I Wash Dishes, Too

Three times in the last two weeks someone has inferred that working at Fresca on Addison is somehow beneath me.  One customer asked if it wasn’t below my ‘pay grade’.  A food writing friend suggested, twice, that it isn’t possible to realize culinary greatness in a vegetarian bistro.  Bullshit.  First of all I’m working six days a week with my wife and two daughters.  Second, we’re doing food that I like very, very much.  Third, this concept has legs.  And fourth, a restaurant doesn’t have to be expensive to be great.

Back in the day I had a choice:

  • .   Cook crap in awful restaurants (been there, done that).
  • .   Cook simple food to the best of my limited abilities (btdt as well).
  • .   Cook fancy food for wealthy people.
  • .   Learn fancy food, cook simple food.

My first serious job in a legit kitchen was at the Four Seasons Hotel in D.C., back in ’81.  Then Jean-Louis Palladin, then Guenter Seeger.  I spent six years working with unimaginable product:

  • .    Freshly killed capons, still steaming under a bed of shaved ice.
  • .    Tree sections flown in from Brazil, to be stripped of their bark layer by layer until the heart of the palm was exposed.
  • .   Buckets of live elvers, or baby eel, clear as rice noodles with two miniscule black dots for eyes.
  • .   Truffles the size of tennis balls, filling the entire restaurant with their remarkable perfume.
  • .   Caviar.  Not just caviar, but Royal Golden Albino Osetra from Iran.
  • .   Langoustine from Spain, caught yesterday.
  • .   Olive oil from Chateau Lafite.
  • .   Armagnac that made Louis XIII taste like soap.
  • .   Rabbit livers, turtle eggs, duck balls, kidneys, brains and marrow.
  • .   Forty kinds of mushrooms, all hunted within 100 miles of D.C. (hey Ray!).

I knew this wasn’t the type of food that I would be cooking in my own restaurant one day.  But I certainly wanted to discover it, enjoy it, learn to respect it, if only to be able to use this experience to better appreciate a perfectly ripe tomato, or a great burger.

Will I do another ‘major’ restaurant?  I think about it all the time.  The Frog and the Redneck was a magnificent undertaking, as was Tristan in Charleston, and SugarToad outside of Chicago.  Yep, I probably will.  I’ve even identified some locations, here in Richmond of course.  Will it be ‘better’ or more fulfilling than Fresca?  I doubt it.  But hopefully it’ll make more money.  Hey, I might want to retire someday.

* * * * * * *

Speaking of SugarToad: a real challenge it was.  After all, opening a luxury hotel 35 miles west of Chicago with a 70 seat restaurant?  And to boot, it opened in September of 2008 as the economy was hitting the proverbial fan.  Yet, just 8 weeks open the Chicago Tribune awarded us 3 stars out of four, practically unheard of for a restaurant so far out in the ‘burbs’.  A month later their restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, then named us as one of the “Ten Best New Restaurants in Chicago” and, a month after that, he named our crabcakes as one of the Ten Best Dishes of the Year.  Not too shabby.

The point of this ‘self patting on the back’ is to acknowledge that it happened in no small part because of the efforts of the Chef de Cuisine that I hired, Geoff Rhyne.  Now, two and a half years later, I’m confident in saying that Geoff is as good a cook, at 30, as I have known.  He’s leaving SugarToad and coming back east to be with his wife-of-a-year.  If you’re anywhere near Chicago in the next few weeks, go to SugarToad.  Really.



7 Responses to “I Wash Dishes, Too”

  1. James writes:

    Jimmy, I ate at Fresca for the first time this week. It was absoultely remarkable. Any judgment you hear from others is, frankly, small-minded and short-sighted. Thanks for stepping out there and creating such a great place. I’m looking forward to working my way through the whole menu. James

    March 26, 2011 at 9:50 am
  2. Rick writes:

    Jimmy, I’ve eaten at Fresca on Addison, and it was magnifique! As a vegan, I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to get food of that quality and not worry whether the cook knows that fishing the ham hock out of the green beans doesn’t make them vegetarian food.

    I’ll probably become a regular at Fresca, and I hope when you open your next “major” restaurant that you’ll offer a few vegan options. I’ll be there.

    P. S. Your writing is always entertaining too.

    March 26, 2011 at 6:43 pm
  3. ed vasaio writes:

    Tell my wife I love her very much. SHE KNOWS!

    March 26, 2011 at 8:21 pm
  4. Gary writes:

    Some people may say that ‘s exactly where you should be.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm
  5. Adam writes:

    Retiring is for wimps. Keep writing! Three weeks? too long… your public needs inspiration!

    April 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm
  6. Mary Livesay writes:

    I ate at Fresca on April 23rd. It was sooooo good! The Elvis dessert pizza was the perfect birthday dessert treat and the butternut squash soup was so perfect and inspiring. Your pizza crust and pitas are down right delicious!

    April 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm
  7. Sally writes:

    Fresca ia our absolute favorite restaurant. we come into the fan every
    Friday night to relax and savor deliciously prepared local produce. Love your blog and love the Snead Family venture…your daughters are on to something…apples didn’t fall far from the tree!

    May 28, 2011 at 10:14 pm