How did you become a chef?
In a most unconventional way. I spent nearly 20 years working in high-tech startups in Loudoun and Fairfax counties. At age 40, I was bored with high tech and increasingly frustrated by my commute from Winchester that I had seen go from 45 minutes to over an hour and a half in 10 years. A local real estate broker approached me about purchasing a failing fine dining business. Winchester being a small town, I guess everyone knew that I was the next sucker in line to buy a restaurant. After nine months of negotiation and in a moment of something less than sanity, I purchased the restaurant and manned the stove, never having worked a day in a restaurant before in any capacity, let alone as chef. Chef by self-proclamation! I don't recommend this, but it worked for me.
Have you always enjoyed cooking?
Always and eating more so. I was always in my mother's kitchen and in her mother's kitchen — those were great times. My father raised all our vegetables in the garden and my mother cooked them. I learned to cook and to garden from day one. And I was cooking very seriously from the moment I left home to go to university. I found that I was producing better food than any of the restaurants that I frequented.
What was the first dish you made?
That's like asking me to recall the first word I spoke. I can't. But I have very vivid memories of making my first crème anglaise — a vanilla custard sauce — at a very young age, probably 5 or 6.
Have any philosophy on how food should be made?
Absolutely. Food should be fresh and local with a lot of emphasis on vegetables and less on animal proteins. We've gotten so far removed from dining locally over the past few decades and my restaurant is trying to change that. Moreover, my role as a chef is to take as perfect ingredients as I can find and guide them to their peak flavor without a lot of alteration. Today, there is a trend — one that will die in a few years — toward what some people term molecular gastronomy. Simply put, it's cooking that is heavy on chemistry, chemicals and creativity, such as serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes such that it resembles a slice of German chocolate cake. This is antithetical to my style of cooking, but it is so popular now that I sometimes question whether I have missed the culinary boat. Every time I start to wonder, however, I remind myself of Mario Batali who continues to elevate peasant food to fine dining. That reinforces for me that my culinary voice lies in allowing food to express itself and lets me be content when my customers fail to recognize the hand of the chef in their food, as it should be.
What is your favorite dish to cook? To eat?
With respect to both cooking and eating, I am a die-hard seafood fiend. I love seafood in all guises, from simple sashimi to a classic coulibiac of salmon, from raw sea urchin roe (uni) to bacon-sautéed shad roe. When I am cooking, I love to cook vegetarian food. There's no generally accepted canon of "correct" vegetarian dishes, so this frees me to exercise my abundant creativity. I especially love blowing peoples' minds so that they come away thinking that they have never had such intriguing vegetarian food. When it comes to eating, I love everything seafood, wild mushrooms and braised dishes such as veal cheeks braised in white wine and leeks.
What is the most challenging dish you've ever cooked?
Without trying to sound snide or pompous, I don't think I have ever found any particular dish to be that challenging. What is challenging is cooking 20 or 30 dishes at the same time in the heat of a weekend dinner rush.
What is your favorite ingredient to use? Why?
My favorite ingredient is whatever I have just found that is perfect and fresh. One of my signature ingredients that I have been using for about 12 years — long before the current fad started — is Spanish smoked paprika, called pimentón. It lends the most amazing smokiness to dishes and is perfect for giving a meaty illusion to vegetarian dishes.
What are your major cooking influences?
My mother and her mother taught me so much. I watched and absorbed everything that they did. I also grew up in the era before the Food Network, but I count myself fortunate to have seen Julia Child in all her klutzy glory on PBS on our black and white TV from the early days of her seminal show. More than that, I have a collection of some thousands of cookbooks from all over the world, many written in native tongues, that I surf for ideas and cooking metaphors as others surf the Web. And I spent many years during my previous high-tech career on the road where I sought out great ethnic restaurants in which I would ask the owners to serve me authentic meals of their choosing. I learned so much about the subtle differences in similar cuisines from eating that food and talking with the justifiably proud owners about it.
How did your restaurant come to be?
One Block West was an existing fine dining restaurant that was woefully undercapitalized when I bought it turnkey in 2002. I treated it as I would any turnaround and ultimately stabilized it about a year in. From there, it has evolved as I have continued to find my voice and my audience as a chef.
Any ingredients you really like to use?
Seafood, wild mushrooms, game, fresh vegetables, inferior cuts of meat for braising.
What will you be doing at the demonstration?
I'll be demonstrating a romantic valentine's breakfast menu. I'm excited because I never get to cook breakfast, yet my kids say it is my best meal when I do it. The menu is: raspberry mimosas, minted blood orange ambrosia, almond brown sugar croissant French toast with grand mariner, strawberries and vanilla bean sauce, surry sausage on corn pancake with Virginia maple syrup, eggs One Block West — poached egg and prosciutto on crab cake with pimentón sauce and chives.
Do you find ingredients at local farmers markets like the one your demonstrating at? If so what usually catches you eye?
Religiously! I shop at the local farmer's market in Winchester every day that it is open in summer and at least once a week during the winter when the market has restricted hours. I work with the vendors there and my other growers in the winter to plan out what I want to feature at the restaurant in the coming season.
Among the ingredients we source locally: all our lamb, some pork, some veal, honey, flour, corn meal, grits, pasta, maple syrup, herbs, vegetables, eggs, wine and a lot more.
I never know what will catch my eye, which is part of the fun of going to the markets. Generally it will be something unglamorous that will trigger my imagination and creativity: a bunch of beautiful radishes, some gorgeous baby leeks or green garlic. I don't take a shopping list to the market because my menus are ingredient driven. I gather ingredients that look great at the market and then I decide how to use them back at the restaurant. In that way, the ingredients dictate the menu.
What should people look for in a good wine?
People should look for a wine that pleases their palate. We're all different and we perceive wines differently. What works for you may not work for me — only you know what tastes good to you. So many people are afraid that they will pair the wrong wine with their food. I wish they would have the self-confidence to stop worrying about what is wrong and just drink what they like. And I wish they would experiment more with new wines, which is something that our list of 80 or so wines by the glass encourages people to do.
Any advice for amateur chefs?
Yes, keep on doing what you do. Shop locally. And any time you find an ingredient that you've never used before, take it home and experiment with it. Finally, do not buy a restaurant. Hundred hour weeks are not much fun.
Any recipes you care to share?
Certainly. The Web site, www.obwrestaurant.com, is replete with recipes. Many of the early ones are indexed in the Features section. In addition, each newsletter in the Newsletters section contains at least one recipe.