in Montgomery County or to these poor people down in Louisiana.
If everybody gives a little it’s going to add up.
Q: You sound pretty happy with your situation in life.
A: I should be. Being a father is pretty awesome. It’s hard to find, this day and age, tough to find the right situation to get married. But when you find it and you have kids — nothing's better.